This is a really good question. Violinists get asked it a lot. The answer is really quite fun. Here’s a violin:
Here’s a fiddle:
How can one instrument be two things? It’s kinda’ like a ballerina who dances swing on the weekends. The word “violin” can be associated with a variety of styles such as the romantic violin concertos, symphonies, operas, and string quartets of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the art music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Terms such as violin, violon, and violetta can be found as long ago as 1530 in Italy and France. It is unclear at what point these terms were used to describe the true violin as we know it, but iconography shows that the violin did exist in Northern Italy as early as 1530 (David D. Boyden, “The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761”,Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 8). What is really funny thing about this topic is the fact that today the word “violin”, as opposed to the fiddle, is often associated with a sort of eliteness, sophistication, and even pride. But in the early days of the instrument, it was not seen that way at all. Here is a quote by Philibert Jambe de Fer from his Epitome musical, Lyon, of 1556:
“We call viols those with which gentlemen, merchants, and other virtuous people pass their time…The other type is called violin; it is commonly used for dancing…I have not illustrated the said violin because you can think of it as resembling the viol, added to which there are few persons who use it save those who make a living from it through their labour.” (Boyden, 4).
The violin is a beautiful instrument because for centuries it has been used by people from around the world to express the unique musical language of their own cultures. It is a very sincere instrument, much like the human voice. For this reason, the violin can be found in concert halls as well as in pubs. The lines between “folk” and “art” music are extremely vague at times because they really express the same thing: the human experience. But you can take extreme examples, say an Italian opera aria and an Irish hornpipe, and see that they have some striking differences. The former would be associated with the term “violin” and the later with “fiddle”. Today the word “fiddle” is used for traditional Irish music, blue grass, and country music. The word “violin” applies to many different styles including classical, jazz, movie music, rock and pop. Same instrument, different styles of music.
Here’s a fun comparison of the violin and fiddle. Every professional violinist has probably played Pachelbel’s Canon at least one hundred times. Here’s a beautiful rendition of it done by a good violinist friend of mine and the Pasadena Strings:
Here’s the same piece played in the Irish fiddle style: