The Violin in Music

The violin is a musical instrument used the world over. We’ll go through a quick survey of how the violin is used for musical creativity, but we know we can’t cover every variation and can only give a short briefing on several traditions: classical, folk, Irish, country music, popular music and Carnatic violin from the country of India.

The use of the violin in classical music is well-known. Because of the slight adjustments possible in timbre, pitch and vibrato, the violin is used in classical music in the same manner as the human voice. Violins are a major part of any classical orchestra, usually set up in one group called the first violins that handle the melody and the music that is more technically difficult and the other the second violins which handle the accompaniment or the harmony, or may be used to play the melody in a different lower range than the first violins. String quartets are normally half violins.

Folk music might be considered the opposite pole from classical, with most songs passed on orally with no written notation. Violins used to play folk music are often called fiddles — both names are really from the same ancient word source, so the two should not be considered that different. One technical difference, though, is that the bridge of folk-music violin is often cut down by shaving off some of the top curve — the result is that the range of motion for bowing is less restricted, chords can be played more easily and fingers are better able to do double and triple stops of the strings.

Irish violin playing is known more as fiddle music, but the instrument used for Irish folk music is identical to the classical violin. The repertoire of music does vary across the various regions of Ireland, but some practises are country-wide. What might be called ornaments to the music are common, such as the use of turns, trills and slides; vibrato, though not used much elsewhere in vibrant Irish songs, does come into play with the slow Irish airs. Rustic melodies are played in variations regionally all across Ireland — a song heard in Dublin may sound quite different on the Dingle peninsula.

Country music’s use of the violin and the fiddle in the US is based on the Irish and the Scottish folk traditions brought to the Americas by immigrants. Today, country music is exported all over the world, using many variations of violin tradition. There’s the Appalachian fiddle in the eastern US, the bluegrass tradition of the Mid-Western US, and the Western Swing of Texas — all use violins in the pure sense.

Violins moved over into popular music from the classical and the folk arenas at the start of the 20th century. Dance music in the 1920s made much use of violins. In fact, dance orchestras of the time usually has at least three violins — some had seven or eight, especially the ones used for high society bashes. However, the introduction of swing music in 1935 reduced the need for violins, which did not re-emerge in popular music until the late 1960s with rock’s adoption of orchestral arrangements into songs. Popular music beyond Europe and North America, in Pakistan, Turkey and India, however, always made use of the violin, along with much of the Middle East.

Finally, the violin tradition in India has little connection to the rest of the world’s use of the violin. The Carnatic violin is tuned in a totally different way and is played by violinists who sit cross-legged. The instrument is held upside-down from the European tradition — the scroll is pressed against the side of a foot and the violin is held in a steady unmoving position while the hands move over the instrument holding and playing the strings. The Carnatic violin is usually accompanied by the ghatam and the mridangam, typical Indian percussion instruments.