The violin, which is probably the best known orchestral instrument, is a stringed instrument that is played with a bow. The violin is the highest pitched member of the violin family, which also includes the viola, the cello, and the double bass. The violin consists of several main parts: the front, the ribs, the neck, the fingerboard, the pegbox, the scroll, the bridge, the tailpiece, and the f-holes. The front, also known as the top, belly, or soundboard is usually made of well-seasoned spruce, while the back is made of well-seasoned maple.
When a violin is made, the front, back, and ribs are joined together to create a hollow sound box. The four strings of the violin are fastened to the tailpiece, rest on the bridge of the violin, are suspended over the fingerboard, and run to the pegbox. At the pegbox, they are attached to tuning pegs which can be turned to alter the pitch of the string. By changing the position of his or her fingers on the fingerboard, different pitches are made. Then the player draws a bow across the strings at a right angle to produce a tone. The bow that is used is a narrow, slightly curved stick that is made of Pernambuco. It is about 75 cm. long and has a band of horse hair strung from one end to the other.
Among the most useful characterstics of the violin is its musical tone and its ability to play very rapid, brilliant figurations as well as lyrical melodies. Violinists also create special sounds by using the following techniques: pizzicato, (plucking the strings rather than playing with a bow), tremelo, (moving the bow rapidly back and forth on a string), sul ponticello, (playing with the bow extremely close to the bridge to produce a thin, glassy sound), col legno, (playing with the wooden part of the bow as opposed to the hair), and glissando, (steadily gliding the left fingers up and down the strings to produce a sliding pitch).
The beginnings of the violin can be traced to Italy in the early 1500s. It seems to have evolved from two other stringed instruments, the fiddle and the lira da braccio (a Renassaince instrument). The craft of violin making began during the 17th and 18th centuries in the workshops of such artists as Antonio Stradivari, Guiseppe Guarneri, and Jacob Stainer. The violins that were made at this time had a shorter neck, a shorter fingerboard, and a flatter bridge than the violins of today.
When the violin was first used in classical pieces, it was considered to be an instrument of low social status. However, through pieces such as Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, and through groups such as the 24 violons du roi (King Louis XIII's band of musicians), the violin began to gain greater stature in the world of music. This climb continued into the Baroque period when many notable composers, including Antionio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Georg Philipp Telemann, featured the violin in their works. The violin became the driving force in new instrumental genres which included the solo concerto, sonata, and suite. During this period violins, emerged as the leading section in an orchestra. However, it wasn't until the 19th century that violin virtuosos emerged. People such as Giovanni Viotti, Isaac Stern, Mischa Elman, and Nathan Milstein became world famous for their skill.
The viola is the second highest pitched member of the violin family. It has four strings tuned to the notes c, g, d, and a. Music for the viola is written in the alto clef. Violas vary in size, although they are always larger and tuned lower than violins. Haydn and Mozart used the viola in their works. The viola plays an important part in the symphony, although its solo repertory is limited. Other composers such as Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann also used the viola extensively in their works.
The cello, also known as violoncello, is a stringed instrument which is part of the violin family. It is played with a bow much like the violin. It is also shaped liked a violin but is much larger. The cello is about four feet long and one and a half feet across at its widest part and, therefore, this member of the violin family is played sitting down. Supported by an end pin which is placed on the floor, the cello is then placed between the knees of the musician and played with a large bow. The cello, like a violin, also has four strings and notes are changed on the instrument when the musician changes his or her fingerings on the neck of the instrument. The cello's range can, therefore, extend over more than four octaves.
The earliest surviving cellos date back to the 1560s and were made by the Italian violinmaker Andrea Amati. Until the late 18th century, cellos were not featured instruments, but played the bass line in an orchestra to add fullness to the piece of music. However, during the Baroque era, composers like Antonio Vivaldi and Luigi Boccherini composed unaccompanied cello suites. By the 19th century other pieces for the cello included concertos that were written by Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak. Composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich further explored and expanded the cello's capabilities as a solo instrument during the 20th century.
The double bass (also known as the string bass, bass viol, or contrabass) is the largest and lowest pitched string instrument of the violin family. It is usually six feet high and has four strings. Some basses have an optional mechanism that allows the player to lengthen one string, therefby lowering the pitch. To create sound, the player's left hand sets the pitch on the neck of the bass while the right hand either plucks the strings or uses a bow across them.
Three strings basses were common during the 18th and 19th centuries and survive today in Eastern European folk music. Until the 19th century, the only means of playing the bass was by a bow that was curved out. Later, musicians began to use the technique of plucking the strings or using bows that were similar to violin bows which were curved inwards. Basses have come to be used in orchestras and some chamber music groups. It is one of the most important rythm instruments in jazz and popular music today.
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