The Fiddle, Violin, and Viola come from the same family of bowed string instruments and are all very similar. In fact, these musical instruments are so similar many insist there is no difference, especially when talking about the fiddle vs violin. They will tell you it is the style of play more than anything else that is the difference.
What are the common things musicians refer to when they site the differences between fiddle, violin, and viola. Is it in how you hold the instrument? Do you play violin for classical music while a fiddle player is found in playing western swing or in a bluegrass band? Is it just playing styles and techniques that differ?
However, it’s not unimaginable to see that a violinist and a fiddler share the same gear. The skill set and play style are more important, but your gear will often determine which musician you are – are you a fiddler or a violinist?
- What is a Fiddle?
- What’s the Difference Between a Violin and a Fiddle?
- Violin vs Fiddle: Qualities of the Violin
- Fiddle vs Violin: Qualities of the Fiddle
- Fiddle vs Violin vs Viola: 10 Small Differences
- 1. Fiddle vs Violin – The Frame of the Body
- 2. Strings and Tuning
- 3. Violin vs Fiddle Bridge
- 4. Fiddle and Violin Sizes
- 5. Differences in music played and Sound
- 6. Clef
- 7. Playing Styles and Techniques
- 8. Composition and Accompaniment
- 9. Parts and construction of Fiddle, Viola and Violin
- 10. Physical Structure
- Final Note
- FAQ for Violin vs Fiddle Differences
- What are the differences between the violin and the fiddle?
- How does the violin sound different from a fiddle?
- What are some of the similarities between violin and fiddle?
- Do you need an instrument to play a violin or fiddle?
What is a Fiddle?
The violin is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which also includes the viola and cello. A violin is called a fiddle when playing folk music. A “fiddle” is also a colloquial term for instruments used by players in all genres, including classical music. Fiddle playing, or fiddling, is a style of music.
If they’re the same instrument, why do they have different names? The truth is pretty underwhelming. To put it simply, the two words divulge from the same root, but they came from different places: violin through Italian, and fiddle from Germanic paths. That’s about it. The two words were once used interchangeably, but as styles and purposes developed, the fiddle came to be known in bluegrass at some point while the violin stayed classical.
All jokes aside, the violin and the fiddle are both respectable instruments that require a great deal of skill to wield. Whether you’re playing on a stage in a concert hall or on a platform at a country festival, you’re fundamentally playing the same instrument and so long as you have the skill to back it up, you can use it to make some lovely music.
What’s the Difference Between a Violin and a Fiddle?
The main difference is about twenty years of training and no one minds if you spill beer on a fiddle.
Kidding aside, though, the two instruments are actually the same thing despite how radically different their musical associations are. Surely there’s some kind of difference for there to be such a distinction though, right? Well, sort of.
Despite the different names, the real difference between the two instruments lies in how the players use them. So, a violin and a fiddle are the same actual instruments. What sets them apart are:
- Condition (clean vs dirty),
- Set-up (pro vs DIY),
- Repertoire (classical vs bluegrass, country, folk, jazz)
- The te chnique (virtuosity vs self-taught)
- Sound (full loud tone vs scratchy)
But both are crucial to the music: I would not want you to believe that I look down on fiddlers; on the contrary. A world without fiddlers would be bland. As much as I enjoy Vengerov playing Tchaikovski on his great Stradivarius, I enjoy relaxing with a beer and jamming in the local pub with fiddlers.
Violin vs Fiddle: Qualities of the Violin
A violin is (or should be) always well set up, clean, perfectly tuned, with good strings, and a good bow with perfect bow hair.
The violin is certainly the classier of the two instruments. There’s a strict standard for violin upkeep, a general tonal expectancy across much of the classical production out there, and its position in music is fairly clear-cut. You’ll rarely find a serious violin player who keeps their violin in anything less than perfect condition, not to mention there’s a good chance their instrument will likely have a higher price tag.
