The Glossary of Violin-Related Terms

December 15, 2012, 10:29 AM · We've compiled a glossary of terms used when talking about the violin, to help everyone understand our common vocabulary. We've given short definitions so readers may get a quick answer, then in many cases, we've linked to more information. Here and there you'll find a few definitions that simply illustrate the quirks and history of the community. If you would like to add a term to this glossary, you are welcome to e-mail editor Laurie Niles with the term and your suggested definition.


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Appoggiatura: an ornamental note that is added before a principal note, usually a step higher or lower than the principal note. The appoggiatura note is leaned on, then it resolves to the principal note.

Arpeggio: sounding the notes of a chord in succession, rather than simultaneously.

Artificial harmonics: harmonics created by holding down one finger (thus "shortening" the string) and then putting another finger down lightly. On the violin, one usually holds down the first finger and touches the fourth lightly to the string. "Czardas" by Monti has a section with all artificial harmonics, as does the "Pe loc" movement from Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances.

Avec le bois: French: "With the wood." See "col legno."

Bariolage: the quick alternation between a static note and changing notes, which form a melody either above or below the static note. This technique usually involves repeated string crossings and is common in Baroque violin music. A good example is in the Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3.

Bow: a flexible wooden (or carbon fiber) stick with horse hair stretched from the bent tip, or point, to a moveable frog, or nut. The hair is drawn over the strings to set them vibrating. A Baroque bow has more convex curve to the stick; the modern bow, developed in the late 18th c. by Francois Tourte, has a more concave curve and more tension applied to the hair. (Here is an article on the parts of the bow.)

Bow holds: see Franco-Belgian, Russian and Galamian.

Brazilwood: later-growth Pernambuco wood used to make bows. Here is an article about Brazilwood vs. pernambuco

Bridge: the ornate, raised wood that holds up the strings in the middle of the fiddle. It is not glued down; it stays in place only because of the pressure of the strings.

Buri: Stephen Brivati

Cadenza: Look carefully and you can find the word "cadence" in this term. A "cadence" is the conclusion of a phrase, and a "cadenza" is simply a very fancy one. Usually occurring toward the end of a concerto movement, it is a place where the orchestra drops out and the soloist plays a virtuosic cadence, which can be written by someone else or improvised by the soloist. Rachel Barton Pine has spoken extensively about how to write your own cadenzas.

Chin rest: a wooden device attached to the bottom-front of the violin that separates the chin from direct contact with the violin surface. There are many different kinds. See also: Shoulder rest

Coffee: common elixir among fiddle players

Collé: "pinched" bowing at the frog done with fingers only; often assigned by teachers to help students cultivate finger flexibility while still balancing the weight of the bow. (Here is a discussion about it.)

Col legno: striking the strings with the wood of the bow instead of the hair. To avoid messing up their expensive bows, sometimes professional musicians use a spare bow or even a pencil when music calls for col legno.

Conductor: evolved from the concertmaster position -- Ideally, he or she works to resolve issues of pitch, balance, articulation, pulse, etc. with orchestral musicians during rehearsals and keeps a steady and clear beat during performances.

Con sordini: played with mute. (See "mute")

Concertmaster: the first-chair first violinist of an orchestra, often charged with leading the section, deciding all bowings, translating the wishes of the conductor to the orchestra and vice-versa, listening to auditions, and serving as a representative of the orchestra to its larger community.

Concerto: a composition for solo instrument(s), with orchestral accompaniment. Typically, it's in a three-movement sonata form, with cadenzas in the first and last movements, though a number of violin concertos, especially more modern ones, use different ideas to organize movements. Before 1650, the term referred only to a work for voices with organ or continuo. In a nutshell, it's a vehicle for a soloist, or group of soloists, to show off!

Concerto grosso: a kind of concerto in which a small group of instruments alternates with a larger group. Corelli wrote many of these, most famously his Christmas Concerto.

Daempfer: German word for mute.

