How Unique is the Violin?

September 20, 2016 at 04:37 PM · Consider a situation in which two players (of different instruments) decide to debate over which of their instruments is better. One is a violin player and the other is irrelevant. What would be some good things to support the violin?

I have heard that the violin sounds the closest to a voice, but I am not sure if that is true. I know that vibrato is unique on string instruments, but that is about it. So, is there anything that puts classical string instruments apart, or the violin specifically?

Replies (39)

September 20, 2016 at 05:08 PM · The best thing about a violin is that it ISN'T a viola!


September 20, 2016 at 05:29 PM · Range of dynamic expression.

People will tell you, if you suggest it, that the violin can sound like anything.

I have yet to hear of another instrument that can do so. :)

September 20, 2016 at 05:31 PM · High-five, Craig. ;)

Well, we could start with the fact that the violin is a little wooden box merely a few inches in size, but can make extremely complex sounds loud enough to fill up concert halls that seat thousands.

It's also said to be one of mankind's most successful inventions; in its 500 years history, very little has changed about it.

(and I always hear cellists and violinists debate back and forth that their instrument is the one that closer approximates voice - I even heard that from sax players, so the jury is still out in that one. Also vibrato isn't unique to strings)

September 20, 2016 at 05:41 PM · The violin was never invented. There is no patent that I know of.

The challenge is to create wonderful music starting with a box and four strings.

September 20, 2016 at 06:06 PM · I meant that the sound of vibrato on string instruments is unique to the violin/cello/etc. Perhaps that was self-explanatory, but I feel that vibrato sounds the best on string instruments.

September 20, 2016 at 06:08 PM · Bear in mind, I am all for the violin, but couldn't a flute player just tell me that his/her instrument was originally a tube with holes?

September 20, 2016 at 07:02 PM · Every instrument has unique qualities and I don't see the need for competitive comparisons. But among the violin's many interesting aspects is its amazing versatility. I can think of no other instrument that has been so at home in classical, various pop idioms, country, Celtic, Gypsy, jazz, Indian - and the list goes on.

September 20, 2016 at 07:06 PM · How Unique is the Violin?

Depends on who is playing it ...

September 20, 2016 at 07:42 PM · Box with 4 strings?


September 20, 2016 at 07:55 PM · I've always thought the saw sounded pretty close to the human voice.

September 20, 2016 at 08:17 PM · I understand that debates aren't necessary as I am mainly using this information for personal use/knowledge. Though, the issue does arise every now and then, in which such knowledge comes in handy.

September 20, 2016 at 08:27 PM · A dentist drill is a very close approximation of a human mother in law voice...

September 20, 2016 at 08:28 PM · Stringed instruments are NOT unique as far as vibrato is concerned. Prominent counterexamples: Trumpet, sax, flute, guitar, oboe, horn, clavichord, etc.

I think the violin is popular now largely because it has a huge repertoire and because there are more professional opportunities for violinist than there are for oboists or hornists. And those opportunities extend well into other musical genres (i.e, what Raphael said). Those reasons explain also why the piano and the guitar remain popular.

September 20, 2016 at 09:03 PM · Horn players, at least in the U.S., typically do not use vibrato. Some European horn players (Hermann Baumann, Peter Damm), and most other wind players, do use it.

I think it's funny how many instruments claim to be uniquely similar to the human voice.

September 20, 2016 at 11:14 PM · I find it funny too.

"My instrument is so close to human voice"

- So what? XD

- What's that supposed to mean?

Indeed, I can reproduce the sound of a trumpet, a violin or a cymbal with my vocal chords. I can use my nose to try to imitate a oboe or a clarinet sound.

Anyway, about that stick with holes... You can always point out that there are violins that worth millions. Beat that!