With that extra caution and cost, it’s no wonder violins tend to be much better kept than their fiddle brethren. String preference, for example, while highly subjective, tends toward the higher end with violins compared to fiddles, particularly with the use of traditional gut strings. Back when the violin was first invented, using animal guts to make strings was commonplace among stringed instruments, and that tradition is still kept by some players. Unsurprisingly, they’re a bit pricier than steel strings, which are particularly popular among fiddle players (though violin players certainly use them as well).
Similarly, a violin’s bow will often be more elegant and well-kept with no broken hairs. You can bet any violin player out there keeps their instrument tuned and there aren’t words to describe how insistent violin players are on keeping their prized instruments spotless– again, as anyone probably would be with an expensive instrument.
All of these tendencies aren’t just for show or tradition, of course. Classical music, as violinists often play, is often known for its complexity and precision. Violin players are often taught to such a strict standard so that they’re up to the task of playing with the robotic rigor of those who wrote the music. This “perfect” technique takes many years to nail down to the point of becoming second nature and the violin players keeping it alive certainly aren’t too keen on ditching that precise technique they worked so hard for. Prissy? Maybe. Effective? Inarguably. The innumerable talented, traditionally-taught violinists out there can testify to that.
And, of course, most of all, the difference is in the sound. The traditional violin tone strives for perfection just as much as the violinist’s playing. It’s full, it’s rich, it seldom relies on amplification, and when done correctly, it’s pitch-perfect. There’s much less room for error with such a strict guideline for playing, so some of the techniques in fiddle playing are understandably absent in the orchestra.
When you think about it, it’s no wonder violinists can get a snobby wrap from some people. The violin exudes perfection. You treat it like a violin, you play it like a violin, and you make it sound like a violin. That’s that. Then, there’s the fiddle.
Fiddle vs Violin: Qualities of the Fiddle
The fiddle habitually has a DIY kind of maintenance, old cheap steel strings, old bow hair with broken hairs, and is dirty and covered with rosin dust.
Michael Cleveland is the perfect example of a great fiddler: I love him. See his own personal technique, his incredible sound, great swing and energy. And don’t tell me he doesn’t have a terrible technique!
This backwoods rendition of the 16th-century classical beauty is literally the same instrument, but what makes it a fiddle is how people decide to play it and the adjustments that come with that. For starters, fiddle players aren’t known to be too picky about keeping their instruments in tip-top shape or even buying top-notch instruments to begin with. It’s not as if fiddlers don’t want a great sound from their instrument, of course– there are plenty of expensive fiddles out there, and ultimately, you get what you pay for on the low end– but what constitutes a great sound is often much less picky than what a violinist seeks. There are fiddles on the market for less than $500 that would suit plenty of players just fine. Now imagine trying to sell anything to a violinist at that price. You get the picture.
In a way, though, the fiddler’s touch is a tradition of its own, even if it’s not classical like a traditional violinist. Their cheaper steel strings produce exactly the kind of tone they’re looking for, the dead, loose bow hair isn’t hurting them any, and a little dirt on their fiddle (probably) isn’t going to hurt their performance. (If you’re a violinist reading this, I apologize for any trauma that last sentence caused you.)
Maybe fiddlers would be pickier like their violin-playing cousins if their music craved that degree of perfection, but imperfection is in the very roots of music like jazz and bluegrass. Improvisation and recklessly digging into whatever you’re jamming to is a defining characteristic of these kinds of music. Play a wrong note with your violin ensemble? Good luck ever forgiving yourself. Hit a wrong note while playing jazz? Congrats on the new record deal!
Other music types, like country and folk music, don’t necessarily run on improv. Still, imagine Paganini heading to a barn in Alabama and playing a Charlie Daniels song in his finest attire on his priceless, personally-crafted instrument. The fiddle has its place just as well as the violin has its own.
