Fiddle me this! You have a violin and a fiddle in front of you. Can you tell the difference?
In truth, no one can because a fiddle and a violin are typically the same. The difference is in how you play the fiddle and violin. (Note that we use the word “typically” since a violin can be modified to make fiddle music easier to play. More on that later!)
So, rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard…follow along…maybe right on down to Georgia… it’s time to compare fiddles and violins, debunk misconceptions about the fiddle, and learn how the term is used today.
What is a Fiddle?
The fiddle is a violin!
As the Oxford Companion to Music explains, the word fiddle is “a generic term for any bowed instrument, including the violin. It is used especially for the medieval European bowed instruments with oval or waisted bodies. These were mostly flat-backed, the neck, back, and sides being carved from a single piece of wood, and commonly (though with frequent exceptions) had five strings, one of them often a bowed or plucked drone.”
A violin is more likely to be called a fiddle when it’s used to play fiddle music or folk, country, and bluegrass as opposed to classical music.
What’s fiddle music then? “Fiddle music is typically written for dancing, and it comes from backgrounds as diverse as Scotland, Eastern Europe, and the Cajun and Zydeco traditions from Louisiana,” explain the linguistic pros at Vocabulary.com.
Wait, so the fiddler in the Zac Brown Band is playing the same instrument as Niccolò Paganini? You bet.
A traditional violin, however, can be designed or modified to better suit fiddling over classical playing. These modified violins, explains MasterClass, usually have a flatter bridge that brings the strings closer to the fingerboard. A flatter bridge makes fiddling techniques easier, such as chording, rapid string crossings, and shuffles. Modifying or replacing a bridge is easy to do. In contrast, a classical violinist prefers a bridge with a rounded curve, allowing them to express each note more clearly and easily. Steel strings are also preferred for fiddling.
All in all, the primary difference between a violin and a fiddle is the style of music performed. Since many violinists refer to their instrument as a fiddle, the term’s meaning can also vary from person to person.
Does a Fiddle Sound Different Than a Violin? No.
When listening to how a fiddle vs. violin sound, you’ll find that they sound the same. They are, after all, the same instrument. Remember that it’s the style of music played that differentiates a violin from a fiddle – it’s all in how you play it! And a fiddle is played differently than a violin. The music requires it! While a fiddle and violin do not sound different, the songs played will sound noticeably different.
Listen to how the conductor and violinist Lawrence Golan plays when he explains the difference between a violin and a fiddle.
Do You Play a Fiddle Differently Than a Violin? Yes!
Would you play a jig the same way you’d play a sonata? No. You’d use the same instrument but approach each musical styling differently.
In this 20-minute lesson from Megan Lynch Chowning, she explains how to transition from being a classical violinist to a fiddler.
Can a Violinist Be a Fiddle Player? Yes!
Colin Jacobsen from string quartet Brooklyn Rider offers tips to awaken your inner fiddle player after years of classical training.
- Learn ten tunes by ear, either through a recording or by watching and listening to another player. Listen for every inflection and pay close attention to the player’s technique. Listen and mimic what the other person is doing!
- Rethink your bowing technique. In fiddle playing, the emphasis is on the rhythmic drive and an even melodic flow that allows for improvisation and embellishment. While “classical training emphasizes large, sustained singing tone with smooth bow changes,” a fiddle player should focus on figuring out “what notes get the emphasis based on the feel of the tune, and which ones can be dropped/deemphasized,” Jacobson says.
- Consider vibrato an ornament, not a constant. Chowning affirms this in her above video, too. As a classical player, you think vibrato is essential to a note, but that is not the case with fiddling. Moving away from vibrato is one of the biggest things to shift in your thinking when learning how to play a fiddle. Chowning suggests removing vibrato altogether while learning and reintroducing it later on.
- Allow for open strings and drones. The more you can use open strings and drones to create “sympathetic resonance, the better,” Jacobson advises. “Drones keep you afloat, in a suspended state of wonder.”
- Set your body free. A classical player might be reprimanded for tapping their feet in rehearsal. Not so when you’re a fiddle player! Fiddle music should get people out of their chairs and onto the dance floor, and that goes for the fiddler, too. Get those feet moving and lean into the experience from head to toe.