The Role of the Violin in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

From the very beginning of classical music, the violin has played an extremely prominent role in all orchestral music. In fact, the violin section plays much of the melody in every piece of classical orchestra music you’re likely to hear.

Whereas a piano has 88 sets of strings, a violin has only 4. These strings stretch all the way down the length of the instrument, fastened on top by the pegs and on the bottom by the tailpiece. From the pegs at the top, the strings make a long journey over a small piece of wood (called the nut), down the fingerboard, and over a bridge-like piece of wood (called, logically, the bridge), to Grandmother’s house (the tailpiece).

A violin with a bow.

Originally, these strings were made of catgut — just as the strings of tennis rackets sometimes are. The reason is that catgut, stretchable to different lengths, makes a wonderful, pleasing sound.

Nowadays, very few players use catgut. Metal strings are standard on violins today.

Drawing the bow

In addition to strings, every violin has another piece of essential equipment: the bow. The violinist draws the bow across the strings of the instrument to produce musical tones. The reason for the name bow is historical — it used to be more curved, somewhat like an archery bow.

Between the ends of the wooden bow is stretched a bunch of horse’s hair. Horse’s hair can draw a beautiful sound out of a piece of catgut.

To give their violin bows better traction on the strings, violinists regularly wipe rosin over the hair on their bows. Rosin is a chalky powder that comes in the form of an amber-colored, often circular block, about the size of a silver dollar. It greatly enhances the sound that a violin can produce; no violinist would be caught without rosin.

Producing a superior violin takes an almost magical, alchemical combination of materials, workmanship, varnish, baking, aging, and luck. Accordingly, good violins are staggeringly expensive: Many a musician must make the choice between buying a violin and buying a house.

Playing the violin

You’re standing onstage, in a packed concert hall all tuned up and ready to play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, with the great Vladimir Horowitz as piano accompanist, a fact that is doubly amazing because (1) you’ve never had a single violin lesson, and (2) Vladimir Horowitz is dead. Many a nightmare has begun this way.

At this moment, the question in your head is probably this: How do you play this thing?

To understand how string playing works, try a little experiment. Go get a long rubber band.

Sit on the floor, place your feet about 18 inches apart, and stretch the band tightly between your big toes. Now reach over and twang it. See what kind of pitch it makes.

Next, grasp the rubber band firmly in the middle, exactly half the distance between one big toe and the other. With your other hand, twang it again. Notice that you’re really twanging either one half of the elastic or the other. Now the band makes the same note — but it’s higher somehow, right? In fact, the note you played was an octave higher than the original pitch.

If you pinch your rubber band so that only half of it vibrates, the sound produced is exactly one octave higher than the original sound.

When you tuned up a moment ago, you were tuning the open strings — defining the notes they make when you draw the bow across them.

Suppose you just drew the bow across the open A string, creating, of course, a perfect A. Now suppose you want to play the note A one octave higher than the original A. As in the rubber-band experiment, you simply put your finger firmly over the string exactly halfway from one end to the other. This placement effectively cuts the string length in half. Only the part between your finger and the bridge vibrates as you draw your bow across the string. Voilà! One octave higher.

Now, say you don’t want to go up quite so high. In that case, you shouldn’t shorten the string so much. Instead, place your finger a bit closer to the peg and farther from the bridge, such that when you draw the bow, two-thirds of the string can vibrate. This placement creates a different note — in this case, a perfect E.

All the notes on the violin are produced this way. You effectively shorten the string with your left hand’s fingers, making the notes higher. Your right hand holds the bow. Through years of practice, violinists learn exactly where to put each left-hand finger to get each note.

Hearing the violin

If you’ve found a new reason for living in the sound of the violin, here is a sampling of the greatest concertos:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D minor

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major

  • Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major

  • Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor

  • Peter Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major

Many composers of old used the key of D for their violin concertos. This key opens up extraordinary possibilities for the instrument, which has, among other things, a very prominent D string. Sure, some composers wrote concertos in keys other than D; very often, these other keys also correspond to the other strings of the violin (G, A, and E). Check out the following pieces, for example:

  • Max Bruch: Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor

  • Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major

And now, a couple of beautiful sonatas for violin and piano:

  • Beethoven: Violin and Piano Sonata no. 9 in A major, opus 47 (Kreutzer)

  • Brahms: Sonata no. 1 in G major, opus 78