Demisemiquaver: the European word for a 32nd note. If you say it loud enough you'll always sound precocious.

Détaché: detached, with separate bow strokes, but not staccato (or short)

Double stops: playing on two strings at the same time. (FYI: "Stopping" is simply putting your finger down on the string, to produce a note other than an open string. So technically, it refers to using your fingers on both of those strings.) And yes, there are "Triple stops," playing on three strings at once, and even "Quadruple stops," playing on four strings at once.

Drone: a single tone that is sustained for a period of time while a melody is being played. (A teacher might play a "drone" on the tonic while a student is playing a scale, to help keep the student on-pitch) Bagpipes have a built-in drone.

F-hole: This sounds bad, but it's not. It describes one of the openings in the face of the violin, on either side of the strings, that is shaped like a cursive "F" but really looks more like an "S."

Fiddle: same exact thing as a violin. That doesn't mean we can't argue about it on

Fingered octaves: alternating using fingers 1-3 and 2-4 in a passage of double-stop octaves, rather than playing them all with fingers 1-4, or all with fingers 1-3. (Here's a discussion on practicing fingered octaves.)

Flautando: a "sul tasto" (over-the-fingerboard) bow stroke that creates a flute-like sound.

Franco-Belgian bow hold: holding the bow with rounded and flexible fingers, including a rounded pinkie which takes some of the weight of the bow. Here's a nice flame war we had back in 2011 on the subject of 'bow holds'! (See Russian bow hold and Galamian bow hold)

Frog: a removable device at the lower end of the bow stick that secures the hair and permits the regulation of its tension. Also called the "nut" or the "heel."

Haiku: a Japanese form of poetry, and a great way to write about the violin.

Hair: on the violin bow, the hair comes from a horse's tail and is rubbed with rosin to make it sticky.

Galamian bow hold: a modified Franco-Belgian bow hold in which the wrist is flatter and fingers slightly closer together.

Glissando: to glide or slide the fingers along the string, usually to create a special effect. The late Ruggiero Ricci wrote a book called Ricci on Glissando about a kind of violin technique that makes more frequent use of the glissando for shifting.

Heel: the frog of the bow

Hooked bowing: hooking two notes into one bow, usually with a stop between.

Intervals: the distance between two notes. Here are some examples of ways to teach, identify and remember different intervals.

Intonation: the degree to which something is "in tune," or to which something is the correct pitch. (Pythagorian, Just and Equal Temperament)

Jeté: French for "thrown," a bouncing bow stroke that involves two to six ricochets in a row.

Just temperament (or "pure intonation): a tuning system that produces harmonic intervals tuned to eliminate all beats. (Here is a discussion thread on just temperament).

Key: the tonal center of a composition -- the scale that a composition is built upon. The "key" is named after the first note of the scale. For example, "G major" is built on the major scale that starts on the note "G." That first note is also called the "tonic."

Label: Found on the inside of the violin by looking through the left "f"-hole, this tells who made the violin, where it was made, and in what year. Except when the label is fake!

Legato: smooth, connected bow stroke

Limerick: more entertaining poetry about the violin.

Luthier: maker of a stringed instrument such as a violin, viola, cello, bass or guitar. The term comes from the word "lute," a basic stringed instrument.

Major scale: a scale with half-steps between the 3rd and 4th and the 7th and 8th degrees. (My students like to chant, "whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole half," to remember the intervals in an ascending major scale) Here is a Nice, wonky discussion thread on scales and modes and their history.

Martelé: "martellato" in Italian means "hammered." A detached and strongly accented bow stroke.

Measurements for violins: This seems like a fairly amazing website, with an encyclopedic catalogue of precise measurements of violins by makers from the 17th through 20th centuries. For each of 305 instruments, they list 250 measurements: The Luthier's Library.

Minor scale: a scale with a lowered third degree. Many agree it sounds "sad" compared to a major key. In addition to the lowered third degree: a natural minor scale has a lowered sixth and seventh degrees; a harmonic minor scale has a lowered sixth and raised seventh degree; and a melodic minor scale has a raised sixth and seventh degree ascending and a lowered sixth and seventh degree descending.

