The violin family
The violin is the smallest member of the violin family, which also includes the viola and cello. All violin family instruments typically have four strings. Although bowed string instruments have a long history dating back to their introduction from the Middle East in the Medieval period, the violin in its basic modern standard form can be traced back to Italy in the second half of the 16th century. Primarily used as a dance band or consort instrument in the Renaissance, the violin quickly came into its own during the Baroque period as a fundamental section of the ensemble, as well as a virtuoso solo instrument.
Most early violins have been altered in the 19th century to conform to the modern pattern. The purpose of these modifications was to increase the dynamic range and the compass of the instrument. The differences between the modern violin of the 19th and 20th centuries and the baroque violins of the 18th century or earlier are a lengthened and more tilted neck, raised bridge, longer fingerboard, high-tension metal strings replacing low-tension gut strings, and the use of a chin rest. With these changes the violin could now compete in volume with size of increasing concert spaces – from chamber room to concert hall. Instruments of the violin family, especially the violin, have been adopted into numerous cultures across the world, playing regional and traditional music.
Video: Christopher Field plays and discusses a violin in unaltered Baroque form, English or Scottish, c. 1720 (1772).
Video: Lucy Cowan plays ‘The Lark’, a slow air on a violin formerly belowing to James Hogg (‘The Ettrick Shepherd’).
Unlike the violin, which is typically made in one adult size, the viola is made in a range of sizes to suit the size of the player.
It did not receive a great deal of sympathetic attention during the baroque period: its dark and sonorous tones were better exploited in romantic and later modern music.
Video: Michael Beeston plays and discusses the viola above, by Duke, 1779.
The violoncello (or cello for short) is regarded as the bass of the violin family: it is tuned in fifths like the violin and the viola. The cello has a fuller and heavier tone than the viola da gamba of similar size. During the 17th century it became increasingly popular as an accompanying instrument and later developed through its use in the orchestra and the string quartet. The endpin, a small metal rod used to hold up the cello for the player, was not used on the cello until the 19th century; before that point it was held in place between the legs with the knees and legs, ‘a gamba’ like the viol.
Video: Brenda Scott plays a cello by Dewar, probably Scotland, late 18th or early 19th century (1604).
The double bass is tuned in fourths, and shares some features of construction with the viol family. Most double basses have four strings, though three-string basses were common in the 19th century, and five-string basses are now used by some players.