Whether performing an elegant solo or being the heart of the orchestra, the violin is a "star" in the music world.

The Origins of the Violin

Instruments like the violin that use a bow to produce a sound are called bowed stringed instruments. The Arabian rabab and the rebec, which came from the orient in the middle ages and was played widely in Spain and France in the fifteenth century, are said to be the ancestors of the violin. Near the end of the middle ages, a bowed stringed instrument called a fiddle appeared in Europe.
In the East, the Chinese erhu and morin khur evolved from the rabab, and so they are relatives of the violin.


Compared to its ancestors, the violin is in a class by itself in terms of completeness. In addition, it was not improved gradually over time, but appeared in its current form suddenly around 1550. Yet, none of these early violins exist today. This history of the violin is inferred from paintings from this era that feature violins.

The two earliest violin makers in recorded history are both from northern Italy: Andre Amati from Cremona and Gasparo di Bertolotti from Salon (Gasparo di Salon). With these two violin makers, the history of the violin emerges from the fog of legend to hard fact. Violins produced by these two still exist today. In fact, the oldest violin in existence today is one built by Andre Amati around 1565.

Though the violin was introduced to the world in the middle of the sixteenth century, there was a similar looking instrument made in about the fourteenth century called the viol.The viol thrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the violin and the viol actually coexisted in the Baroque period.
Instruments in the viol family did not have the f-shaped sound hole of the violin but rather a C-shaped sound hole or even some more decorative shape. The viol differs from the violin in that it has six, seven, or more strings tuned in fourths (compared with the four strings of the violin tuned in fifths), a fretted fingerboard, and a relatively thick body because of the sloping shoulder shape at the joint where the neck meets the body. There are various sizes, but the Viola da Gamba, which has a lower register similar to that of the cello, was particularly famous.

From the middle of the sixteenth century to the first half of the eighteenth century, the small town of Cremona in the Lombardia region of northern Italy was the center of violin production, and about 20,000 famous instruments were made there. Each of the families producing violins developed their own unique production techniques, which were passed on from generation to generation. The most famous of these were the five makers of the Amati family, the three makers of the Stradivari family, and the five makers of the Guarneri family. The violins of Carlo Bergonzi are also famous instruments.
These famous violins from Cremona are still much sought after today and are played by top violinists.

Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu were master violin makers in about the same period in Cremona, Italy. The two are revered as the finest violin makers in history, and their instruments are highly prized even today. However, the tonal qualities of their instruments are quite different.
Antonio Stradivari was born around 1644 and lived to a little past the age of 90, and he is said to have continued making violins until his final days. He created an estimated 1,100 instruments over the course of his life. Of these, roughly 600 violins, violas, cellos, mandolins, and guitars survive today. This is an incredible number of instruments for one person to make. Stradivari's instruments are known for the attention to detail in every aspect and their splendidly lustrous tone.
In contrast, Guarneri del Gesu lived from 1698 to 1744 and led a boisterous life. He drank a lot and is said to have spent some time in jail. It is estimated that he made about 300 violins, of which about 140 survive today. His violins are rough and wild, and have a deep, powerful tone.

The violin was born essentially in its final form. Thus, there have been very few improvements made since.One improvement was made in the nineteenth century as a result of changes in musical fashions.
The fingerboard, for instance, was lengthened to reach the middle of the body. This was done to allow the players to play more of the high end of the E string. To increase the volume and brightness of the tone, the bridge was raised, along with the position of the fingerboard, to increase string tension.Older instruments to which these improvements have been made and new instruments modeled on these instruments are referred to as modern violins, while older violins that have kept their original form are referred to as baroque violins. Today, almost all Stradivari and Guarneri violins have been modified into modern violins.

The Cremona violins are vastly superior in quality, but these famous instruments are extremely expensive, and so very few people can actually play one. However, through advances in technology, we can easily obtain instruments that are very similar to these famous instruments. Yamaha used the latest technology to perform a painstaking analysis of the violins of Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu, and using this data, they have combined technology that reproduces the hand-finished results of the past with an artisans skill to produce high quality, reasonably priced violins. These are the Artida models S and G.
The S model has rigid shoulders, and the f-holes run just about parallel with the line of the body, while the G model has sloping shoulders, and the f-holes are more slanted. Each has its own characteristic tone.

Artida S (left) and G (right)
Artida S (left) and G (right)

Bows in the age of environmental awareness

The preferred material for the stick of the violin bow has been pernambuco wood, which only grows in the Amazon delta region in South America. Originally, it was exported to Germany for use in creating dyes, but because of its unusual hardness, it began to be used to make bows. However, in recent years, this natural resource has began to become depleted. Tree farms were also created, but it takes 30 years for this tree to attain full growth.
The carbon bow shown in the figure below uses carbon instead of wood. Developed to protect the global environment while ensuring that the seeds of music continue to germinate, carbon bows have has good gripping characteristics and are long lasting.

