Where Did your Violin Come From?

You should know something about the instrument you play. Like a little bit of its history. So, where did your instrument come from? Did it just appear one day? Did some guy wake up one morning and decide that he was going to make a violin that day? What led to the development of today’s violin?

Bowed Instruments

Violins are instruments that have strings. There have been instruments with strings for thousands of years! But violins have strings that are played with a bow – that’s different from instruments with strings that are played by plucking the strings. References exist to bowed string instruments at least as early as the 9th Century A.D. And these references come from all over! There were bowed string instruments in Mongolia, Persia, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Finland, France, China, and India. But none of these early instruments were really like the violin.

Which instrument provided the direct link to the violin? Good question – and there is not a definite answer. The two most likely answers are the viol (viola de gamba) or the lira de brascia. Neither of these groups of instruments were shaped like a violin, but they were based on some similar ideas. Viola de gambas were played in upright positions, sometimes even between the legs. (“gamba” means “leg). Lira de brascia instruments were held in the arms (“brascia” means “arm”).  For that reason, some think the lira de brascia was the direct link to the violin.

The Big Three of Violin Makers

Enter the Amati family in northern Italy in the 1500’s. Andrea Amati was a luthier. (Originally a luthier was a lute maker, or lute repairman. Today that is the term used for those who make violins.) He was the one responsible for making the first known four-string violin. He was commissioned by a member of the famous (and wealthy) Medici family to build a four-string violin. He must have done a good job because he and his family went on to make a name for themselves building many famous violins.

The Amati family of violin makers were responsible for establishing the basic proportions of the violin – very similar to the instrument you have today. At some point he started using a mold, or a form, for his violins. This allowed him to be even more precise in his measurements. Quality control for his violins. The most famous violin maker in the Amati family was Andrea’s grandson, Nicolo.

The Amati family also taught others to make violins through an apprenticeship program. Two other famous violin makers learned under the teaching of Nicolo Amati – Giuseppe Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari. Ever heard of either of them? I hope so! A few of their violins are still in use today – and they are worth millions! Many violins made since them are patterned after the designs and techniques of either Guarneri, Stradivari, or Amati. The label on the inside of your instrument might have one of their names on it – meaning your instrument was made in the style of one of those former makers.

Changes in Perception

Let’s play a little word association game for a minute. What are the first things that come to your mind when you hear the word “violin?” Instrument? Practice? Expensive concert? Exclusive? Lovely sound? To our minds today, violins are associated with concert halls, high class performances, etc. But it wasn’t always that way. Originally the instrument was associated with the lower classes. It started out as an instrument for professional street musicians. Other performers who used the violin were servants, folk musicians, performers of dance music. Over time the violin became more accepted by the upper classes. By the early 1600s the violin was being used in orchestras. Claudio Monteverdi was one of the first composers to include the violin in his scores.

Changes in Violins

Has your violin teacher ever said anything to you about your posture? Like, maybe, every week? Good thing your teacher didn’t have to deal with early violins and violinists! No good posture solutions existed then! During the time of Bach (Baroque era), chin rests and shoulder rests did not exist. Violinists held the instrument angled toward the floor. That limited the use of the arm holding the violin, so no one could play in any of the upper positions. The bows of the time were shorter and lighter, limiting the sound of the instrument. Early violins produced a sound that was soft, rough, and muddy. Baroque violins did not sound like the violins we are used to hearing today.

Bow Innovations

Innovation to the rescue! How did we get the violins that we hear today? What caused the sound to change, the technique to improve, the comfort level and posture to become bearable? In 1726 Francoise Tourte redesigned the violin bow. He changed the bend of the bow, so it arched backwards. He also standardized the length and weight of the bow. These changes in weight, length, and balance allowed the violin to sound with more power and brilliance, especially in the upper ranges.

Addition of a Chin Rest

Another great improvement came in 1820 when Louis Spohr invented the chin rest. Can you imagine playing your instrument without a chin rest? The addition of a chin rest allowed players much more comfort in holding and playing the instrument. It also allowed for a great advancement of playing technique – the left arm was much freer, so the fingers were freer to move up and down the fingerboard. The sore necks of violinists have been thanking him ever since!

Change the Instrument, Change the Sound

And then there were changes to the instrument itself. In the 1800s the fingerboards were lengthened, which allowed players to use more of the E string. The bridge was raised, and the fingerboard was tilted and raised, giving a greater volume and brightness to the sound of the violin.

