The smallest of this group of instruments is also called violin, and its four strings, tuned in fifths, run from the tailpiece at the base of the body over a bridge in the lower center, along the fingerboard, and into the pegbox. The violin is played by drawing a horsehair bow, held in the right hand, across the strings; the body is supported by the shoulder and held firm by the chin. The fingers of the left hand are used to stop the strings against the fingerboard, thus changing the pitch by shortening the vibrating length of the strings. Within certain limitations more than one note can be played at once, and the instrument is capable of producing harmonic effects and, with a mute clamped to the bridge, hushed, ethereal tones. It is the most agile of the family, and it has the greatest variety of tone color.
The instrument first appeared about 1510 as the viola da bracchio (arm viol) and soon spread through Europe. During the 16th cent. three sizes were known, a soprano (corresponding to the modern viola), a tenor (a fifth lower), and a bass (a tone lower than the present cello). The present-day violin appeared only near the end of the 16th cent. The earliest-known makers of the new instrument worked in Lombardy in the mid-16th cent. They were followed by Andrea Amati, founder of the Cremona school of violinmaking made famous by the Guarneri family and by Antonio Stradivari. In Stradivari's work the peak of violinmaking seems to have been reached barely a century after the emergence of the instrument itself.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.