What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? This is a question that I am asked at every gig I play. It is also a question that there are a LOT of answers to. Some are funny and some are serious, and I’m going to give you some of each.
- When you are buying one, it’s a fiddle. When you are selling one, it’s a violin.
- It’s the nut who’s holding the bow.
- $125 per hour and a tuxedo.
- You can’t play a violin barefoot.
- It’s OK if you spill beer on your fiddle.
- A violin has strings, and a fiddle has strangs.
- About $5,000.
- You’ll never find a violinist with a mullet.
- A violin sings, but a fiddle dances.
- It’s a matter of style. If you have style, it’s a fiddle.
If you have your own funny or joke answers, post them as a comment.
When you look at the physical instrument you are playing, a violin is a fiddle and a fiddle is a violin. A good instrument is a good instrument whether being played by a violin or a fiddler.
That said, there are some tendencies that exist, but these are just tendencies, and do not constitute a rule.
Fiddlers are more likely to use steel strings than violinists. In the olden days, everybody used strings made out of “cat gut” or “gut” a substance commonly derived from the intestines of sheep not cats. Gut strings create a soft and rich tone, but they are very tonally unpredictable, change drastically with weather changes, and making them is an involved process requiring dead sheep intestines.
In the early 1900’s technology evolved such that they started making strings out of metal, which is more resilient, more consistent, and less effected by weather, and cheaper. But the tone is brighter, and less rich. Also, the responsiveness of metal strings is super fast. And, they are very elastic, which makes cross-tuning easier.
Since then, there has been the advent of synthetic core strings, which give a warmer tone – more similar to gut strings, but are more expensive, and don’t last as long as steel (metal) strings.
I personally use Evah Pirazzi synthetic strings most of the time, but I am also a fan of Prim steel strings, and usually keep one instrument with Prim strings on it for cross-tuning purposes.
It’s often said that fiddles have flatter bridges, so they can play double stops, but this isn’t true. Flatter bridges don’t help at all with double stops because 2 strings are connected by a straight line no matter how flat the bridge is. A flatter bridge does help with triple stops, though (playing 3 notes simultaneously).
Most good fiddlers that I know have bridge setups that are at similar angles to a classical setup. This allows for each string to be played cleanly without touching the other strings, but allows for triple stops to be played if you really play a big chord.
In general, fiddlers are more likely to have lower action on their strings than classical violinists. Lower action does mean less volume, and less string tension, but it does make it easier to play for long periods of time, and to play tricky passages. This is a balancing act between how much your instrument projects and how easy it is to play it, no matter what style of music you are playing.
Looser Bow Hair
Fiddlers tend to play with a looser bow than violinists. There are extremes on both ends of this spectrum, with some fiddlers playing with the hair touching the stick of the bow, and some violinists playing with absolutely no camber left in the bow.
That said, most violinists and fiddlers are somewhere in the middle playing a bow that is tight enough that the hair doesn’t touch the stick, and loose enough that the bow doesn’t bounce all over the place.
I don’t know why the idea of cross tuning your violin (any tuning other than GDAE) to open tunings is so uncommon in the classical world today. In fiddle traditions, open tunings have been used to create a different sound, including drone notes, like you would hear from a bagpipe. Open tunings are also embraced on other instruments, including guitar.
There is a small classical tradition of alternate tunings called Scordatura, but it’s uncommon enough that I have never had an opportunity play one in many years of playing in orchestras. Interestingly, Scordatura is Italian for mistuning, which implies that there is something wrong with alternate tunings.
Some common fiddle tunings include: AEAE, DDAD, GDGD, GDGB, AEAC# and EDAE. These tunings allow for and enhance sympathetic resonances in the instrument creating beautiful tones when you are perfectly in tune with yourself.
I think it would be AWESOME if more violinists played around with alternate tunings. They really give your fingers something new and interesting to play with. Even songs you have played 1000 times become new.
Among some violinists, every note “deserves” vibrato. This is not so in the fiddle world. Not. At All. In fiddling, vibrato exists as an ornament, something to use intentionally, and not too often.
In faster tunes, vibrato is generally avoided altogether. In fact, when fiddlers make fun of violinists, it’s usually because they play fast fiddle tunes (often devil’s dream) with great vigor and excessive vibrato.