The technique fiddlers use to achieve their preferred style is definitely less formal as well. Often self-taught, the fiddler’s touch has some arguably bad habits that have become the norm simply because they’re not taught otherwise. This is quite the contrast to the perfectionist violinist, of course. Having said that, technique differences aren’t all rooted in poor practice (unless you ask a violin player, of course)– much of the technique disparity boils down to style, whether or it was originally a result of misinformation or not. Vibrato and standard tuning, for example, aren’t particularly strict standards as far as fiddling goes (source).
Fiddle vs Violin vs Viola: 10 Small Differences
The violin and fiddle are pretty much the same stringed musical instrument. It’s generally called a fiddle when used to play folk music and violin when playing classical music.
1. Fiddle vs Violin – The Frame of the Body
These three instruments are all made of hardwood that has been polished to give them a perfect, finished, look. However, they all have slight differences when it comes to their shape.
The Fiddle and violin have a smaller frame size than the viola in both width and length. The standard fiddle differs from the violin with an arched angle near the waist that makes it have a larger diameter. Most agree that telling the difference this way is not reliable, because fiddle and violin sizes differ depend on manufacturer.
2. Strings and Tuning
Typically the violin strings are tuned G3, D4, A4, E5, and viola is tuned to C3, G3, D4, and A4. Fiddles have the same strings as violin, however, a fifth string has been introduced by modern fiddlers, changing the tuning to G3, D4, A4, E5, and C3.
This gives the fiddle style of music the folk country twang that harmonizes well with a banjo. Many fiddlers prefer the traditional four string musical instrument, especially if they were classically trained.
A viola is naturally tuned at exactly one fifth below a violin, and it has a range of over 3 and a half octaves.
The pitch that a violin is played at varies from the strings G3 to C8 which corresponds to the highest notes of a modern piano. Nevertheless, the top notes from the violin family produce harmonics which are very different from a viola and fiddle.
3. Violin vs Fiddle Bridge
A fiddle has a flatter bridge that is less arched than a classical violin. This allows for double stop and triple stop bowing, popular in many types of fiddling music. A violin has a more arched bridge that is aimed for a note that is cleaner.
The Violin, viola, and fiddle also have different tone variations, and the style of playing each instrument is distinct from the other. The difference in the bridges lends itself to each style. A fiddle will require a lot of strings bending and multiple stops while bowing while violin requires just a single tone and a viola requires the player to arch strings with a straight bow for better tones.
You can find more about the construction of a fiddle in our article about fiddle build or at FiddleClass.
4. Fiddle and Violin Sizes
The body size of a viola is between 38cm to 43 cm long while the fiddle and violin have a body size of 35.5 cm long. Conversely, the violin bow is around 1 cm longer that the viola bows and the fiddle bows are designed to size slighter longer than that of a violin.
5. Differences in music played and Sound
Violins tend to lean to a traditional, or classical music while fiddles are typically found in bluegrass bands, western swing, and folk music. You will also find the fiddle utilized in the Celtic cultural permanences.
Violins can normally be found in classical, jazz and country genres.
Lastly, the viola is standard in more contemporary pop music.
The viola produces a more mellow and deep sound than a violin, while the violin has a higher pitched sound compared to viola.
Music for viola is usually written in the alto clef; that uses the C clef while the music for violin and fiddle is known to be written in the treble clef. Music for the fiddle is also written with a C clef.
The advantage of viola over the other two is the fact that the alto clef is rarely used with other instruments.
7. Playing Styles and Techniques
We know that the viola is larger than the violin, so they do require a different technique and different fingering.
Viola is known to have a heavier bow and heavier strings than the violin, and this gives the player a chance to lean more powerfully on the ropes. The longer bow gives the player an opportunity to produce a lower register that is not as high as the violin but sweet enough to keep your audience on their feet.
Violins are played with the left side of the players jaw resting precisely on the chinrest and the player supporting instrument with the left shoulder. The player’s left hand usually presses the strings to produce the pitch and using the right hand the player either’s plucks or bows the strings to create a sound.