Modes: There are a total of seven different ways to pick 7 pitches out of the available pitches to form an eight-pitch scale which ends on the same pitch it started with. These seven different ways to arrange the scales are known as modes, and their names are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. The major and minor scales are actually two of those seven modes. Major is Ionian mode and minor is Aeolian mode. (Definition taken from this discussion.)

Mute: a small device that fits over the bridge to mute the sound of the violin. It makes it sound like the violin is singing with its nose plugged. Not that a violin has a nose. A "practice mute" is usually a bit bigger and heavier and makes the violin very quiet, for times such as practicing in a hotel room. Here are some examples of various mutes.

Natural harmonics: overtones produced by touching the open string very lightly at various points from the bridge. Generally the clearest harmonic occurs in the very middle of the string, which, when touched lightly without depressing the string, sounds an octave above the string's open-string pitch. Harmonics are usually notated with a small circle over the note or a diamond-shaped note, and they tend to sound open and ring-y.

Nut: On the bow: the frog. On the violin: the grooved ridge of wood near the scroll where the strings pass over from the fingerboard into the peg box.

Passage: a section of music

Pedagogy: the art of how to teach something. A "pedagogue" is an expert in teaching techniques and often teaches teachers. Here are the names of some violin pedagogues, past and present: Leopold Mozart, Leopold Auer, Jascha Brodsky, Carl Flesch, Otakar Ševcík, Eugène Ysaÿe, Josef Gingold, Ivan Galamian, Dorothy DeLay, Shinichi Suzuki, Simon Fischer, Roland Vamos, Stanley Ritchie.

Pernambuco: the rare South American wood from which many bows are made. Here is an article about Brazilwood vs. pernambuco and here is an article about a bowmaker who participates in re-forestation efforts for pernambuco.

Pedal tone or pedal point: a sustained note held under the other musical goings-on, as with an organ "pedal." For us string players, it sometimes refers to the repeated (unchanging) note in bariolage.

Pizzicato: an indication for string players to pluck, rather than bow, the string.

Ponticello: the bridge of the violin. "Sul ponticello" is a direction to play very near the bridge, which creates a nasal sound.

Portamento: an effect done by sliding into a note with the left hand. The violinist Fritz Kreisler was a master of this technique. Here are tips for when to use this effect.

Portato: as opposed to up-bow or down-bow staccato, in which each note marked with a bow stop -- each note in a "portato" bowing is re-articulated very gently, with the bow continuing to move between notes. Think "wah-wah-wah-wah." (btw if you type "portato," spell-check will likely change it to "potato.")

Positions: This refers to the position of your left hand on the violin. "First position" is the first one most people learn, with the hand resting near the end of the fingerboard, toward the scroll. Typically, students next learn third position, in which the hand is moved forward so that the first finger is now where the third finger was in first position. There are 10 positions, moving progressively up the fingerboard, and also half-position, which is a half-step lower than first position, with the first finger generally positioned right by the nut.

Practice: The devotion you show your instrument by playing it every day and repeating actions accurately until they come naturally. Shinichi Suzuki suggested that it takes 10,000 repetitions to truly learn a piece. That's a lot of practicing! (the verb form, in Europe, is "practise.")

Prunes: dried plums, which aid in late digestion. Ideal snack for string players who may occasionally suffer bouts of rigidity of mind or bowel, due to their high-strung nature. First recommended in 2004 by member Stephen Brivati, aka "Buri."

Purfling: an inlaid, protective border around the perimeter of a stringed instrument. On a violin, viola or cello, it looks like a painted double line -- but it better not be just paint!

Pythagorian tuning: tuning based on the use of pure fifths. It uses Greek philosopher Pythagorus' theories of physics and sound.