The origin of the viola

A term used to refer to a variety of bow and string instruments
Nobody knows for sure where and when the first viola was created. However, it is known for a fact that the instrument was in use in northern Italy around the same time as its cousin, the violin (i.e. the first half of the 16th century). Although the instrument is called "viola" in both Italian and English, use of the term only became commonplace from the 18th century onwards. Up until then "viola" was used to refer to a variety of bow and string instruments (i.e. stringed instruments played with a bow)-which should be obvious if you consider the example of the instrument called the viola da gamba (which means "viola for the leg"). In French, violas have been called "altos" since the Baroque period, because they are the members of the violin family responsible for playing in the midrange. The German word for viola ("bratsche") is said to come from "viola da braccio" ("viola for the arm"), which is what instruments in the violin family were referred to in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries.

An early viola.
An early viola. Its sloping shoulders show its lineage from the viol.

The history of the viola

How the structure of the viola has changed over the years
Size comparison between a viola and violin
Size comparison between a viola and violin

The four strings on a viola are tuned in fifths to the notes c, g, d', and a'. This tuning is exactly one fifth below the violin, expanding the instrument's low range. Of course, while the instrument itself is larger than a violin, violas are not kept to strict size standards even today. It is said that the ideal size when it comes to acoustics is 1.5 times that of a violin, but that would make the instrument far too large to support with the arm and shoulder. Violas therefore must be made slightly smaller than this ideal size. During the Baroque period, two types of violas were produced at the same time: a slightly smaller instrument capable of clean playing in the alto range, and a slightly larger instrument suited for playing in the tenor range. The larger of these was later modified to make it smaller. Compared with the bright sound of violins, violas produce a refined and more somber timbre. This is likely due to the compromise that had to be struck between acoustics and size.

The structure of the viola has changed over the years in a similar fashion to that of the violin. The body of the instrument was reinforced in order to allow it to play louder music more evenly. The neck was attached at a sharper angle and the bridge was made more durable, allowing for the strings to be strung more tightly and dramatically increasing the instrument's volume. Violas were strung with bare gut strings until the 17th century, but in the 18th century the lowest string (C) was replaced with a reinforced gut string wound with metal. In the 19th century the G string was also replaced with reinforced wound string. Modern violas generally use steel strings wound with metal, making them even louder.

The origin of the cello

The bass viola da braccio
No one knows for sure when exactly the first cello was created. However, based on the instrument's first mention in writing, we know that it was being used at the beginning of the 16th century.
At first it appears that the instrument was called the bass viola da braccio ("viola for the arm"). As the name suggests, this was a viola da braccio (one of the ancestors of the violin) that was capable of playing in a lower register.

Wooden mosaic in the Vatican depicting a bass viola da braccio
Wooden mosaic in the Vatican depicting a bass viola da braccio

The history of the cello

How the structure of the cello has changed over the years
A painting from the first half of the 19th century depicting a cellist playing with the instrument held between his knees
A painting from the first half of the 19th century depicting a cellist playing with the instrument held between his knees

Cellos until the first half of the 17th century did not have a set number of strings, and instruments with anywhere from three to five strings were played in a variety of tunings. However, during the first half of the 17th century, cellos in Italy were generally four-stringed instruments tuned to C-G-d-a, and this gradually spread to other countries as well. From the 18th century onwards fingerboards grew increasingly long, the shapes of bridges and bows were changed, and other detailed modifications were made in order to these instruments louder. By the second half of the 19th century, cellos were generally supported on their end pins (until then they were held between the knees and played, like a viola da gamba). Steel (or nylon) strings became commonly used at the start of the 20th century, replacing the gut strings that were used until then.

The relatives of the cello
At the beginning of the 18th century, cellos came in a variety of shapes. One example that is especially famous even today is the "violoncello piccolo (small cello)." These instruments are slightly smaller than a cello, and there are even some that are strung with five strings in order to expand the upper register. J.S. Bach is well-known for using the violoncello piccolo in his compositions. His "Solo Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major" specifies the use of a five-stringed instrument, and it is likely that he assumed a violoncello piccolo would play this piece. Bach also composed some church cantatas that call for the violoncello piccolo. Some conductors even today employ violoncello piccolos to play these pieces in an attempt to reconstruct the music as it was meant to be heard. One notable example is Anner Bijlsma.

The origin of the contrabass

The contrabass plays a very important role in providing solid lower register support for the stringed instruments occupying the front of the orchestra. However, there is one aspect in which the contrabass differs significantly from the violin, viola, cello, and other stringed instruments. The contrabass was originally a relative of the viola da gamba, a completely different kind of stringed instrument. Instruments in the viola da gamba family were often in use until the second half of the 18th century. They differ from instruments in the violin family in that fingerboards are fretted and their bows are held differently when playing. The "violone," the largest instrument in the viola da gamba family, was responsible for playing in the lower register. It is also the instrument that the contrabass ultimately developed from.

A violone
A violone

The history of the contrabass

The contrabass was originally a member of the viola da gamba family, so the number of strings varied from three to six even after the turn of the 19th century, and there were many varieties of these instruments of roughly the same size as a cello. Modern instruments tend to have four or five strings tuned in fourths. When playing the contrabass, either a French bow or a German bow is used. French bows resemble violin bows and are gripped similarly, while German bows (used in Germany and Austria) developed from viola da gamba bows and are held with an underhanded grip.