On a site called Learn to Play the Fiddle, the question ‘What is a fiddle?’ may seem a little odd! But it is important to know something about the history of the fiddle, how it is different from a violin, and how it ended up with such an important role in Irish music.
Fiddle vs Violin
The first thing to say, is that, today, the fiddle and the violin are exactly the same instrument. (Though, see below for a little more history of the two.) Two different words for the same physical thing. The violin or fiddle is a (normally) four stringed instrument played with a bow, or sometimes plucked.
What is different about the fiddle and the violin, are the styles in which they are normally played.
When people use the word violin they are normally referring to playing classical music. But when people talk about playing the fiddle, they might 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. But they also have shared ancestries, and even shared tunes, although often played in slightly different ways.
But fundamentally, if we are talking about the instrument itself, the fiddle and the violin are the same thing.
History of the fiddle
Since they are the same instrument, the history of the modern day fiddle is shared with that of the violin.
But stringed instruments have existed for thousands of years, and the modern violin as we know it today has its roots in those ancient stringed instruments. Bowed stringed date back at least as far as the 9th Century.
The earliest example of a medieval bow in Europe, and therefore the earliest evidence of bowed instruments, was excavated in Dublin. It is dated to the 11th Century. A twelfth-century carving of a bowed six string lyre has been found in Co. Kerry. And references to the ‘fiddle’ have been found in accounts from the 7th century.
By 1674 an account mentions ‘in every field a fiddle, and the lasses footing it til they were all of a foam’. (See Fintan Valelly, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music).
The violin in its moden sense, however, begins to take shape in the 16th Century in Italy. We could date the birth of the modern violin to the publication of the Académie musicale, in 1556, by Philibert Jambe de Fer, which gives a description of the violin family much as a modern violin is today.
The modern violin was probably introduced into Ireland by Scottish and English settlers. But its playing in Ireland was undoubtedly influenced by those earlier fiddles, as well as the Irish harp, bagpipes and vocal music traditions.
A traditional style
The style of playing fiddle in the traditional way differ depending on the country, region and tradition. But some commonalities remain.
The fiddle style of, say, bluegrass, old time, cajun playing are noticeably different from those of say, Sweden, or Ireland, or Shetland.
However, we can see some similarities. The fiddle was predominantly played for dancing in most cultures. So the tunes and the manner of playing are often distinctly rhythmic.
Likewise, since the tunes were almost always passed from player to player (oral transmission) the tunes themselves often have clear structures. Short repeated parts are common, and the tunes themselves are also often short, and repeated two or more times.
While the tunes are often simple, they are made more varied with the use of fingered ornamentation, or ornamenation with the bow, chords or drones, improvisation and variation. These things are to be found in many fiddle traditions.
But ornamentation such as rolls and cuts are commonplace, as is an emphasis on ‘lilt’ – a combination of rhythmic bowing and slightly swung phrasing, with slurs often used into or across the beat.