Relative minor: Every major scale has a relative minor that uses its same key signature. The relative minor is located 1 1/2 steps down from the relative major. For example, the relative minor of C major is A minor.

Rhythm: the organization of silence and sound in time.

Ricochet: a bouncing bow stroke in which the bow is dropped or thrown on the string and allowed to rebound and bounce again, several times. ( member Drew Lecher wrote an excellent article on developing ricochet bowing)

Rosin: a small cake of solid resin from a tree (often pine) that we rub onto the bow hair in order to make it sticky, to make the string sound. No rosin on the bow = no sound from violin! Light rosin tends to produce a smoother sound, and dark rosin (used more often on lower instruments like the viola or cello) tends to produce a grittier, bigger sound. (Here is a nice informational page on rosin, from Shar.)

Russian bow hold: a bow hold in which the right hand is extremely pronated, leaning toward the index finger, with the pinkie quite straight. The right wrist also tends to be very high. Jascha Heifetz was its most famous adherent.

S & P's: Sonatas and Partitas, for solo violin, written by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Here's a long chat we had about them.)

Sautillé: very fast spiccato, done usually with the hand.

Scale: See major scale, minor scale, modes.

Schoenburger: Hilary Hahn's 2008 challenge, suggested by member Stephen Brivati, to create a Schoenburger recipe in honor of the composer Arnold Schoenberg's 134th birthday in 2008. This was the winning recipe.

Scroll: the decorative "head" of the violin. Generally it is carved to look like rolled parchment, but occasionally a luthier gets creative and makes a scroll that looks like a face or animal head. (Here are some wonderful pictures and description of the making of a typical scroll, from luthier Jonathan Hai and his wife.)

Second violin section: a highly essential and underrated part of the orchestra that often plays harmony to the first violins' melody.

Senza sord: without mute (that means if you have it on, take it off)

Shoulder rest a contraption -- praised by many, vilified by others -- to help hold up the violin. There are many, many different kinds. Choosing one involves matching your body type to the right rest: see our article, How to Hold a Violin. Violinists argue rather vociferously about whether a person really needs a shoulder rest or not. A majority of violinists use a shoulder rest, as evidenced by the results of the first poll we ever took on Playing without a shoulder rest involves special technique; please refer to Stanley Ritchie and his book called Before the Chinrest. Also, there are many articles on about the topic: for example, this one by Emil Altschuler. Above all, either way you choose, please do not injure yourself.

Solfege: a language that assigns a syllable to each step in a scale. For an ascending major scale, the solfege syllables are: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do.

Sonata: Officially, this refers to an instrumental work in 2-4 movements. As related to the violin, there are many works we refer to as "violin sonatas" which are actually written for the violin and piano, to be played as chamber music. There are also "solo sonatas" for just violin, written by Bach and by Ysaye.(In this thread, people write about their favorite violin sonatas).

Soundpost: a wooden post, set under the bridge, to transmit the bridge's vibrations to the soundboard. Adjusting the soundpost can change the sound of a violin, thus sometimes violinists take their fiddles to a luthier to "have the soundpost adjusted."

Sounding point: the point on the string between the bridge and the fingerboard where the instrument responds most readily and most resonantly. Shinichi Suzuki called this the "Kreisler highway," the place where one must bow on the string, neither too close to the bridge nor too close to the fingerboard. More refined: Dorothy DeLay, and subsequently Simon Fischer, spoke of five sounding points, from the bridge to the fingerboard -- sort of like five lanes on that highway. Each of of the five "lanes" or sounding points, has a different characteristic and is used for various kinds of bowing.

Spiccato: bouncing bow stroke (Here's an article about a class Barbara Barber gave on spiccato.)

Staccato: a short note, which can be produced with several kinds of bow strokes, including spiccato, sautille, martele, jete, ricochet, up-bow and down-bow staccato and more. (Here is a thread that describes the "staccato" concept well.)

Strings: There are so many of them! Find some guidance at as well as a string color ID chart to help you figure out what kind of strings you have, based on their colors, all made by member Shawn Boucke.