September 20, 2016 at 11:26 PM · Since there are no 2 identical pieces of wood, just like no 2 identical fingerprints, every violin is quite unique. Eve "twins", created in parallel by the same maker, are different from day 1. Also, the sound is product of at least 3 factors: violin, bow, violinist. Not sure what comparison are you talking about. I am curious about describing a person "irrelevant".

September 20, 2016 at 11:30 PM · Meg some violinists don't use vibrato either. They feel pretty high and mighty about it too.

September 21, 2016 at 12:04 AM · By irrelevant, I meant that the specific instrument that the other player plays in that scenario doesn't really matter. I was just saying asking about what is unique to the violin; therefore, the other player was just symbolic of everything else. Sorry for the confusion.

September 21, 2016 at 01:53 AM · okay, I have red your 1st post again.... in my opinion, instrument closest to human voice is viola. Comparing different types of instruments (not violins) is like comparing different types of car, or just anything else. It is a matter of personal preference.

At the end of the day, it is only an instrument, a tool, not an end in itself.

If you have ever seen and heard multi-instrumentalists, you know that those people are musicians first, instrumentalists second. In the lack of a "regular" instrument, they would make music using bottles, cans, bones, or whatever could produce sound.

September 21, 2016 at 02:05 AM · As A.O. said, it's the range of dynamic expression which makes the violin the most unique and best instrument. For example, listen to all these sounds:

September 21, 2016 at 02:12 AM · The instrument closest to human voice is the erhu

September 21, 2016 at 02:52 AM · What would be interesting to explore is why exactly the violin has so much solo repertoire compared to many other classical instruments, and is one of the few classical instruments which world renowned soloists consistently play. I feel there could have just have easily been five Mozart oboe concertos, and a Hilary Hahn of the flute, but it didn't/hasn't happen/happened yet. What exactly has been so appealing about it?

September 21, 2016 at 01:40 PM · Perhaps my scenario was misleading for my purposes. Perhaps I would use this information to help people decide if they want to play the violin or what instrument they might want to play. However, with either scenario, I could still probably use the same information, such as that the violin has a large repertoire.

September 21, 2016 at 02:16 PM · The violin seems to have sprung into existence quite suddenly without a usual long and slow period of evolution from its mediaeval predecessors, implying that it must have indeed been invented by one or more persons who came up with the basic design that we all know and love today. Note that he or they may not necessarily have been the luthier who made the first recognisable violin. However, it wasn't patented for the simple reason that the patents-for-inventions system that we have today wasn't around in the days of the first violin, and didn't arrive until centuries later.

Who thought up the design of the violin (which hasn't changed significantly in 5 centuries) isn't known, but one suggestion is that the genius of the time, Leonardo da Vinci, may have had something to do with it. He was in the right place at the right time, knew everybody, everybody knew him, and he was the one person who could be relied upon to come up with innovative ideas when talking to craftsmen, luthiers and the like. But - and this is the hypothesis killer - there's no documentary evidence known to exist for Leonardo's contribution to violin design, not even in his famous notebooks where he jotted down his wonderful ideas.

September 21, 2016 at 02:28 PM · Obviously there was foul play involved!

His notebooks with the violin sketches were never found, because Nicholas Amati had swiped them!

That's right, I just said it...

But, payback is a bitch, and the notebooks were later pilfered by Antonio Stradivarius.

All that aside, the REAL innovation was by Walter J. Finklestein, who is the guy responsible for inventing the soundpost, without which the violin is a pretty pathetic instrument. Actually, the F-holes were named after him F for Finklestein.

And if you have ever tried installing a soundpost yourself, you will soon realize another reason they are called F holes; after the 23rd time trying to get the soundpost in position, and it falls over yet again, you will find yourself shouting at the top of your lungs about "How the F* am I supposed to get this F-ing soundpost throught these F-ing F holes!?"

Believe it or not.

