What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin? People often find this confusing – so, what is the difference?

The short answer is, there isn’t really any difference. At least, not if we are talking about the musical instrument itself. A fiddle is just another name for a violin.

When people use the word violin they are commonly referring to playing classical music. But when people talk about playing the fiddle, they normally mean playing traditional or folk music. That could be in the Irish, Scottish, English, old time, bluegrass, Cape Breton, Scandinavian or other styles. These traditions of music are distinct from each other, and an experienced fiddle player can immediately tell the difference between the styles of playing. But they also have shared ancestries, and even shared tunes, although often played in slightly different ways.

Different fiddle playing styles

Because of the shared ancestry and the sharing of tunes, these styles of traditional fiddle playing also have features in common. They are strongly associated with playing for dancing, for example. For that reason the tunes, and the style of playing, have a pronounced rhythm and beat. Mastering the subtleties of the different rhythms used in traditional fiddle tunes – jigs, reels, slipjigs, polkas, slides, strathspeys, hornpipes, marches, highlands, and others – is a fundamental part of learning to play the fiddle.

Fiddle playing in traditional music is also often characterised by the use of ‘ornaments’. This is especially the case in the Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian styles. These are extra notes or flourishes that are added to the main tune. They are critical to getting a tune to sound so distinctively ‘Irish’ or ‘Scottish’.

The violin and the fiddle are the same instrument, the basics of learning to play are the same. Holding the instrument, creating a nice tone, playing in tune, and bowing techniques – these are important whether you want to play classical violin or traditional fiddle tunes. But if you want to learn to play the fiddle in a traditional style, you will need to learn some other techniques too. The techniques that are central to those musical traditions.

So, there isn’t really a difference between a fiddle and violin. But there can be a big difference between playing the fiddle and playing the violin.