Comparing the Violin and Fiddle

The Difference between the Violin and the Fiddle

The most frequently asked question: what is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? The non-serious answer: “Nobody cares if you spill beer on a fiddle.” Itzhak Perlman calls his Strad a fiddle. You wouldn’t spill beer on it, though.

The two quick answers to this are,

1. A fiddle is a cheap violin covered in rosin dust with a flattened bridge, and
2. There is no difference in the instrument itself, only in the way that it is played.

Dance music and the concert hall.

Supposing the main difference in the sound, where did this distinction come from? What’s the historical lineage of the fiddle and the violin?

For serious violin music, the historical origin is the Church. Sacred music was the only music that paid the bill of serious composers like Palestrina. Using instruments from the string family was well established by the time of Bach.

Haydn was apparently the first composer to develop merchandizing forms and structures. This lead the way to independence for the musician. This set the ground work for the music industry.

(We pause in our narrative briefly to recognize the might of the music industry.)

Imagine great factories belching sooty smoke as they blare out commodified musical entertainment for the masses. Okay, enough of that, now let’s talk about fiddling.

The Movement of many feet.

Fiddle music, historically, in dance music. We’re talking about generations and generations of people moving their feet rhythmically to the sound of a few easily portable musical instruments. A bowed string instrument has been popular in most cultures, just as a plucked string instrument or a flute or reed horn of some kind.

You want to have a good time? Get a fiddler.

Serious music has a higher purpose than having a good time. And so, it leaves many people standing out in the cold. Only so much room in the Church, in the castle, in the merchant’s concert hall.

The fiddle, as we can plainly see, makes music of the people, by the people, for the people.

In any culture dominated by the priest class, the military class, the merchant class, or any combination, music will serve the purpose of the rulers of that society, seen or unseen. Only in the remaining class, the workers, is music free to be spontaneous and interactive.

This means that the authentic choice of populist musical expression, free of coercive restraint, or blatant payoffs, is fiddling, not violin playing. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

How about that sound?

Here is the esthetic analysis of violin and fiddle.

The goal of violin playing is beauty, power and mystery. The emphasis is on beauty and power. For fiddling the dominant esthetic is rhythmic energy and mystery. (Energy could be just a different way of looking at power.) For fiddlers, beauty is not a big value.

This distinction of esthetic value leads to a huge difference in the sound.

You recognize that concert violin sound the moment you hear it. Just as you know that danceable fiddle sound when you hear it.

Creating the sound.

If you are learning violin, you will put a lot of effort into mastering vibrato. That’s the primary left hand technique for attaining constancy and ravishing tonal beauty. In the right hand it is controlled pressure and smoothness.

For fiddling, your left hand will be learning slides, 4th finger drones and Irish cuts, rolls and graces. Your right hand will produce repeating bow patterns of light rhythmic accents.

Same instrument, different technique.

To flatten the bridge or not.

Next time you see a real virtuoso fiddler live or on TV or video, take a good look at the bridge. Does it look flattened? Probably not.

The flattened bridge is a myth. For beginners, especially, you would be doing them no favor by flattening the bridge.

In the early stage of learning, it’s difficult to keep the bow to one string. Do you want to make it more difficult by reducing the normal curve of the bridge? I don’t think so.

And physics tells us that any two adjacent strings are connected by a straight line, no matter how curved the bridge might be. Therefore, a flattened bridge cannot possible help you play on two strings at the same time.

A straight line is a straight line. Period.

The flatter bridge will allow you to move from G to A or D to E with less arc of the arm. Okay, good. Now, what’s the point of that?

Whew! Glad to have that out of my system.