Why is the violin played resting on the shoulder?

July 19, 2017, 11:16 PM · After looking at a list of bowed string instruments on Wikipedia, it seems to me that relatively few instruments are played on the shoulder like a violin or viola. More bowed instruments are played in an upright stance with the front of the instrument facing away from the player, such as the cello, viola da gamba, and a variety of Asian and Middle Eastern instruments. Even small instruments can be played upright, such as the treble viol, so it's not like the size of a violin makes an upright stance impractical. Why are the violin and viola played resting between the shoulder and the head? Is there a technical advantage to this position?

Replies (27)

July 19, 2017, 11:30 PM · The gravitation force is not pulling the bow away from its contact point but helping you getting that string in motion.
This is an huge advantage over those Asian upright fiddles, that often kind of jam the bowhair into the strings to get this disadvantage out of the way.
July 20, 2017, 12:37 AM · Also being able to stand and move around. You see cellos with super long endpins that allow standing, but it's not very efficient. With a smaller instrument it'd be even worse.
July 20, 2017, 3:09 AM · When respectable folk kept a "chest of viols" for ad hoc chamber music with their respectable friends, and barber's shops would have a lute at the disposition of those waiting their turn, the violin was a nasty, brash thing for leading dances and processions.

Many rebecs and other fiddles were played on the chest rather than the shoulder.

The viola da spalla (shoulder viola, as opposed to arm or leg viola) has it lower bout nearer the right shoulder. These days, i would call it a "belly viola"....

July 20, 2017, 4:02 AM · I think it's because when a violinist goes table to table in a chintzy restaurant playing sappy tunes to couples for tips, the bowing arm doesn't accidentally get in the way of the wait staff carrying trays of tiramisu and prosecco.
July 20, 2017, 4:10 AM · Then again, it could just be a way to sell more shoulder rests...
July 20, 2017, 7:41 AM · If I recall history correctly, the early European violins were "street" instruments, too loud and raucous for inside performances (viols were the chamber instruments) so shoulder/arm playing allowed for movement.
July 20, 2017, 8:57 AM · When the instrument is planted on the ground by means of an end-pin, or if you are sitting in a chair, then you can't very well sway gaily like a minstrel of yore, can you?
July 20, 2017, 9:03 AM · You will notice how hampered the bass player is here by his bass planted on the ground...

;^)

Edited: July 20, 2017, 10:33 AM · The OP was talking specifically about bowed instruments here ...
Edited: July 20, 2017, 10:19 AM · You don't have to put the violin on the shoulder if you don't want to, as this guy shows a la viola da gamba style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NseBdxfHk5k

If you are very good at violin, you can play Paganini Caprice with the violin against your belly as Milstein demonstrated to Pinky (Zukerman).

Putting the jokes aside, playing of the musical instrument has been heavily influenced by traditions and custom.

I cannot say much about Middle Eastern instruments, but at least in Asia, many string instruments were meant to be played indoors while sitting down on the floor. I guess that more or less explains the playing position.

July 20, 2017, 11:08 AM · I've played chamber music with a professional cellist...subbing for the first violin...in the Schubert Cello Quintet. He played the violin like a cello, brilliantly. Humbling.
July 21, 2017, 12:09 AM · Thank you all for your great replies! I learned a lot from this discussion. I didn't know this simple question would get so many responses!
Edited: July 21, 2017, 1:58 AM ·

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4smgVpcFMp8

July 21, 2017, 5:51 AM · Wait you should not compare cello or bass with Asian string instruments. Most Asian instruments' bows hit the lowest part of the string, like just above the cello's bridge, except ther isn't one. And Asian string instruments have their bow between two strings. This lets the player pull the bow outwards-downwards, taking intire advantage of the gravity also.
Edited: July 21, 2017, 5:59 AM · David, that's a wonderful clip! I'm going circulate it to the cellists in my orchestras.
July 22, 2017, 2:35 PM · actually, I thought the violin was held between the jaw and the collarbone and didn't rest on the shoulder.
July 22, 2017, 3:32 PM · No one has asked the obvious question: given the demands of the repertoire, where else would it be held?
July 22, 2017, 4:47 PM · I'd say the collarbone and she shoulder are connected, so this question is right.
July 23, 2017, 3:36 AM · My guess is during the early 18th century the violin was moved from below the collarbone to on the collarbone as passages required (as Scott alludes to). How else could Locatelli etc play? Eventually it just stayed there.
July 23, 2017, 2:26 PM · Peter,

Biomechanics. Based on millions of players over hundreds of years it became obvious that the current position is the optimum position. That being said there are lots of subtle variations on that position. Chin and shoulder rests make differences to accommodate players. For example: I use a chin rest that allows my jaw to be directly over the tailpiece while most chin rests put the jaw behind the tailpiece.

