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The term fiddle may refer to any bowed string musical instrument, usually the violin. It is also a colloquial term for the instrument used by players in all genres, including classical music. Fiddle playing, or fiddling, refers to various styles of music.

The fiddle

Any bowed string musical instrument may be informally called a fiddle, regardless of the kind of music being played with it. Violins or other members of the violin family are often affectionately referred to by their players as "my fiddle".


The bowed string instrument first appeared in India circa 3000 BCE, and is described in Hindu myth as Ravanahatha. From India, the technology traveled out both to China, and through Central Asia to Europe.

The medieval fiddle emerged in 10th-century Europe, deriving from the Byzantine lira (Greek:λύρα, Latin:lira, English:lyre), a bowed string instrument of the Byzantine Empire and ancestor of most European bowed instruments. The first recorded reference to the bowed lira was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911); in his lexicographical discussion of instruments he cited the lira (lūrā) as a typical instrument of the Byzantines and equivalent to the rabāb played in the Islamic Empires. Lira spread widely westward to Europe; in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments (Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009).

Over the centuries, Europe continued to have two distinct types of fiddles: one, relatively square-shaped, held in the arms, became known as the lira da braccio (arm viol) family and evolved into the violin; the other, with sloping shoulders and held between the knees, was the lira da gamba (leg viol) group. During the Renaissance the gambas were important and elegant instruments; they eventually lost ground to the louder (and originally less aristocratic) lira da braccio family.

The fiddle or violin

Fiddle has a more generalized meaning than violin. Whereas violin refers to a specific instrument, fiddle may be used to refer to a violin or any member of a general category of similar stringed instruments played with a horsehair bow, such as the Hardanger fiddle, the Byzantine lira, the Chinese erhu, the Welsh crwth, the Apache Tzii'edo' a 'tl, the cello in the context of a Scottish violin/cello duo ("wee fiddle and big fiddle"), the double bass ("bull fiddle" or "bass fiddle"), and so on.


The etymology of fiddle is uncertain: the Germanic fiddle may derive from the same early Romance word as does violin, or it may be natively Germanic.

(as access to the OED online is not free, the relevant excerpt is provided) "The ultimate origin is obscure. The [[[Germanic languages|Teutonic]]] word bears a singular resemblance in sound to its [[[medieval]] [[Latin language|Latin]]] synonym ''vitula'', ''vidula'', whence [[[Old French]]] ''viole'', Pr. viula, and (by adoption from these [languages]) [[[Italian language|Italian]]], [[[Spanish language|Spanish]]], [[[Portuguese language|Portuguese]]] ''viola'': see [''viol'']. The supposition that the early [[[Romance languages|Romance]]] ''vidula'' was adopted independently in more than one [Teutonic language] would account adequately for all the [Teutonic] forms; on the other hand, ''*fiÞulôn-'' may be an [[[Proto-Germanic|Old Teutonic]]] word of native etymology, though no satisfactory [Teutonic] derivation has been found."
A native Germanic ancestor of fiddle may even be the ancestor of the early Romance form of violin. Historically, fiddle also referred to a predecessor of today's violin. Like the violin, it tended to have four strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another family of instruments which contributed to the development of the modern fiddle are the viols, which are held between the legs and played vertically, and have fretted fingerboards.

Musical style

Common distinctions between violins and fiddles reflect the differences in the instruments used to play classical and folk music. However, it is not uncommon for classically trained violinists to try to play fiddle music, and today many fiddle players have some classical training. A lot of traditional (folk) styles are oral traditions, so are taught 'by ear' rather than with written music. Most experienced fiddlers are able to pick up a tune in a matter of minutes, knowing the key instantly.

Construction and setup

In construction, fiddles and violins are essentially identical (with the Norwegianmarker Hardanger fiddle excepted as a special case). The medieval fiddle had rear tuning pegs set in a flat headstock similarly to the Byzantine lyra and unlike the rabāb and rebec.


Some (folk) fiddle traditions fit the instrument with a flatter bridge than classical violinists use. The difference between "round" and "flat" is not more than about a quarter or half a millimeter variation in the height of one or two strings, but is sufficient to reduce the range of right-arm motion required for the rapid string-crossings found in some styles, and those who use flatter bridges say it makes playing double stops and shuffles (bariolage) easier. It can also make triple stops possible, allowing one to play chord. In bluegrass and old-time music, for example, the top of the bridge is sometimes cut so that it is very slightly flattened; the Hardanger fiddle uses an even flatter bridge, and the bridge of the kontra or bracsa (a three-string viola used in Hungarianmarker and Transylvanian folk music) is flat enough that all three strings can easily be played simultaneously.