While we’re at it, Change the Strings

Even the strings got in on the improvement action. Originally violin strings were made of sheep or lamb gut. As early as the late 1600s, though, violin makers started using G-strings of gut wound with silver or copper. By the late 1800s violinists were experimenting with steel strings. This was especially true with the E-strings. They were the thinnest strings and, therefore, the most easily broken.

The two World Wars had an impact on violin strings. The wars caused great disruption to the animal trade – not so much sheep gut available for strings. Also, the wars brought about advances in the steel industry, so it was easier to produce the thin strings needed for violin. But many players didn’t like the sounds produced by steel strings.

By the middle of the 1900s players were beginning to use, and like, synthetic strings. Dominant strings made by Thomastik were the first big players in the synthetic string market. D’Addario began marketing strings for violins made of the same material as the strings used for tennis rackets. Now, most violinists use synthetic strings.

Does your own violin have its own story?

Do you appreciate your violin more, now that you know a bit more of its story? Aren’t you glad you have the more modern version of the instrument? And the help of a chin rest? Do you know anything more specific about your instrument? Sometimes the label inside the violin will give you some clues. (Look inside one of the f-holes to look for a label.) When one of my daughter’s bought her bow, she was told that it was made from wood that used to be a Brazilian fence post. I’d love to hear anything you know about your instrument! Tell me your stories! (Use the Comments Section.)

To read more about the history of violins and their strings, you might enjoy these sources:

Where did your violin come from?
Where did your violin come from?

Buying a String Instrument

Is buying a string instrument for your child on your to-do-list yet? If your child is playing a violin, viola, cello, or bass, sooner or later you will have to look into buying one of these instruments. Believe me, it can be a daunting task! And I am not just talking about the amount of money you will have to invest! I have gone through this process four times and learned a lot along the way! Let me help you through this!

First, you need to know what size instrument your child needs.

That’s right – string instruments come in different sizes. Most other instruments just come in one standard size, but string instruments come in a variety of sizes. String players need to be able to hold their instruments up. They also need to reach the fingerboard in order to place their fingers correctly. Size is a very important factor in choosing the right instrument. Your child’s teacher or orchestra director will tell you what size instrument to look for.

Very young beginner violinists may start with a 1/32 size violin. As they grow, the students need to get larger violins until they reach the full-sized violin. Most high school students and adults play 4/4 or full-size violins.

Violas are a different story. They do not come in nice, standardized sizes like violins and cellos. Violas are measured in inches, by the length of the body of the instrument. A full-sized viola does not exist. The size of the person determines the size of the instrument. Most adults play 16 – 16.5 inch violas, but a smaller person might only be comfortable with a 15 inch viola.

Cellos are sized like violins – standard sizes starting at 1/16 and going to 4/4, or full-size. Again, the size of the student determines the size of the cello needed. Middle school or high school students generally need to move up to full-sized cellos.

Double Bass or String Bass instruments also come in sizes – from ¼ to full-sized. Again, size needed is determined by the size of the person playing. The student must be able to lift the instrument and reach the fingerboard correctly! Again, ask the instructor for the right size.

String Instruments
String Instruments

To Rent or to Buy? That is the Question!

Many music stores will give you the option of renting an instrument and then just trading it in for the next size you need. Your rental fee might increase slightly as you move up in size. Sometimes if you purchase an instrument the store might buy it back from you and apply the cost towards a larger instrument. Another option is to buy an instrument, then buy the next size when you need it and sell the first instrument. Several possibilities here – choose what will work best for you.

Where to Find your String Instrument?

Again, there are many options available. When your child is just starting out, you can probably do just fine with a rental from the local music store. This won’t be too expensive, the instrument will come with everything you need, life is good. But if your child really loves to play and plans to pursue music more seriously you will need to look at buying a better instrument. Let’s face it – rental instruments from music stores are not high-quality items. A better instrument will give your child a better sound and a much more enjoyable experience.

So, where do you shop for this upgraded instrument? My best recommendation is to first find a reputable string instrument repairman. He may also make violins, etc. Violin makers are called luthiers. They are highly trained, very knowledgeable, and hopefully, honest. But I won’t guarantee that part! I have stories to tell…. Get recommendations from teachers, orchestra directors, other parents. Compile a list of different shops. Plan to visit several! It is a good idea to give call the shop before your visit. Let them know when you plan to come, and what you are looking for, and usually they will have a selection ready for you to try. Let them know what instrument you are looking for, what size you need, a general price range.

