Violin: History & Making

An in-depth look at making the violin: its history, what it's made of, why it makes sound.

There were many precursors to the violin. Some, such as the Ravanstron, the Rabab and the Rebec have been around since 5000 B.C. There are several others whose names are not known, also dating back to a few thousand B.C.

By the Middle Ages, around the eleventh century, the vielle and the rote (more known precursors) had come into existence. Around this time, a fingerboard was added to the instrument, allowing it to be bowed rather than simply plucked. It also allowed the fingers to shorten the strings to produce various tones. Even at this early stage, when the instrument wasn't even a violin yet, it was played up on the left shoulder or breast. This was unusual, because most instruments were still held on the knees, and would be for a few centuries more.

The twelfth century brought the last evolution of the vielle. It was, at that time, similar to a modern guitar in cut. It was a widely used instrument during this period due to its ease of handling, its wide tonal range, and the ease of playing the scales. Also around this time, the instrument went from having one or two strings to having three or four. Some even had five, which stayed in existence until the 16th century. At that time, the four-string - true - violin became more prominent.

Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, other predecessors had advancements. Ribs were added to the instrument, as well as the tailpiece and bridge. This allowed the instrument to be bowed rather than just plucked. This new, advanced instrument became known as the Renaissance viol, which had two round (later crescent-shaped) sound openings.

Three other instruments appeared before 1500, one of which, the viola da gamba (held on or between the knees) is still sometimes played today. Another was a bowed instrument called the lire da braccio. The third is called the viola da braccio, which is the direct predecessor of the violin.

The viola da braccio had (originally) three or four strings. Eventually it became a four-stringed instrument all the time. It adopted other modern characteristics, such as the pegbox and tuning in fifths. This method of tuning allows the instrumentalist to use four fingers, which is ideal for small arm instruments. The shape of the sound holes also changed from crescents to the f shape of today, and became known as f-holes.

The violin is a soprano instrument, the highest in the string family. Its high, clear tones soar above the other instruments, which is why it's the traditional solo instrument. The sound is produced when a bow made of horsehair is rubbed across the strings to create friction. The bow is coated in a slightly sticky, powdery substance known as rosin (which is made from resin, tree sap). It's made of various types of hard wood, which allow the sound to resonate through it. It has pegs and sometimes fine tuners which change the pitch of the string to the appropriate note. It's a very popular instrument for young kids to play, especially in Asian countries.

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