Explore the Fiddle

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Did You Know...

The term fiddle refers to a violin when used in folk music. It is also a colloquial term for the instrument used by players in all genres, including classical music. Fiddle playing, or fiddling, is a style of music.

A violin is sometimes informally called a fiddle, regardless of the kind of music being played with it. The word "violin" is derived from Italian and the word "fiddle" is English.

Historically, the word fiddle also referred to a predecessor of today's violin. Like the violin, it tended to have 4 strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another series of instruments which contributed to the development of the modern fiddle was the viol, which was played while held between the legs, and has a fretted fingerboard.

One very slight difference between "fiddles" and ordinary violins may be seen in American (e.g., bluegrass and old-time music) fiddling: in these styles, the top of the bridge may be cut so that it is very slightly less curved. This reduces the range of right-arm motion required for the rapid string-crossings found in some styles, and is said to make it easier to play double stops and shuffles (bariolage), or to make triple stops possible, allowing one to play chords.

Most classical violinists prefer a more rounded curve to the top of the bridge that allows them to articulate each note more easily and clearly. In practice, most instruments are fitted with a rounded bridge to better accommodate the shape of the fingerboard. (One exception is the 3-string kontra or bracsa, a viola used in Hungarian and Transylvanian folk music fitted with an absolutely flat bridge to allow all three strings to be played simultaneously.) In any case, the difference between "round" and "flat" is not great; about a quarter or half a millimeter variation in the height of one or two strings. A fiddle strung with steel will work best with a bridge as much as a millimeter lower overall. For gut, nylon or other synthetic-core strings, the action may be set suitably higher. As a violin's bridge is relatively easy to replace, modifying the bridge does not permanently make a violin into a fiddle.

In construction, fiddles and violins are exactly the same. Various clichés describe the difference: "When you are buying it, it's a fiddle. When you are selling it, it's a violin," The violin sings, the fiddle dances," or "A fiddle is a violin with attitude," or "No one cries when they spill beer on a fiddle." As might be expected from the differences between classical and folk music, violinists tend to be formally trained and fiddlers tend to be informally trained, although crossing over is not uncommon.


In performance, solo fiddling is the norm, though twin fiddling is represented in some North American, Scandinavian, 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[1]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 Amelia Kaminski and Christine Hanson's Bonnie Lasses and Alasdair Fraser andNatalie 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 so-called "classical" players. 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 here with short, 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. The player tensions the hair by squeezing it when playing. Bows are usually made from wood, but are more commonly seen in glass and other substances nowadays. Wood is becoming less common and more expensive, as it is a better quality.

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:

American fiddling, including
Old Time fiddling
New England style fiddling, and contra dance fiddling generally
Cajun fiddling
Texas style fiddling
Contest Fiddling
Bluegrass fiddling
Arabic Music
Balkan Music, Táncház (Hungarian) and Romanian music

Newfoundland fiddle player Patrick Moran
Canadian fiddling, including
Cape Breton fiddling, with a distinct Scottish and Acadian influence
Québécois fiddling, influenced from the Brittany area of northern France
Métis fiddling, of central and western Canada, with French influence
Newfoundland fiddling, with a strong Irish Sliabh Luachra style of playing
Maritime or Downeast style of fiddling which has many similarities to Cape Breton fiddling
English fiddling
French fiddling (including a rich Breton fiddling tradition)
Irish fiddling including, among others,
Clare fiddling, from the central west
Donegal fiddling, from the northwest
Sligo fiddling, from a bit south of the northwest
Nordic folk fiddling (including Hardanger fiddling)
Peruvian violin
Scottish fiddling
Slovenian fiddling
South Indian Carnatic fiddling

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