Baroque violin

Also:       violon      Violine      Geige      violino      

Title: Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas and Patitas for Solo Violin; Elizabeth Wallfisch, Baroque violin. Label: Hyperion. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDD22009. Track: II-10.

Contextual Associations

The ‘Baroque’ violin is a bowed box-lute chordophone that originated in northern Italy in the mid-16th century and remained in use throughout Europe and beyond through the end of the 18th century when it evolved into the ‘modern’ violin. The two violins pictured here were built in the late 1990s by the Canadian luthier Dominik Zuchowicz and modeled after extant instruments: the first after a violin made in 1564 by the Italian maker Andrea Amati; the second after one built between 1650 and 1675 by the Austrian maker Jacob Stainer. As was the case with most types of European Renaissance instruments, the violin was one of a family (called a consort) of variously sized instruments of the same design, the other two members being called the viola and the violoncello. During its early history the violin consort had two primary uses: the doubling of vocal parts (which could also be done with other consorts); and the accompanying of dance whether for nobility at court or commoners in the village. Especially in this latter use it was played by professionals and both the performers and the instruments were held in low social esteem. In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries (during the Baroque and Classic eras) composers started writing idiomatic music for the violin both as a solo (accompanied and unaccompanied) and an ensemble (chamber and opera and symphony orchestra) instrument. During this stretch of time, a vast literature of published music for the violin was created that is still available to and performed by present day amateur and professional violinists of ‘classical’ music. The social esteem of the violin and its players increased throughout this period. It was violins such as the ones described here that pre-1800 European missionaries, colonial settlers, sailors and merchants took with them to North, Central and South America and elsewhere in the world as part of the first wave of global distribution of the violin. Starting in the mid-20th century the interest in period-informed music performance--the early music movement--rekindled interest on the part of some professional players in earlier forms of the violin. A few such performers today play on extant instruments or copies thereof, presenting solo recitals, playing in early music ensembles, and recording. Baroque violins are also played today by amateur enthusiasts and college students in early music ensembles.


The resonator of the violin is a curvaceous, somewhat figure-8 shaped wooden box consisting of arched top (‘belly’) and bottom plates glued to a narrow side band (‘ribs’). The ribs are reinforced internally at their four corners (where they come to points) and at their top and bottom with blocks--the top block is used to anchor the neck to the resonator, the bottom one to anchor the end-pin, which has to withstand the full force of the instrument’s string tension. The belly is made of thinly-shaven spruce, the back plate and ribs of maple. Two stylized f-shaped soundholes (‘f-holes’) are cut into the belly. Several coats of varnish are applied to the resonator exterior. The neck (including the pegbox and scroll) is fashioned from a piece of maple the bottom end of which is joined to the top internal block of the resonator. An arched, slightly angled, fretless fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the topside of the neck and extends several inches over, but without touching, the resonator belly. At the top end of the fingerboard is a horizontally positioned ivory nut. The pegbox has four laterally mounted wooden tuning pegs, two per side. The scroll at the top end of the neck is purely ornamental. The four strings are made of gut, however the lowest-pitched one is wound with very fine silver wire that adds to its mass. The bottom end of each string is tied to one end of a wooden tailpiece, which in turn is tied to the end-pin that is anchored into the resonator ribs. The strings then run over and make contact with a high, thin and arched bridge, which is a separate component that stands on the resonator belly and that is held in place by the downward force of the string tension. The strings then ride over the full length of the fingerboard, make contact with the slightly higher nut, and are then wound around the tuning pegs with which their tension can be controlled. Each string has the same active vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 12.5 inches. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of an in-curved wooden bow. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to the resonator through the bridge, an action that is enhanced by a soundpost and a bass-bar inside the resonator (the former is wedged between the two resonator plates below one of the bridge’s feet, the latter is glued to the bottom side of the belly, runs nearly the entire length of the resonator, and passes beneath the other foot of the bridge).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A violinist emulating period practices holds the instrument in one of three basic ways: with the bottom edge of the back plate resting on their left breast; with the same edge resting on their left shoulder; and with the ribs at the bottom end of the resonator touching the player’s neck and the bottom end of the resonator lightly pinched between the left side of their chin and their left shoulder. In all three positions, the thumb of the left hand is hooked around the bottom side of the neck, and the scroll is lower--sometimes a good deal lower--than the bridge. The performer alters the vibrating length of the strings by pressing them against the fretless fingerboard with the fingertips of their left hand. Harmonics can also be produced on the strings by lightly touching them at specific points. The strings are usually tuned to: G3 - D4 - A4 - E5 (interval pattern of P5 - P5 - P5), however some works require the player to tune certain strings to other pitches (such tunings are called scordatura). The practical range of the instrument is G3 to E7, a little under four octaves. The strings are generally set into vibration with a rosined horsehair bow held at its frog end by the performer’s right hand, though they are sometimes plucked with the right hand fingers (called pizzicato) instead. The violin has tremendous expressive potential in that it has a wide dynamic range, all sorts of articulations from voice-like connected phrasing to fast staccato passages are possible, a wide variety of ornamentations can be produced on it, two strings can be sounded simultaneously and arpeggiated chords can be produced by sounding notes on three or four strings in quick succession, and sliding pitch inflections, including vibrato, are easily produced.


Precisely how, when, where, and by whom the early violin came into being from a variety of other Renaissance period bowed lute chordophones is unclear (see Close-ups: Then and Now--The Violin), but, by the mid-16th century, instruments that we would today clearly recognize as violins were being produced in northern Italy. Extant instruments survive starting from as early as the 1560s (see National Music Museum: Violin by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1560; and Violin by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1574). Many ‘Baroque’ violins made from the latter half of the 16th century through the end of the 18th century are still in use, though more likely than not in modified form with re-worked or new necks added in the 19th or 20th centuries. For example, of the two Amati violins in the National Music Museum’s collection mentioned above, the earliest one has been modernized while the later one has not, retaining its original shorter, stockier, relatively straight neck. Subtle changes were being made to the earliest design of the Baroque violin over the course of its 250 years of use that included a lengthening of the fingerboard (18th century), less arching of the resonator’s belly and back plate, and the introduction of wire wound strings (c. 1700). The pace of design modifications increased toward the end of the 18th century, leading to the establishment of the modern violin around the year of 1800 (see violin).

Bibliographic Citations

Boyden, David D. (I-II), Boris Swartz (III). Peter Cooke, Alastair Dick and others (IV). 1984. “Violin,” NGDMI v.3: 765-804.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Douglass, David. 2007. "The Violin," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. 2nd edition, ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 156-169.

National Music Museum. Violin by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1560, accessed June 24, 2014:

National Music Museum. Violin by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1574, accessed June 24, 2014:


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct) and plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)


23.7 in length (first instrument) 8.0 in. greatest width 1.1 in. height of ribs 23.7 in length (second instrument) 8.2 in. greatest width 1.1 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials



Dominik Zuchowicz (violins) H. F. Grabenstein (bows)


after Andrea Amati (first violin) after Jacob Stainer (second violin)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter