Violin and Viola Lessons by Richard Tweney - Cobourg, Ontario


Instruction for ages 6 & up • Lessons in English or French
25 years of experience • Reasonable rates

Phone: 905 373-4378  
563 Shirley Street, Cobourg ON



The Origin of the Violin and its Place in World Music

Amazingly, for an instrument as popular and widespread as the violin, no-one knows who exactly invented it. All we know for sure is that it first came to light in the north of Italy in the late fifteenth century or so, the product of a long line of experimentation by stringed-instrument makers. (The name luthier, as applied to stringed instrument makers reflects their earlier role as lute makers and repairers.) Violin making reached its apogee sometime in the seventeenth century in the town of Cremona, near the Po River. The greatest of the violin makers is generally acknowledged to be Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), and few subsequent violin makers have deviated to any extent from Stradivari’s basic design and dimensions.

The idea of bowed stringed instruments may have come to Europe from Asia, either from the Far East or from the Indian subcontinent. (Some people believe that the tuning of the violin in perfect fifths is a vestige of its Asian origins, but I think this idea is mistaken, as I will explain when we discuss the pentatonic scale below.). It is also possible that the origin of bowed strings is found in the Middle East, or, most likely of all, I think, it may be that the idea of producing music by applying an ordinary hunting bow to a taut string was discovered independently in many parts of the world. In any event we know that China (the Ehru, the Zhong-Hu, the Gao-Hu, among others), India (the Sarangi, the Esraj, the Dilriba, the Chikara, etc.), The Middle East (the rabab or “spike fiddle”, a more modern form of which was historically known in Europe as the rebec and in Southern Russia as the gudok, the kemenche, as well as various forms of the lyra), and Europe (the violin family) all have bowed stringed instruments. Of all of these areas, the Middle East is the closest to Europe, both in geography, and in terms of the types and uses of the instruments themselves. Indeed, many people consider the rebap the direct ancestor of the European violin, although, of course, this allegation cannot be demonstrated.

We would perhaps be justified in calling the violin the world’s most universal instrument. By this I do not mean that there are more violins in the world or violin players that any other instrument (that honour would surely go to the guitar); I mean simply that we would be hard pressed to find a village anywhere on the planet where the violin is unknown. Adaptable to every style of music, cheap to procure, light and easily transportable, the violin can surely be recognized as the universal human instrument. It can serve as a melody instrument or be used to accompany dancing or singing, or simply to while away the hours in remote parts of the world. In addition the violin has an unmatched repertory of various styles of music. What other instrument can sing like the human voice, serve as the backbone of the orchestra, respond to the greatest demands of composers of art music, enliven country dances or weddings anywhere in the world, and at the end of a lifetime of service be passed down through the generations, and bring joy over several hundred years?

But how did this fortunate circumstance come about? Well, a glance into the history of bowed instruments in Europe would seem to indicate that the instrument family was perfected long before there was really any music to play. Indeed, some people have believed this to be true, claiming that far-sighted luthiers managed to invent an instrument that would only come into its own in some distant future. Yet this seems unlikely to me. I think we probably know less about the music of earlier periods than we might imagine. After all, manuscripts are more easily lost than instruments, and wherever paper was unavailable, music would have to retained in the memory rather than written down (parchment was always very expensive).

Be this as it may, we do know that the violin began its useful life in the field of popular music, and not in “serious” Church or Court music, which preferred the older family of instruments known as viols. (Simply by observing how it is used today in so-called “fiddle” music, we can easily imagine how suited the violin was to accompanying songs, or indeed to accompanying itself by using its lower strings as “drone strings”.) We can be sure that, at the outset, the violin played the same sort of role as older popular instruments such as the earlier-mentioned rebec: it was used to embellish singing, to fill in missing vocal parts, and to accompany dancing and other festivities. Since much, or most, of the world’s folk music is written in the pentatonic, or five note scale, the violin with its tuning in perfect fifths was ideally suited to playing all forms of folk music. [The idea of strings tuned in “perfect fifths” conveys the fact that each higher string is sol to the do of the scale formed on the string directly below. This so-called “interval” of a perfect fifth is basic to all music, and many forms of early vocal music rely on the practice of accompanying a melody line at a fixed interval, based on the natural pitch differences of human voices.] In fact, the pentatonic scale is nothing more than a series of do to sol intervals, rearranged to fall into a more or less stepwise sequence: (using the white notes of the piano) C-G-D-A-E when rearranged gives the pentatonic sequence of C-D-E-G-A. It is this basic suitability for pentatonic progressions that lies behind the tuning of the violin, in my opinion, rather than any imagined Oriental origin. But this is an argument for a rainy day, and moving along with our history, we see that it really was only a matter of time before the violin largely replaced all of the other bowed instruments, first in Europe and the Middle East, and later, in most of the rest of the world.

Why this should have occurred is a matter of conjecture. Certainly the small size of the violin, along with its relatively large volume of sound and brilliant tone were a factor. The lack of frets allows for the production of a warmer, more vibrant tone, as well as making it possible to play precisely in tune in all keys. In addition, the violin is one of the few instruments that is “acoustically perfect”, i.e., the dimensions of the body are precisely those required for the pitch of the sound produced, with no need for heavier than normal strings, as is the case with a viola or violoncello. The violin also has the good fortune to fall in the soprano range. This is important, as over the centuries the upper voices have become more important in comparison with the lower voices, especially as much of Western music has tended to move away from “polyphonic” (“many-voiced”) music, towards “homophonic” music, i.e. a solo melodic line plus accompaniment. It has also helped that the violin’s range overlaps the range of other soprano instruments as the flute or Celtic pipes. This has probably helped with the instrument’s expansion, both within the popular and classical fields of music. Whatever the causes, we can state with confidence that the violin is one of the modern world’s most beloved and widespread instruments, with a future as bright as its past is glorious.