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Want to Learn to Play Violin? Let's Start With: All About the Violin

image of a violin with a bowThe violin is a beautifully crafted wooden stringed instrument. It typically has four strings, which are tuned one fifth apart from each other (that means that each string is five notes from the one next to it: D, e, f, g, A as an example.

The violin is both the smallest and the highest-sounding member of the string family, which includes the violin, the viola, the cello, and the bass. Often, because of its carrying sound, violins are used to convey the melody in orchestra. It is the most well-known of the stringed instrument family, which also includes the viola (which looks like a large violin), the cello, and the bass.

The violin is often referred to as a fiddle. Some folks might argue that they are two entirely different instruments, but truly the difference is related to how the violin itself is adjusted, the style in which it is played, and the kind of music played.

How Violins are Made

Building a violin is a process with many steps. This is why it must be carried out by a skilled luthier, or violin maker as they are more commonly known. Violin makers also repair instruments and often carry out repairs on violin bows as well.

The violin is essentially a hollow, wooden box with a neck protruding from the top. Violins are created by gluing the top, bottom, and sides all together. Typically it is glued together using a special kind of glue called animal hide glue which is far thinner than any other glue. Since the glue is thinner, the places where it joins the parts of the violin will be very clean and even attractive.

Image of a violin maker or luthier creating a violin, working at a workshop bench next to a bright window, surrounded with violins and violin parts. This is from the workshop of Hildegard Dodel, luthier in Cremona (Italy)

The glue also allows the full beautiful sound of the violin to come through, because the vibrations that make up that sound can be carried throughout the entire instrument. This style of glue is also reversible, meaning a violin repair person can "unstick" the glue easily if they need to. This makes the glue perfect when the violin makers need to repair or disassemble the violin.

What Kind of Wood is the Violin Made From?

The violin is not made from all the same kinds of wood. There is an internal sound post, which connects the belly and back with the belly being reinforced with an internal bass bar.

Picture for learning the parts of the violin, shows a sound post and the bass bar inside of an illustrated violin

The main belly (front of the body), sound post and bass bar are traditionally made from spruce, which is a light but very strong wood. The neck, ribs, back, pegbox and scroll are made using maple, which is a harder wood. The pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece, and end button are all often made from a very strong, dense wood called ebony, because those portions of the violin see the most use / stress. These woods are very common in musical instruments, and the same wood can be found on a piano.

What Affects the Violin's Sound

Image of violin and violin bow on white background, showing the shape of the instrument.The sound from the violin, is determined by the shape of the body, the quality of the wood, the varnish which was applied and the age of the violin.

An instrument that has been played consistently for more than a few weeks will sound better than one that has been neglected for a few months. Also, a violin that has been neglected, but then is played again for a few weeks will sound better again soon.

The four strings on the violin were traditionally made from sheep gut. Today, strings can be made from a variety of materials. The newest kind of strings have synthetic materials wrapped with steel or other metals. Some violins still have the traditional gut strings for a more mellow sound, or steel for a crisper, clearer sound.

Violinists pick strings for specific reasons for specific violins. In general, though, if you want an inexpensive, easy-to-play-loudly, bright-sounding, hardy, starter brand of string, I would recommend Red Label strings. However, if you are looking for something that will probably sound better on your instrument, I really suggest Dominants.

Most string brands come in different sizes (small, medium, and large is one typical description). If you're not sure, go with medium. After you learn more about how your violin sounds, you can change the kind/size of strings. Thicker strings can help your violin play louder, or they might make it harder to get a good sound out. Thinner strings might help your sound become more focused, or they may simply sound shrill. It depends on your instrument. If you're not sure, just pick the medium size or ask the music store clerk what most students buy.

The strings have a limited lifetime, depending on the amount of use the violin has, the amount of wear they have to endure from being played, and the amount of rosin dust that has built up without being wiped away. The violinist will need to change the strings when they no longer produce the perfect sound they expect.

Picture of violin, focusing on tailpiece with the fine tuners indicated. The strings that correspond to the strings are highlighted.The violin strings connect from holes or fine tuners installed in the tailpiece, which is located on the front bottom portion of the violin. The strings run across the wooden bridge to above the fingerboard. When the strings reach the fingerboard, they will cross the nut, and are wound individually on specific pegs within the pegbox.

The bridge, which the strings pass over, serves two very important purposes. Both help to achieve the great music the violin produces. Not only does the bridge hold the strings in the perfect arched position, but it also helps to transmit the vibrations of the strings. Every part of the violin helps to create the amazing music which is produced. Without the violin being adjusted properly, and being maintained consistently, the beginner will have difficulty getting good sound from the instrument.

Many stringed instruments require a bow to be used to ensure they are played correctly; the violin is one such instrument. The bow is very simple and constructed from a stick with a fine ribbon formed from horsehair between the nut and the heel. The hair is traditionally used from a male grey horse tail, due to the great quality. There are several different bows which can be used with the violin, and they will all produce different sounds. A typical violin bow will be 75 cm (30 inches) long and weigh only 60g (2 ounces).

Image showing different sizes of violinsThe violin is manufactured in nine different sizes and is perfect for very small children as well as adults. The violin is made in fractional sizes including 4/4, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 1/8, 1/10, 1/16, 1/32 and 1/64 and the smaller sizes are perfect for students as young as three years of age. Very small violins tend not to have a good sound, because the sound box of the instrument is so small.

Choosing the right violin also requires that you choose the violin that is within your price range, the proper size, and is of good quality. For the beginner this can be difficult, so it's a good idea to read up on how to buy a violin before going to see an instrument.

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