September 21, 2016 at 02:55 PM · Lieschen, I think a bowed instrument just has a broader musical palette than a woodwind like the flute or oboe. Even the guitar has wider variation in timber than the flute. (The guitar, piano, and organ also have the decided advantage of polyphony -- yes you can play double stops on the violin but it's not the same thing at all.) Also the range of the violin (and of the piano/organ) is much wider than either of those two wind instruments. Finally the violin's role in "established" types of all-string ensembles (the chamber orchestra, the string quartet, and the piano trio) makes it more attractive. The latter is perhaps a chicken-and-egg question because it's possible those chamber ensembles were more popular because their constituent instruments were popular first. Another possible reason could be because the violin was favored originally by one or two extremely influential composers, for example Bach and Mozart.

September 21, 2016 at 03:11 PM ·

September 21, 2016 at 03:31 PM · Are graphs like these based on the capabilities on the piano, in which case everything else is "ranked" based on how close they are to the piano?

September 21, 2016 at 04:14 PM · No the graph just shows you the practical ranges of the various instruments. "Practical" is subject to interpretation though. Can a flute be played quietly, for example, in it's highest range?

September 21, 2016 at 04:47 PM · Cellists, always claim it is their instrument that most closely approximates the human voice. You will notice, in the chart, that it is the cello that covers the range of the human voice, which can make it to the "high C" (C6). However, it only takes one cello to do it, while may take (as a minimum) bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices to cover the range as well.

September 21, 2016 at 05:07 PM · I wasn't thinking about the quantitative data, but how close instruments sound to the human voice, perhaps more in tone and quality.

September 21, 2016 at 06:50 PM · Why is the human voice the benchmark of tone quality?

You want that tone, get a singer.

Just my opinion.

September 21, 2016 at 06:58 PM · I don't know, but some may view it as the most primitive instrument. Therefore, by some means, it is the "most pure". Personally, I would rather listen to a violin duet than a opera, but that is just me.

September 21, 2016 at 07:08 PM · Craig,

because the sound is produced by your own body.

Choral music is still the only music allowed in Eastern Christianity - no other instrument is worthy enough during worship.

Luckily, Catholic church and also Lutheran church allowed instrument and made them integral part of the service.

What makes violin a violin is its timbre - just like any other instrument. What matters to me as a listener is emotional content of the music and string instruments have that ability to convey the message.... until the oboe starts gliding above.

September 21, 2016 at 08:13 PM · Why is the human voice the benchmark? Seriously? It's the oldest instrument, the most universal, and the one with the most direct connections to the brain. Singing engages not only pitch, tone, and volume, but language as well. Probably 95+% of all people do some kind of singing.

September 21, 2016 at 08:18 PM · So, for the sake of discussion- if the human voice is so fabulous, why bother with the violin or other instruments at all?

Wouldn't any of them then be a "step down" in quality? Why did they catch on if they were inferior to the benchmark?

And Rocky, yes, I happen to be an Orthodox Christian, so I am quite familiar with the Eastern tradition of Byzantine chanting. My son is quite interested in it himself. Very interesting notation that shows if the tone is going up or down and by how big a step.

September 22, 2016 at 11:42 AM · The reason we have the violin and other instruments in addition to the voice is the same as the reason we don't buy all of our clothes in our favorite color or eat our favorite supper every night. Anyway, even though the voice is wonderful and universal and has many other noble qualities as a musical instrument, it's not everyone's favorite. I don't really like choral music or opera or vocal music in general. My favorite instrument to listen to is the piano.

September 22, 2016 at 01:05 PM · Good analogy!

September 22, 2016 at 04:41 PM · "in my opinion, instrument closest to human voice is viola"

Yes, the viola is closest to those singers whose voice sounds like a viola.

Hmm. I never equated Janet Jackson or Prince with viola.

Maybe Bob Dylan? Oliver Sykes?

Gordon Lightfoot also comes to mind. Not for his voice, though--just the thought of the possibility of thousands of violas going down with the Edmund Fitzgerald.

But I date myself....(yes, I did have to Google "Screamo singer"...)

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