Most classical violinists prefer a more rounded curve to the top of the bridge, feeling that this allows them to articulate each note more easily and clearly. Many fiddle players use the same top curve as well; most fiddles are fitted with a standard classical bridge, regardless of the style of music played on the instrument. Since the bridge may be changed, it does not permanently define an instrument as fiddle or violin.


Since some genres of fiddling favor different tone than what most violinists might prefer, soundpost position and tension will vary according to the use of the instrument.

Strings and tuners

Fiddle is more likely to be used than violin if the instrument's strings are steel rather than gut or synthetic, as the sound of steel strings better suits some fiddling styles. Tuning steel strings is easier with fine tuners (small screw mechanisms attached or built into the tailpiece) so fiddlers may favor instruments with fine tuners on all four strings; it is very uncommon to see four fine tuners on full-size instruments played by classical musicians. Strings are subject to regular replacement, fine tuners may be added or removed, and tailpieces may be changed, so, like flattened bridges, they do not make an irreversible difference.


Various clichés describe the difference between fiddle and violin: "When you are buying it, it's a fiddle. When you are selling it, it's a violin." "What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? About $10,000." "The difference is in the nut that holds the bow." "The violin sings, the fiddle dances." "A fiddle is a violin with attitude." "No one cries when they spill beer on a fiddle." "The difference between a violinist and a fiddle player is $100 a night, and a tux."According to the performer Shoji Tabuchi, the difference lies "in how you fiddle around with it."


In performance, a solo fiddler, or one fiddler or two with a group of other instrumentalists, is the norm, though twin fiddling is represented in some North American, Scandinavian, Scottish and Irish styles. Violins, on the other hand, are commonly grouped in sections. These contrasting traditions may be vestiges of historical performance settings: large concert halls in which violins were played required more instruments, before electronic amplification, than did more intimate dance halls and houses fiddles were played in. The difference was likely compounded by the different sounds expected of violin music and fiddle music. Historically, the majority of fiddle music was dance music, while violin music had either grown out of dance music or was something else entirely. Violin music came to value a smoothness which fiddling, with its dance-driven clear beat, did not always follow - in situations that required greater volume, a fiddler (as long as they kept the beat) could push their instrument harder than could a violinist. (Different fiddle traditions had different values, as detailed below; these explanations are meant to present the differences between fiddle music and violin music generally.)

Following the folk revivals of the second half of the 20th century, however, it has become common for less formal situations to find large groups of fiddlers playing together -- see for example the Swedish Spelmanslag folk-musician clubs, and the world-wide phenomenon of Irish sessions.

In the very late 20th century, a few artists have successfully attempted a reconstruction of the Scottish tradition of violin and "big fiddle," or cello. Notable recorded examples include Iain Fraser and Christine Hanson, Amelia Kaminski and Christine Hanson's Bonnie Lasses and Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas' Fire and Grace.

Bows used in fiddling

Most fiddling styles that use the standard violin also use the standard violin bow, the same as classical players; the bow stick may be usually made from wood, but bows made from fiberglass and other materials are becoming more common. However, there are a few styles which use other bows. One notable example is the folk music from Hungary and Transylvania used in the táncház tradition. While the violinist uses a standard bow, both the kontra (3-string viola) and bass are played with heavy and crude "folk bows", consisting of a stout stick, usually hand-hewn, with the hank of horsehair attached at the tip and tied around the frog. Some players tension the hair by squeezing it when playing.

Scottish fiddlers emulating 18th century playing styles sometimes use a replica of the type of bow used in that period, which is a few inches shorter, and weighs significantly more.

Fiddling styles

To a greater extent than classical violin playing, fiddle playing is characterized by a huge variety of ethnic or folk music traditions, each of which has its own distinctive sound, including, but not limited to:


  3. "fiddle." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 06 Mar. 2009
  4. Anthony Baines: The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. Oxford University Press, USA (November 12, 1992)
  5. Margaret J. Kartomi: On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, University of Chicago Press, 1990 p.124
  6. stringed instrument. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: (Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009)
  7. Mario Pei, The Story of the English Language (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 109.

See also


  • The Fiddle Book, by Marion Thede, (1970), Oak Publications. ISBN 0-8256-0145-2.
  • The Fiddler's Fakebook, by David Brody, (1983), Oak Publications. US ISBN 0-8256-0238-6; UK ISBN 0-7119-0309-3.
  • Oldtime Fiddling Across America, by David Reiner and Peter Anick (1989), Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 0-87166-766-5. Has transcriptions (standard notation) and analysis of tunes from multiple regional and ethnic styles.
  • The Portland Collection, by Susan Songer, (1997), ISBN 0-9657476-0-3 (Vol. 2 ISBN 0-9657476-1-1)

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