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Cheat Sheet

Violin For Dummies

From Violin For Dummies, 2nd Edition by Katharine Rapoport

With all of its different parts and its beautiful, delicate-looking body, the violin can feel a bit intimidating at first. This Cheat Sheet helps you get to know your instrument by introducing the most important parts of your violin, provides some easy steps to keep it in tip-top condition, and takes you through the process of taking the violin out of its case for the very first time.

Examining the Parts of Your Violin

More than 70 parts go into making a complete violin. This hourglass-shaped string instrument consists of several basic parts, including the 21 important elements explained here.

  • Back: One of the most important parts of the violin, for both aesthetic and acoustic properties. The back of the violin can be made of one or two pieces, and it’s arched for strength and tone power.

  • Bass bar: A slim strip of wood glued under the table of the violin on the side of, and running more or less parallel to, the lower strings. The bass bar reinforces the strength of the violin’s top and enriches the tone of the lower notes.

  • Body: The sounding box of the violin has evolved to produce the best sound and use the most convenient playing shape. The “waist” of the violin is actually a necessary indentation, so that the bow can move freely across the strings without bumping into the body.

  • Bridge: The only piece of unvarnished wood on the violin, it sits on top, about halfway down the body, placed exactly between the little crossbars of the violin’s f-holes. The strings run over the top of the bridge, which transfers their vibrations to the main body of the violin for amplification. The bridge is slightly rounded to match the shape of the fingerboard and to enable the player to bow on one string at a time.

  • Chinrest: The spot on which your jaw rests when you’re playing (come to think of it, it should be called a “jaw rest”). Chinrests are usually made of ebony that has been carved into a cupped shape to fit the left side of your jaw. Your chinrest is attached just to the left of the tailpiece by a special metal bracket. You can choose from a variety of models to fit your chin shape and neck length most comfortably.

  • End button: A small circular knob made of ebony, to which the tailpiece is attached by a loop.

  • F-holes: The openings on either side of the bridge. They’re called f-holes because they’re shaped like the italic letter f.

  • Fine tuners: Small metal screws fitted into the tailpiece and used for minor tuning adjustments.

  • Fingerboard: A slightly curved, smooth piece of ebony that’s glued on top of the neck of the violin, under most of the length of the strings.

  • Neck: The long piece of wood to which the fingerboard is glued. The neck connects the body of the violin to the pegbox and scroll.

  • Nut: A raised ridge at the pegbox end of the fingerboard that stops the strings from vibrating beyond that point.

  • Pegbox: The rectangular part of the scroll immediately adjoining the nut end of the fingerboard, before all the fancy carving begins, where each of the four pegs fits snugly sideways into its individual hole.

  • Pegs: Four pieces of wood, usually ebony, shaped for ease of turning and fitted into round holes in the pegbox. The player turns the peg to tighten or loosen each string when tuning the violin.

  • Purfling: An inlay running around the edge of the top and back of the violin’s body. The purfling is both decorative and functional because it protects the main body of the violin from cracks that can occur through accidental bumps. Of all the parts of the violin, “purfling” is the most fun to say.

  • Ribs: The sides of the violin. The luthier (a fancy word for violin maker) bends the wood, curving it to fit the outline of the top and back of each instrument.

  • Saddle: An ebony ridge over which the tailpiece loop passes. The saddle protects the body of the violin from becoming damaged and prevents rattling sounds, which would occur if the tailpiece was to contact the top of the violin when it’s vibrating with sound.

  • Scroll: Named after the rolled-up paper scrolls that were sent instead of envelopes in the old days, the scroll forms the very end of the pegbox. Carving a scroll requires artistic vision and great expertise, so creative violin makers see the scroll as an opportunity to display their best work. Occasionally, you meet a violin with a lion’s head scroll, or some other fanciful shape, the result of a maker’s whimsy.

  • Sound post: Enhances the volume and tone of the violin by transferring the sound vibrations to the back of the instrument after the bow makes a string sound near the bridge. If you peek into the f-hole near the E string (your thinnest string), you see a small round column of unvarnished wood, about the circumference of a pencil, which fits vertically from the top to the back of the violin.

  • Strings: The four metal-wrapped wires (often made with silver or aluminum ribbon spiraling smoothly around a gut or synthetic core material) that you bow on (or pluck) to produce the notes of the violin.

  • Tailpiece: A flared-shaped piece of wood into which the top end of each string is attached. The tailpiece itself is attached to the end button by a gut or synthetic loop.

  • Top (or Table): The “face” of the violin. The top is very important to the character and quality of the violin’s sound as well as to its general appearance.

Protecting Your Violin from Damage

Violins are made of natural materials that are sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. Follow these tips to help your violin have a long and happy life:

  • Keep your violin at about room temperature.

  • Store the case away from high-traffic areas so that it doesn’t get knocked around.

  • Always close and latch the case when you finish playing, to protect your violin from falls.

  • Keep your violin away from radiators, air ducts, and direct sunlight, and avoid leaving it for long stays (or almost any stays!) in car trunks, especially in very hot or very cold weather.

  • Most important of all, keep your violin in a humidity of 40 to 60 percent whenever possible, and if you’re traveling to a different climate, take care to preserve the humidity in the violin’s case at a similar level.

How to Take Your Violin Out of Its Case

Taking the violin out of its case (and putting it away again safely) is a skill; mastering the art ensures that your instrument will have a long and happy life. To open the case, follow these steps:

  1. Place the violin case on a stable, flat surface, such as a table or a sofa, with the lid facing the ceiling, and then turn the latch-and-handle side to face you.

    You may have to unzip the case’s cover first, which usually has two zips that pull away to either side of the case’s handle. Pull the zippers all the way around to the back of the case so that the lid is able to open fully.

  2. Open the latches first, then release the lock and lift the lid.

    Because the cases are very snugly built, the top can be a bit sticky to lift, in which case (no pun intended!), you hold firmly on the handle while you lift the lid.

  3. After you open the case, lift off the covering blanket (if you have one) and undo the strap or the ribbon that safely holds your violin around its neck in the case, before you lift out the violin.

  4. Hold the violin around its neck to lift it from the case — don’t grab the body, because that’s not good for the varnish.

    It’s a good idea to place the velvet cloth that covers the violin onto the table and next to the case; this way, you can place the instrument on the cloth.

  5. Release the bow from the case by turning the toggle from a vertical to a horizontal position, taking the bow by the frog end (the name for the piece of ebony wood below the stick at the right end of the bow) with your right hand, and then sliding it gently to the right until the tip (the pointy end) of the bow is out of its loophole.

    Never twist the stick while doing this — bows are strong, but they can’t always resist sideways twists.

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