The name ‘violin’ comes from the Latin word for a stringed instrument, ‘vitula,’ which is also the source through the German language for the word ‘fiddle,’ a musical instrument only slightly different from the violin. Though stringed instruments much like the fiddle have been around for thousands of centuries, what we know today as the violin has only been around for the past five hundred years.
The violin is the smallest and highest-pitched stringed instrument of the violin family, which also includes the cello and the viola. The range of a violin goes from a low note of G below middle C, also called G3, to a high note of C8, which is also the highest note that can be played on a modern piano. The high note, however, is not produced directly, but rather by harmonics. The practical high limit for a violin is an E that is two octaves above an open E string. We’ll talk more about violin harmonics and open strings later on.
A person who plays a violin is called a violinist. The sound of a violin is produced by moving a bow with a tightened string over one or more strings stretched across the body of the violin, one or more of which may be held or ‘stopped’ by the fingers of the left hand. Violin strings may also be plucked or struck by the fingers of either hand to produce other types of sounds. The violin is used in many different musical traditions all over the globe, from Ireland to India to Germany to America. Genres in which the violin plays an important role include folk music, rock and roll music, classical music and jazz.
A person who makes violins is a luthier or a violin-maker; the same person also maintains and repairs violins. Violins are made out of pieces of wood held together with glue and few other fasteners. The instrument can be strung with steel strands or synthetic fibers like nylon, but, usually, violins are string with dried and twisted fibers of animal gut.
The heyday of violin construction is considered to be the period from 1600 to 1800 in various regions of Italy and Austria. The names of Italian violin-makers to watch for from that period are Stradivari, Maggini, Amati and Guareri; the most appreciated Austrian violin-maker of that time was Jacob Stainer. Many standard violins of great quality were made by less accomplished makers in that time and after in such European locations as Bohemia, Mirecourt and Saxony. These violins were generally sold through mass merchandisers rather than directly from the maker to the violinist.
A violin is held together chiefly with horse hide glue and the tension of the wooden pieces held tight against each other, though some small metal screws might be used in the tuning pieces. Violins can be made in ‘fractional’ sizes, though the name is not quite true. A full-size violin, sized as a 4/4, has a body length excluding the neck of 35 cm (14″); a half-size or 1/2 violin has a body 30 cm (12″) long. The fractional sizes are, from smallest to largest, 1/64, 1/32, 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 7/8. The last one is also called a lady’s violin and is intended for small-framed adult violinists. The quality of sound from fractional-sized violins is not considered the equivalent to that emerging from a full-size violin, though the 7/8 is judged the best of the lot and may be considered comparable in the hands of an expert player.