Violin, the Instrument
The violin is a hollow box that is composed of over seventy parts. Its design has remained pretty much the same since its first appearance over four hundred years ago. What follows is a most general description of its structure. The body of a violin is composed of a top plate (the “belly”) joined to a back plate by sides called “ribs”. The top plate and the back plate overhang the ribs slightly, creating an edging called the “purfling”, which helps to prevent damage to the violin. The slender neck of the violin projects outward from the top end of the body. The fingerboard, which is unfretted, runs along the neck towards the bridge, which occupies virtually the central position of the top plate. The violin uses four strings. Anchored to the tailpiece, the strings run over the bridge and up the neck, where the strings are fastened to four pegs in the pegbox. A scroll, purely ornamental, adorns the top end of the pegbox. The chin rest for the performer lies to one side of the tailpiece. The top and back plates are “vaulted” (i.e., slightly curved outward), not only to strengthen the violin but also for acoustical purposes. The C-shaped indentations on the sides of the violin are called the “middle bouts” or “C-bouts” and aid the performer’s ease of playing. The two carved-out sound holes (“f-holes”) flanking the bridge have two primary acoustical functions: (1) they reduce the stiffness of the top plate and (2) act as a Helmholtz resonator (which helps to reinforce the sounds generated by the strings). The inside of a violin contains components as well, including a bass bar and a sound post, both of which help to transmit vibrations.
The top plate and bridge are made of softwood, usually European spruce, while the back plate and ribs, as well as the neck, pegbox, and scroll, are made of hardwood, usually maple. The pegs are typically made of rosewood or boxwood, the fingerboard of ebony or rosewood, the chin rest of ebony. The darker lines especially prominent on the back plate and which run from side to side are called the “curls” (evidence of the rings in a tree trunk), the overall appearance of which is called the “figure”. The figure is to be distinguished from the “grain”, which relates to the fibers of the wood which run from top to bottom and are more prominent in the top layer. Ideally, the various woods have to be dried from anywhere from five to ten years if not longer before being used; the wood has to be completely dried so that the violin loses no weight over its lifetime. Varnish is used to preserve the wood. (A good varnish cannot improve the sound of the violin, but a poor varnish can impair sound quality.) The length of the average body of a violin today is about 14 inches (35.5 cm). A violin weighs about sixteen ounces. With proper care and maintenance a violin can conceivably last forever.
The four strings are tuned to G, D, A, and E (intervals of a fifth). The E string is usually all-steel. The G, D, and A strings are traditionally made of strands of sheep gut wound together with strands of metal: steel, silver, or aluminium. There are also all-metal strings, but these are less commonly used by orchestras or soloists, only by fiddle players and violin students. Strings are often now made of synthetic materials that have the warm tone of gut but with greater resilience.
The violin is played with a bow. The bow is an incurved stick made most commonly of pernambuco wood, not stiff but elastic, strung with about 180 strands of white horsehair. The bow is about 29.5 inches in length (about 73-75 centimeters) and about 60 grams in weight (including horsehair). The bow allows the player to make sounds of different durations and varying intensity.
The horsehair on the bow is rubbed with rosin (made generally of spruce resin, paraffin oil, beeswax, and mineral oils) before the violin is played in order to give the bow a firmer hold on the strings. “Its quality is important,” write one violin scholar, “for the string’s vibration depends on it rather than on the bow hair’s small barbs.”
When the bow is drawn (properly, orthogonally) over the strings, a complex physics process occurs: the strings are set in motion (i.e., they vibrate) and sounds are generated by the vibrations which are amplified and transmitted to the outer air by the body of the violin. The entire body of the violin vibrates along with the strings. The soundholes add richness and resonance to the sounds. By pressing down on a string or strings at different points successively with the fingertip(s) of the left hand, different tones are produced. The general movement of the fingers of the left hand is called “fingering” and the pressing down on a string is called “stopping”. “Multiple stops”, such as double stops, triple stops, and quadruple stops, refers to the pressing down on two or more different strings at the same time and drawing the bow across these same strings simultaneously, creating a chord. “Vibrato” is created by rocking the finger stopping the string to make the sound vibrate.
Different types of bowing produce a variety of sound effects; and there are a surprising number of bow strokes. The most common include legato, détaché, martelé, staccato, and tremolo. Using the bow near the bridge generates a louder tone (sul ponticello), while playing farther away, closer to the fingerboard, generates quieter tones (sulla tastiera). The bow can also be bounced on or along the strings, which is called spiccato. Less commonly, the wood part of the bow can be used to knock the strings, which is known as col legno. Sounds can also be generated by plucking the strings with one’s finger(s); this is called pizzicato.
The tone and cantabile (“singing”) qualities of the violin have led musicians and scholars to liken the instrument to the human voice. For example, the 1st position of the D, A, and E strings, a range of just under two octaves, corresponds to the range of the human soprano voice. Played with a strong attack, the violin at its highest registers can approximate a human shriek (e.g., Bernard Herrmann’s film music for the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).
Playing the violin
The violinist handles the violin by the neck in the left hand and holds the bow in the right hand. The violin rests on the left shoulder, the violinist’s chin rests on the chin rest, and the right elbow is held away from the body. Playing a musical piece on the violin requires moving the left hand up and down the fingerboard. Shifting the wrist up the fingerboard from 1st position to 2nd position and so on allows for the creation of a higher set of tones (and vice versa for lower tones). Moving from position to position is called a “shift”. Generally, the shift is meant to be inaudible. A smooth, rapid, audible shift is called portamento, or glissando.