What is the difference between fiddle vs violin?
The short answer: There isn't any difference!
Both instruments are the same, if slightly tweaked (as we will find out a later).
Buying an instrument
You can’t go into a music shop and ask to purchase a fiddle. It doesn’t exist. You’ll need to buy a violin.
You can’t get fiddler lessons. They don’t exist. You’ll need to get violin lessons.
When you hear the phrase ‘play the fiddle’, it’s usually a colloquial term for actually playing the violin. It is similar to people who ‘play the Joanna’ or ‘tinkle the ivories’; both meaning playing the piano.
So I think you’re starting to get the picture. The fiddle doesn’t really exist.
Or does it?
Are the Fiddle and a Violin the same instrument?
Well, yes - the body of the instrument is the same. But there are some adjustments to turn a violin into a 'proper' fiddle. The set up includes:
Fiddle Bridge vs Violin Bridge
The most obvious difference is the height and shape of the bridge.
On a fiddle, it’s lower in height than the classical violin and has a flatter arch. This flatter bridge makes the string lower to the fretboard, as Irish fiddle music often requires double stops (playing more than one note simultaneously on a different string).
Fiddle strings vs Violin Strings
Because the general volume of playing on the fiddle is quieter than the violin, you will likely find the original strings swapped out for steel-core strings. These produce a brighter and sharper tone. This helps the instrument project more in performance.
Fiddle bowing vs Violin Bowing
Fiddlers like to play with a loose bow, and classical violinists prefer a tight violin bow. Some fiddlers even play with the hair touching the stick of the bow!
The most important thing to a fiddler is that the bow can endure energetic and charismatic playing!
Fiddle tuning vs violin tuning
Classical violins tend to use catgut or synthetic core strings. These require more tuning but produce a richer sound.
Apart from the key differences in the instrument setup, the most significant difference between a fiddle and a violin is the style of playing.
When the instrument is played in a folk style, it is called a fiddle. When it’s played by a classically trained musician, it’s called a violin.
A violinist reproduces the composer’s music from the sheet music and adds additional interpretation. Classical violinists stick to the music and don’t deviate from the composer’s original notation. This is also how an orchestra can have 40 violins, all playing the exact same thing.
Fiddlers, on the other hand, love to improvise. Their improvisation is one of the key differences between the instruments. The players bring their interpretation to every piece, playing around with the original melody. This tradition brings freedom to the string family like no other instrument.
Most fiddlers never had formal lessons, so they invented their own style of technique.
Holding a violin on your face makes it impossible to talk and play simultaneously, so square dancing fiddlers came up with an ingenious solution; they hold the instrum down on their arm rather than under the chin, freeing up their jaws to “call” the dance moves.
Although it’s great fun for fiddle players, this technique is a total no-go for a classical player. It is one of the key visual differences when figuring out if the string instrument they are playing is a fiddle or violin.
P.S. You’ll never really see a fiddler using techniques like pizzicato. They always use a bowed string…
The History of the Fiddle Style
Fiddle music existed throughout Europe, but it holds an iconic place in traditional Irish music. Scotch-Irish people (people with Scottish ancestry who settled in northeast Ireland) migrated to America in the 19th century, bringing their fiddle tradition with them.
Many settled in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. From there, a distinctly American musical genre, bluegrass, evolved. The instrument is integral to bluegrass genre, along with a guitar, banjo and mandolin.
Summary - Fiddle vs Violin
The fiddle and violin are both string instruments. The both have four strings. The body of the instruments is the same. So what is the difference?
Besides minor alterations to the actual instrument, including flattening the bridge and swapping the original strings for steel strings, the main difference between a violin or fiddle is style.
Violin performance is all about classical music. Violinists read the dots on the page that the famous composers wrote; not deviating, but adding interpretation.
On the other hand, a fiddler is a specialist in improvisation around a melody; and their style of music is based around the folk genre.
Ultimately, these two instruments are referred to differently based on the style of music being played. The term “violin” is commonly used in classical and orchestral settings, while “fiddle” is typically associated with folk, country, and bluegrass genres.
Both instruments are great fun – but learn the violin, then learn how to fiddle; not the other way around!
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