Violins are known to reproduce the composer’s music with the precise accuracy. It is important to point out that a well-performed violin does not at any time deviate even in the slightest degree from its composer music notation.
Symphonies will carry as many as 50 violinists to carry different pieces of the same music since they are required to be so precise.
Then there is the fiddle, and they are known to bring their own interpretation to every music piece. A fiddler can, and often does, vary from an original melody making it unrecognizable. The style of the fiddle is known to benefit the performer showcasing his or talent in a unique way.
The fiddle can either be held steadily between the players chin and shoulder or the fiddler can opt to rest the instrument right on their chest. Placing the fiddle on the chest is never seen or done in a violin performance.
8. Composition and Accompaniment
Most of the chamber music, symphonic settings, or the orchestral includes some permanent violin parts while the viola compositions include Kegelstatt Trio, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and Beethoven’s Serenade. A violin is mostly accompanied by the cellos, violas, symphonic horns and double basses.
The fiddle, alternatively, is often combined with some broad range of instruments that includes the banjo, electronic keyboards, drums, guitars and even mandolin.
9. Parts and construction of Fiddle, Viola and Violin
When it comes to the parts, construction and build of the fiddle, violin, and viola they are extremely similar. The only main difference is that chin rest of a fiddle is a separate piece, unlike the one for viola or violin which is part of the tailpiece. On the fiddle, the chinrest is mounted using an ingenious screwing mechanism. It comes in different designs, and it can sit on the side of the fiddle tailpiece or just directly over the top of the fiddle.
That being said, many can easily tell the difference in musical instruments between a Hardanger Fiddle and a Stradivarius Violin (not to mention the price difference!).
10. Physical Structure
Both a fiddle and a violin are alike in physical appearance. Indeed, the exact same instrument may be played as a violin or fiddle, it is almost completely an issue of style and intent.
A very recent development in modern instruments is the introduction of the 5-string Fiddle. It includes a lower 5th (Viola) C-String, left and below the G string. This change has not been reproduced for the violin.
Another common difference may be the preference of synthetic polymer strings by most classical violinists, whereas some fiddle players like the newer steel core strings for the sharper, crisper sound.
While we do not cover Violins or the Viola much on this site. but we have heard plenty of requests for the clarification of the difference between them and the Fiddle. Hopefully this will clarify many of the differences between violin and fiddle.
FAQ for Violin vs Fiddle Differences
What are the differences between the violin and the fiddle?
The violin is a bowed string instrument that was invented in Europe. The fiddle is an old folk instrument originating from the British Isles.
The violin has four strings and a body that has a hollowed-out back and sides, while the fiddle has five strings and a flat back.
The violin’s body has been carved out of one piece of wood, while the fiddle’s body consists of two pieces of wood that are joined together by pegs on either side of the neck.
How does the violin sound different from a fiddle?
The violin is the most famous of all stringed instruments. It has been around for centuries. The violin is also a very versatile instrument. It can be played with a bow or plucked, and it produces a variety of sounds.
The fiddle is a type of stringed instrument that has been around for centuries as well. It is smaller than the violin and has a different sound because it uses gut strings rather than steel strings on its body.
What are some of the similarities between violin and fiddle?
Violin and fiddle are both stringed instruments. The violin is a bowed instrument and the fiddle is a plucked one.
Both instruments have four strings and are also tuned in fourths, but the violin has four movable pegs for adjusting the tension of its strings, while the fiddle has one peg.
The violin is also known as a “concert” instrument whereas the fiddle is traditionally used in folk music.
Do you need an instrument to play a violin or fiddle?
One of the most common questions asked by people who are learning to play a violin or fiddle is “do I need an instrument to play?” The answer is that you don’t need anything but your hands and fingers.
However, if you want to play a violin or fiddle professionally, then yes, you will need an instrument. There are some instruments that can be used for both violin and fiddle – such as the mandolin and guitar.