Among musicians there used to be a joke that asked, what’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? The answer was, about ten thousand dollars.

What made this funny is that a violin and a fiddle are the same instrument. A high-quality violin sold in a shop that catered to classical players tended to sell for far more than the same instrument sold in, say, a guitar shop.

Even though a violin and a fiddle are the same thing, their sound differs from instrument to instrument.

A violin that appeals to a classical musician might have a sound that is less appealing to a bluegrass musician. And vice versa.

A classical soloist wants an instrument with a sweet, bright upper register that, unamplified, can soar above an orchestra and project to the far reaches of a large concert hall.

A fiddle player wants an instrument that adds warmth and heartiness to fiddle tunes. They’ll be surrounded by far fewer musicians than in an orchestra and will probably be amplified — either with a microphone in the violin itself or positioned nearby — so the ability to project is less of a  concern.

There are four things that influence the sound of a violin: its design, the quality of its wood, the ability of the violin maker, and the varnish that’s applied to it.

Design. A violin shape is a violin shape is a violin shape, right? Wrong. There are many variables to the basic violin design, including thickness and proportions of the upper body, waist, and lower body. Design can enhance or ruin the sound. And because of the other three factors,  simply copying the best designs doesn’t necessarily lead to success.

Wood. Ebony and rosewood are often used in parts of a violin, but the back and front are usually made of maple and spruce. These must be of high quality and air-dried to an optimal moisture content. Despite quality control, wood will be wood. Selections that should enhance, may detract from the sound. Or give it qualities that a classical player or a fiddle player may prefer.

Skill. The best materials in skilled hands have a better chance of turning into a decent instrument. The higher the skill, the better the chances. The skill level in a shop is usually higher than in a factory.

Varnish. Not only does varnish protect a violin from moisture and other damage, it greatly effects the instrument’s sound. Varnish sinks into the wood and changes how vibrations travel through it. A raw-wood violin will sound thin. Screechy, even. With varnish, the vibrations travel more evenly and create a richer, more violin-like (or perhaps, fiddle-like) sound.

Excellent design, top-quality wood, and a highly skilled maker can all be undone by poor varnish or varnish badly applied.

The old joke about the difference between a violin and a fiddle is a thing of the past. Today, a quality instrument is being recognized as a quality instrument, regardless of who’s going to play it.

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