The Violin


The idea is simple: A string stretched over a piece of wood will create a note when plucked or bowed. Press down with a finger and the note will sound higher. Add more strings and bingo – you have a violin. Or a cello or any of a number of stringed instruments. The concept goes way back in time, as we'll discover in this music-filled Active Minds program. From the era of ancient, wandering troubadours to the brilliance of today's concert-hall virtuosos, we'll trace the violin's history and listen to sweet melodies through the ages.


Music goes way back – how far back we'll never know. Certainly to the Ancient Egyptians, who painted on tomb and temple walls musicians playing all manner of instruments and singing heaven knows what. The glory days of Rome and Greece also paid homage to those who could play or sing melodies. Again, various types of instruments were central to music performance in those cultures. So, it's no surprise that string, wind, brass and percussion instruments occupied a considerable presence in Europe through the centuries. Several string varieties can be traced to Arab instruments such as the bowed Rebab. Among these musical ancestors emerges the violin – popularized at first as a bowed, three-stringed box that accompanied wandering singers in the Middle Ages. Back in the 1200s, it was known by various names: fiddle and lira. The latter referred to a family of stringed instruments that were held either by the upper arm (lira da braccio) or between the knees (lira da gamba – ancestor of the cello). Eventually, the violin grew into the shape as we know it today, probably around the 1500s. Northern Italy became the birthplace of the modern violin, thanks to the brilliant work by such masters craftsmen as the Brothers Amati, Guarneri and, most famously, Stradivari. Naturally, many Italian musicians and composers became inspired by these gorgeous instruments, whose warm, focused sounds were matched by their beauty. The Baroque Era (1600-1750) witnessed an explosion of virtuosic music for winds, brass and strings, particularly in Italy. Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was reportedly a brilliant violinist, and his music demands amazing virtuosity. The same with Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741), known mainly for his violin concertos known as “The Four Seasons.” As part of the new attention to virtuosity came a wealth of such concertos, for one to four violins, dazzling pieces that demonstrated    the skills of players back then, as well as the ability of these instruments to stay in tune (no small accomplishment) and produce a big sound. Through the centuries, virtuoso fiddlers have amazed listeners, reaching a peak in the 1830s with the pyrotechnics of Niccolo Paganini. Though the violin remains, with the piano, the most popular instrument among students and professionals, and those who impress with their technique excite concert audiences, the music penned by composers great and not-so-great shows the tremendous potential of a sound-box, four strings, a bow and someone to make musical magic.

Exploration Questions

  • What was a rebec and what was its role in the development of the violin?
  • How did the method of holding a violin and bow change over the years?
  • Who was Joseph Joachim and why was he important?

Reflective Questions

  • What instrument would you rather learn to play – violin or piano? Why?
  • The Three B's – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – plus masters such as Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky wrote concertos for the violin. Which do you enjoy the most?
  • Who are your favorite violinists of the past and present?

More to Explore

  • How violins are made and played Click here
  • How to hold the violin and great concertos for violin Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Schoenbaum, David. The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument. W. W. Norton & Company. 2012. 736 pages. In this engaging, highly readable book, Schoenbaum not only explores the history of the violin, but examines its firm place in changing world culture.
    Click here to order