There are still some players who hold the instrument against their arm/body - mostly those who aspire to period correct playing and instruments. There might even be people who hold the violin like a cello but I've never seen one played that way.

Will there be changes in the future? Probably small changes as the playing of the instrument evolves with the music.

July 23, 2017, 4:04 PM · Then there's this, of course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NseBdxfHk5k
July 23, 2017, 4:05 PM · Re: Ella Yu's commment:" I'd say the collarbone and she shoulder are connected, so this question is right" — I actually have a bone to pick on that as I have the same thoughts as Michael's ("actually, I thought the violin was held between the jaw and the collarbone and didn't rest on the shoulder.")

You don't necessarily need the shoulder in modern playing, and there are plenty of players who play without any shoulder rest or sponge, and the shoulder has zero contact with the instrument. Not here to argue the pros and cons of shoulder rest; I understand the gist of the OP's question, which I think is why our playing tradition has come to be da braccio rather than da gamba.

My guess is that the folk fiddlers way back then playing on rebecs and vielles found it more mobile and intuitive to see. From centuries of paintings and drawings you would find people propping their instrument against their chest or arm — just do a google image search on rebec or vielle. That's the root of our violin playing.

On the OP's question: "Even small instruments can be played upright, such as the treble viol, so it's not like the size of a violin makes an upright stance impractical." I've seen treble viols in museums with a big discolored marks that showed they were once played with the chin on...my best guess is that a violinist had to play that instrument and did it in the only way he or she knew how.

July 23, 2017, 4:12 PM · And of course Stefan Dymiter is always an inspiration...shows you how there's no single correct way for everyone. He found his own solution to overcame his handicap.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coX4lRehgdA&ab_channel=JeffersonCorso

July 26, 2017, 4:30 PM · Mobility's sake and accuracy.
July 29, 2017, 3:07 PM · Dorian, and others, every single restless player I have seen, from nearby, or on videos, uses shoulder support some of the time, even if they hotly deny it!
July 29, 2017, 8:14 PM · I agree! That's true for me when I play modern rep up in the fingerboard and my left hand thumb leaves the neck and goes on the side of the fingerboard. Without left hand support I have to use my shoulder momentarily for those passages.

I should have included this exception:

You don't necessarily need the shoulder in modern playing, unless in rare passages in very very high positions when the thumb leaves the neck of the instrument.

I remember the year experimenting switching from shoulder rest to no shoulder rest, my biggest urge was to lift my left shoulder especially during shifts, but I persisted in trying because I believe being able to play without using my shoulder (via the shoulder rest) will be good for my left hand technique, and it was true.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with shoulder rests/sponges/aids, and I'm not interested in turning this thread into a yes/no shoulder rest argument. This thread's question is very interesting to think about, which I interpret as why the violin/viola today ended up as a horizontal instrument.

I half agree with's Brian's argument that it's for "Mobility's sake and accuracy". You can be just as accurate playing the violin between the legs like a cello — I've seen cellist play a spectacular Handel-Halvorsen on the violin between the legs — but as a fiddle player you can be more mobile for sure with the violin on your chest/arm/shoulder/collarbone...

July 30, 2017, 12:03 PM · A look at old illustrations show that the violin has been slowly migrating from in front, on the chest, un-supported, gradually up and to the left, so that some modern players have the violin almost in line with the body. The original name of the viola was the Viola d' bratsche - the arm-viol. The main is reason is better bowing efficiency, gravity assist, better leverage. We want the string to be horizontal so that gravity does not pull the bow off of the best point-of-contact. The chin-rest and shoulder-rest were invented to better support the violin in that position, to free the left hand. The Cellists have the opposite problem: their left hand is free, but they are constantly fighting gravity. Some use the new bent end-pin, which puts the cello at almost a 45 o angle. jq

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