A good shop will give you a space to try the instruments. And this is really important! Have your student play the instruments. Be prepared to spend at least an hour – probably more – in just one shop. Every instrument will feel differently, will sound differently, will respond differently. Take notes on what your child likes or doesn’t like about each instrument. After he/she has played on all the instruments, then he can start eliminating the ones he doesn’t like, or like the least. Continue the process at multiple stores until he finds an instrument he loves! If you don’t find something at the first shop, go visit another one and repeat the process.

When your child finally finds the instrument of her dreams (or maybe two or three in close competition) arrange with the shop to borrow the instruments for a few days. Most will let you take one to three instruments for a several days, so your teacher can see and hear the instruments. Let the teacher critique the instruments under consideration. Have your child play the instruments in different settings – at home, in an auditorium or other large space.

It is also possible to buy string instruments from private parties, but you need to do some research to know what to look for. You also need your child to play any of these instruments. Some private sellers even give you the option of taking the instrument for a few days, so the teacher can listen and inspect it. We had that experience once, and it was quite helpful.

Old or New?

Should you buy a brand-new instrument, or an older one? Again, preference plays a role. Generally, a new string instrument requires a lot of playing to “break it in.” Older instruments that have been well-cared for have already gone through that process. They are already “opened up,” their sound is “mature.” Again, the teacher may give some input here. When we purchased a violin from my youngest daughter, her teacher told us not to buy a new instrument, and not to buy one from China. We went to one shop, tried a few violins, but all they had in our price range were new violins from China. We moved on! Others may like the process of “opening up” a new violin and finding its potential.

What about the Label?

Don’t let labels fool you. Most violins have a label in them telling where they were made, when they were made, and possibly the name of the maker. Many of these labels also include something about Stradivari (or maybe Amati or Guarneri). In case you don’t know, these were three of the most famous violin makers, from the late 1600’s. I can guarantee that you will not find one of these listed on eBay, or even in your violin shop. I believe the most recent Stradivarius violin on the market sold for about $15 million. And there are only about 500 of them in existence. If you see his name, or any of the others, listed on the label, it means that the instrument was built in the style of Stradivarius, or patterned after one of his instruments.

Key Things to Look For

You want to look for an instrument that has been well-cared for. You should not be able to see cracks in the instrument. All the seams should be closed. The bridge should be straight. You should be able to see the sound post inside the instrument. The instrument should have real purfling (the decorative black inlaid design close to the edges). Lower quality instruments tend to have that design painted. The better instruments have the top of the instrument made of spruce, the rest of maple. The best wood is mainly European, grown in cold climates, and aged. The luthier we have worked with showed us his collection of wood that he brought back with him from Germany when he was doing his training. Wood grown in colder climates is denser and more resonant.

If you are looking at basses, know that the lower priced and lesser quality basses are made of plywood. Many student and smaller-sized basses use plywood. But as a student progresses, he needs to get a better instrument. The intermediate basses are often a hybrid – a carved top, and laminated sides and backs. Professional models are all carved.

What Else do You Need?

Be sure you have a good case for your instrument! The case needs to protect your investment! If you buy from a violin shop, be sure you ask if the purchase includes a case. It might be a good idea to consult with your child about the case as well as the instrument. While some kids don’t care much about the case, others are very opinionated. We had to recently replace a violin case, and my daughter was adamant about the color inside the case. It had to be the right color green. Often it is helpful if the case has outer pockets for music, pencils, etc.

A Good Case is Important!
A Good Case is Important!

Each of these instruments requires a bow. Be sure your child has one! We will address buying bows in another post. But again, ask your teacher for advice.

Check your homeowner’s or rental insurance policy. Be sure they cover full replacement value of your instrument. When you buy your instrument, the shop should give you a statement of the value of the instrument (or an appraisal) which you can use for insurance purposes. You may have to purchase a special rider for your policy to cover the full value of the instrument. All the insurance company requests is a listing of each instrument, the name, make, model, serial number (if there is one), and a valuation or appraisal. At one point, we had a dozen musical instruments in our home. I made a table of all the information for the insurance company. I think I may have shocked them a bit. Pictures of the instruments are also a good thing to have.

Finally, take your time. Give your child time to try instruments until he finds just the right one! I am sure my son tried at least 30 different cellos, in four different shops, before he found just the right one. And we did the same thing with violins – twice! You can really learn a lot in the process also. And don’t be afraid to go back to the same store a few weeks later and try again. Violin shops are continually getting new instruments – next month they may have just what your child wants.

Here are some websites that have good information for you:

Sizing for String Instruments

Specific to the Violin

More on the Violin

Cellos

Double Basses

Looking for different instruments? Check out our other guides: Brass Instruments   Woodwind Instruments   Pianos

Buying a String Instrument
Buying a String Instrument