Suzuki Method: A music education philosophy pioneered by the Japanese violin pedagogue, Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998) and used especially in the training of young children. Here is a detailed description of its philosophy and history.

Tasto: The fingerboard. "Sul tasto" is a direction to play over the fingerboard, creating a soft, whispery sound.

Tonic: The first note, or degree, of a major or minor scale. In the key of G major, the "tonic" is the note "G."

Tremolo: extremely rapid repetition of a note, usually accomplished by playing at the tip and using a hand motion.

Trill: rapid alternation of two tones either a whole or a half tone apart.

Vibrato: a fluctuation of pitch to warm the tone of a note, achieved by oscillating the left hand. Vibrato can originate in the fingers, hand, and arm, or a combination of all three. (Here are several articles by Anna Heifetz about vibrato: defining types of vibrato; developing vibrato and vibrato and tension.)

Viola: A most beloved instrument, looking like a violin only larger, with a lower register whose strings include C, G, D and A. Sometimes people tell viola jokes, but it's only because violists are our siblings and we love them.

VSO: "Violin-Shaped Object." Don't buy one.

Wolf tone: when one note gets a wooffy, fuzzy sound, no matter what you do. The note is usually on the G string and becomes a bother mostly if you are playing something like Zigeunerweisen or the last movement of the Brahms Sonata in A. Here's a Long discussion we had on the topic; also, Augustin Hadelich talks in detail in this interview about how to deal with them.

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Would you like to contribute an addition, or an "edit"ion to our Violin Glossary? Please contact editor Laurie Niles with your idea or edit.


December 15, 2012 at 07:20 PM · Buri. Stephen Brivati. Makes me giggle

December 15, 2012 at 08:35 PM · Dampfer means big boat in german nothing else! ;)

December 15, 2012 at 10:41 PM · Love it, In my opinion.

December 16, 2012 at 01:39 PM · Excellent. Especially delicate definition of "viola."

December 16, 2012 at 01:54 PM · your definition certainly minimizes the conductor...what about his/her role in guiding the interpretation of the music? giving all the technical details a shape and direction? in larger ensembles, that's essential, no?

Yes, on the coffee! what about the beer?

December 16, 2012 at 05:55 PM · I stand behind my definition of a conductor! If a conductor has those practical abilities, his or her interpretation will emerge. I'd argue that a conductor has to have a solid interpretation in order to do that, but that without the practical skills, no amount of "interpreting" will come through!

December 17, 2012 at 12:59 AM · I love that you included "Buri" in the lexicon! :)

And then, I scrolled down to find prunes also listed.

December 17, 2012 at 11:06 AM · This is neat! I have Drew Lecher's book (violin edition) with an excellent glossary. Thanks Laurie for having one here on site.


December 17, 2012 at 04:46 PM · Laurie:

Please move this dictionary into a tab in the subject bar along the top of your website page.


December 17, 2012 at 06:18 PM · Allan, I've thought of that. I'll probably make it a little square on the right....Would anyone like to make me a cute graphic for that? :) :)

December 17, 2012 at 08:39 PM · I wonder if one might add the definitions/ differences between "symphony", "orchestra" and "Philharmonic."

December 18, 2012 at 02:19 AM · "shoulder rest" is missing. Freudian slip?

Shoulder rest: A much-maligned device intended to help position and balance the violin on the player's shoulder.

Shoulder rest wars: The innumerable, unending, often emotionally contested debate over whether a violinist should use a shoulder rest or not.

The definition of "mute" is circular. Tsk.

December 18, 2012 at 05:27 PM · No way...the inadvertent omission of "Shoulder rest" must be due to the trauma of 15 years of listening to all the quibbling....! ;) Okay going in to add "shoulder rest"...

December 20, 2012 at 04:25 PM · Laurie,

I am honored that you would include one of my "brief" descriptions, but…Positions…only 10? How about at least 3 more to make a baker's dozen?;-)

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