In slower tunes, good fiddlers definitely use vibrato, but generally do not vibrate as widely or as fast as classical players often do. In fiddling, vibrato should be controlled, and used to change the mood of the note. A good fiddler, like a good violinist should have the ability to play a note with no vibrato, lots of vibrato, and any color in between.
The difference between the words
If you look at the word violin, it comes from the Italian word "violino" which means small viola. And according to the Online Etymology Dictionary: viola (n.) tenor violin, 1797, from Italian viola, from Old Provençal viola, from Medieval Latin vitula "stringed instrument," perhaps from Vitula, Roman goddess of joy, or from related Latin verb vitulari"to exult, be joyful."
You may notice that Vitula could sound a lot like Fiddler. And, you will see that Fiddle came from the same origin via a different direction. Instead of coming through the Italian path, it came from latin through Germanic and Scandinavian paths.
fiddle (n.) late 14c., fedele, earlier fithele, from Old English fiðele, which is related to Old Norse fiðla, Middle Dutch vedele, Dutch vedel, Old High German fidula, German Fiedel; all of uncertain origin. Perhaps from Medieval Latin vitula "stringed instrument," which is perhaps related to Latin vitularia "celebrate joyfully," from Vitula, Roman goddess of joy and victory, who probably, like her name, originated among the Sabines [Klein, Barnhart]. Unless the Medieval Latin word is from the Germanic ones.
So, when it comes down to it, the origin of the words is the same. Fiddle and Violin both come from the same word that represents joy and victory. That’s not a bad start.
With a question like this, there are lots of myths and stereotypes, which may have some basis in fact, but are more often baloney than not.
Here are a few:
Fiddles are Cheap – This is just a bunch of bunk. Good fiddlers demand quality instruments just like good violinists.
Fiddlers Have Lousy Posture – While there may be some basis in this stereotype, you will find that most good fiddlers have very ergonomic posture and good technique.
Fiddlers can’t play difficult music – While the classical repertoire is definitely more demanding than the fiddle repertoire when you get to its highest level, you will find that fiddle music can be very challenging. In fact, few classical players can play double stops with the precision of great fiddlers.
Fiddlers can’t read sheet music – It’s true that fiddling is an aural tradition, so much of the repertoire has been passed down by ear over the years. But, most good fiddlers, can also read sheet music.
Fiddlers play out of tune – Aaaarrrrggghhhh!!!! This is the most painful of the fiddler stereotypes for me. Tune it OR Die! Good fiddlers play IN TUNE!
Violinists are Snobby – There may be some snobs in the violin world, but some of my best friends are violinists. And, I don’t hold it against them.
Violinists can’t play by ear – While many violinists haven’t learned to play by ear, many of them can.
If you have your own myths to add to this list, leave them as a comment.
What Really Matters?
When it comes down to it, the real difference between a violin and a fiddle today is a matter of style. If you are playing by ear, and free to improvise, it’s fiddling. If you are playing what is on the page with accuracy and precision, it’s violin.
Traditional folk styles would fit under the realm of fiddle. Fiddling is learned primarily by ear. It requires internalizing of the melody, and allows for some level of freedom in choosing how you want to present the tune. You can bow it with the bowings you choose, and even the notes you choose, provided you honor the tradition you are following. If you are only playing notes written on the page, you probably don’t really know the song yet. But once you know the song, then you have freedom to improvise with it.
I would also include playing violin with country, bluegrass, jazz, or rock music in the fiddle category. They are styles that are fundamentally improvisatory in nature, and allow for clear freedom of expression in your playing.
If you are playing violin in an orchestra, there is no room for improvisation. You must play with the same bowings as the rest of your section, or you will stick out like a sore thumb. You must play the same notes as the rest of your section, or it will sound like a giant mess.
But, even within the classical violin tradition, there is room for fiddling around. If you are the soloist, you have the freedom to bow it how you want, and you even get a cadenza now and again.
Great musicians of all times have had the ability to learn by ear, or by whatever method of notation was available to them, and they play their instrument with joy, which is really what it’s all about.
So, I’m going to leave you with this little video where, I spoke about the difference between a violin and a fiddle (with MUCH less detail.)