What’s The Difference Between A Fiddle And A Violin?

violinist female

You have probably seen and heard them both. If I ask you what you think of when you hear the fiddle, you would most likely say that it’s tightly connected with folk music. And maybe you think of the violin as the dressier, more elegant alternative to the fiddle.

So, what’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

In short, the fiddle is associated with rhythmic folk music and quick note changes. The violin is mostly used in classical music, where more advanced playing techniques like vibrato are more common.

They are also physically different in the way they are set up. Let’s go deeper into the differences between a fiddle and a violin in this post.

Fiddle VS Violin

If your initial thoughts were that the violin is a more ‘dressy’ alternative to the fiddle, you were sort of right. 

We often consider the violin as a smooth, soft-sounding, and elegant string instrument, playing looong, gentle notes.

On the other hand, when we think of the fiddle, we might get more ‘jovial’ and maybe even rural associations.

But both have the ability to sound hauntingly beautiful or upbeat and jovial.

Because a fiddle and a violin is basically the same string instrument, although with certain modifications. These are modifications that greatly influence their sound and what music genres they thrive in.

You will rarely hear a fiddler use techniques like vibrato. Even in slow pieces, the vibrato is often kept to a minimum.

For example, you will rarely hear a fiddle use vibrato. Even in slow pieces, the vibrato is often kept to a minimum.

The fiddle is common in folk music

A very common way to look at the differences between a fiddle and a violin is: the moment it is used for folk music, it is a fiddle. There is a lot of truth to this .

(But there are some physical differences as well, which you will discover soon).

Folk music is often very rhythmical and quick, aimed to get people dancing and singing. The playing style of the fiddle is also quick, without vibratos and is often played by self-taught people. 

Take, for example, Irish folk music. Imagine being in a pub with a lot of people and a fiddler playing upbeat music in the corner. Lots of singing and dancing (and surely the occasional fight) going on there!

The fiddle has been a very important instrument in a wide range of ethnic and folk music all over the world since way before the violin even existed.

Examples of folk music where the fiddle plays an important part:

  • Irish Folk music: The Irish fiddle is one of the most important instruments in Irish folk music. It is pretty much identical to the violin, but it’s played a little differently. It does not make much use of techniques like vibrato but rather a slurring technique at the beginning of a beat for instance.
  • Scottish Folk Music: Scottish fiddling is very energetic, snappy and rhythmic. Some regional music (Shetland) draws inspiration from Irish and Norwegian folk music.
  • North American Folk Music: The playing style was early on influenced by both Irish and Scottish music. And even by the classical violin. You can hear the fiddle in a lot of different American music genres, like bluegrass, cajun, rock, and blues.
  • Scandinavian Folk Music: If you were thinking that the fiddle and violin physically are totally identical, this will make you think again. At first glance, the Hardanger Fiddle (Hardingfele in Norwegian) looks very much like a regular violin, but it has 8 or 9 strings, as opposed to the violin that has 4. The tuning is also transposed, meaning that if you play a C on the piano, you would have to play a D on the Hardanger Fiddle.

The violin is more common in classical music

The violin is actually a descendant of the fiddle – its ancestor that we now know is mostly used in folk music.

While the fiddle often focuses on creating rhythmical, fast-paced music, the violin is often used in music that focuses mostly on techniques like vibrato and sustained notes.

It is first and foremost in classical music where the violin plays an important part:

The violin is an essential part of classical music. In a symphonic orchestra, there are multiple violins. Actually, more than any other instrument in the orchestra. 

A violin is also often the solo instrument in a concerto for orchestra (an orchestral setup where a solo instrument is backed by a full orchestra)

Lastly, in classical music, you will find the violin in string quartets. In a string quartet, there are usually two violins (and one cello and viola).

Mainly played by classically trained musicians, the violin is a critical part of an orchestra, along with its fellow bowed strings: cello, violas and double basses.

Does a Fiddle and a Violin Have Different Playing Techniques?

As I’ve briefly mentioned, the fiddle and violin do have different playing styles. Here’s a brief overview:

The Fiddle – fast and rhythmic

You can often recognize the fiddle on its sparingly use of vibrato. Even on slow tunes, the vibrato is used quite rarely. The fiddle playing style is not so technically advanced, or complex as the violin, but the melodies are often very fast-paced.

A fiddler tends to play by ear instead of reading music. In addition, folk music tends to be very rhythmical, so the fiddling playing style means that the fiddler needs to be a very skilled rhythmical beast in order to get people to sing and dance. 

Unlike a violinist, a fiddler rarely leaves first position. The violinist uses the whole range and plays basically everything – from the lowest note to the highest.

In the picture above, I’ve tried to make you a visual explaining what first position is. Further down the fret, you’ll find the second and third position as well.

The Violin – technically complex

The playing style of a violin is technically more advanced, with the violinist having to master several different techniques, like pizzicato, col legno, spiccato, ricochet and many more.

Melodies that are played also tend to be more complex.

Yet, the music that a fiddler might play is deceptively simple I will add, because the fiddle playing style has a lot of nuances and bow-movements that by all means need disciplined practice to master, just like the violin.

Music interpretation

A violin is often ‘bound’ to the notes of the composer. In general, a violinist’s task is often to play the way that the composer intended, in the most truthful way possible.

The fiddle, however, is more playful and open to improvisation and quick-changing notes to produce rhythms suitable for dancing.

The Fiddle is set up Differently Than the Violin 

Even though the fiddle and the violin are both basically the same instrument, they do differ when it comes to how they are set up.

In the infographic I have created below, you can easily get a quick overview of the differences between the fiddle and the violin.

What follows is a more in-detail look at their respective setups:

Fiddle setup 

1. The fiddle uses steel strings

Some of the benefits of using steel strings are that they are easier to play, have less complex overtones, a clear and direct sound, and last longer than other string types like gut and synthetic strings. 

Due to the way a violin is set up (high string action etc.,), it generally responds better to gut strings, which have a warm, rich tone, and the synthetic strings, which are by far, the most popular strings.

In contrast to the fiddle, the string best suited for the violin demands more care. They need to be tuned more often and react faster to changes in humidity.

Also, as I mentioned earlier in this post, a fiddle can have more than 4 strings, which is the standard for a violin. One example is the Hardanger Fiddle, that has 8-9 strings.

2. And the fiddle has a flatter bridge

The bridge of the fiddle is often set up with a flatter arch than the violin. What this does is reducing the bow range and the arm-motion.

When flattening the bridge, it is now much easier to hit 2 or more strings at the same time. Something that is very common in fiddling.

3. The fiddle has lower string action

Unlike the violin, the fiddle has a pretty low string action. While this makes the instrument easier to play, the low string action also sacrifices some of the tone clarity, dynamics, and volume that comes with having a higher string action. 

Now You Know

Now that you have read to this point, you will hopefully have learned the difference between the fiddle and the violin.

Key takeaway

Fiddle VS Violin:
The main difference between a fiddle and a violin is the types of music they are playing. They are basically the same instrument, but they are meant for different music genres.

A fiddle is an important string instrument in folk music, while the violin is mostly used in classical music.

Playing Style:
The playing style of the fiddle is less technically complex than the playing style of a violin. But the playing style is fast and rhythmic, which calls for the fiddler to be skilled in producing a steady rhythm to get people engaged.

Also, a fiddle and a violin are set up a little differently: the fiddle has a flatter bridge, resulting in it being easier to play two, or more notes at the same time. It uses steel strings and has lower string action, which makes it easier to play.

Suggested Further Reading:

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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