violin, family of stringed musical instruments having wooden bodies whose backs and fronts are slightly convex, the fronts pierced by two ƒ-shaped resonance holes. The instruments of the violin family have been the dominant bowed instruments because of their versatility, brilliance, and balance of tone, and their wide dynamic range. A variety of sounds may be produced, e.g., by different types of bowing or by plucking the string (see pizzicato). The violin has always been the most important member of the family, from the beginning being the principal orchestral instrument and holding an equivalent position in chamber music and as a solo instrument. The technique of the violin was developed much earlier than that of the viola or cello. The double bass is not a violin but a viol.
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 viola is about one seventh larger than the violin and tuned a fifth lower. It is the only original member of the violin family to exist continuously in the same size. Its tone is deeper and less brilliant than that of the violin. In the 17th and early 18th cent. it was used mainly as an accompanying instrument in the orchestra, but the classical period made it much more independent. It is used mainly in the orchestra and chamber music, but recently has become increasingly popular as a solo instrument.
Cello or Violoncello
The cello, originally called the violoncello, is about twice as large as the violin and has four strings tuned an octave lower than those of the viola. As the bass viola da bracchio it was originally tuned a tone lower than it now is, but the present tuning had become standard by 1700. Because of its size, it is played between the knees like members of the viol family. The bass viol was favored for solo playing in the 17th and early 18th cent., and the cello became an important solo instrument only after the disappearance of the viols and the subsequent refinement of cello technique by Jean Louis Duport (1749–1819). The cello was, from its beginning, an important member of the orchestra and is also indispensable in chamber music. It now has an extensive solo literature of its own.