Global violin traditions and styles

Global violin traditions and styles

The violin is the “king of instruments” and is present in many world music traditions. Also known as fiddle, vitula, keman, hegedu, violine, it is used in the traditional music of Egypt, Turkey, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, folk music traditions of U.S.A., Albania, Armenia, Russia, Hungary, Moldova, Canada, in gypsy music, Jazz music and in the classical music traditions of Europe, India, Morocco, North Africa, the Middle-East and Central Asia.

I was part of the LGMF along with my uncle Dr. L. Subramaniam who had conceived ‘Violins for Peace’ to celebrate the birth centenary of our guru V. Lakshminarayana Iyer. Violinists representing various global music cultures were presented. I too participated in concerts, lectures and workshops with the other musicians in Bangalore and at the NCPA in Mumbai. Here are some observations on the different violin styles.

If a violinist plays the open string alone no one can guess which tradition he or she belongs to. It is the ornamentations that are an expression of different global cultures. What is important for any violinist is to give life to every single note.

Violin in Carnatic music

Carnatic musicis written for singing and the instrument is required to produce the music as it is sung. Secondly, it is handed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition and is not played by looking at the notations. In Carnatic music, the notations do not provide full information as to how the music should be rendered. All the intricate nuances are not written down and the notation is a mere skeleton. The individuals are supposed to memorise all the compositions. Thirdly,this music is raga based and gives ample scope for manodharma sangeeta of the individual.

Posture of holding the violin

Normally artistes take a sitting posture with the right foot stretched in front and the left foot tucked under the right thigh. The back of the violin body, especially the upper part rests on the left side of the chest. Some violinists rest it on the left shoulder below the chin while some (who are very tall) rest it slightly below the chest region and adjacent to the belly (this can be seen in the folk music tradition in the U.S.A., but in a standing posture). The scroll of the violin rests on the heel of the right foot, though some artists rest it on the upper portion of the foot, below the big toe.

The sitting posture is adopted to provide a secure feeling especially while playing the gamaka-s or the ornamentations. Since there is no standardisation of techniques or the posture of holding the violin and the bow, and other aspects, many differences are seen between individuals who develop their own ways or methods in posture, holding and in other details according to their own convenience.

Holding the bow

The manner of holding the bow differs widely from one school of violin playing to another, and even from one artist to another. The heavier lower portion of the bow is called the ‘frog of the bow’ and the lighter upper portion is called the ‘nut of the bow’. The right-hand fingers hold the stick portion of the bow near the frog and care should be taken not to touch the strings in the bow, which are made up of horse’s hair. The thumb of the right-hand goes inside and is curved. It is placed near the frog, whereas the other right-hand fingers namely the index finger, the second finger, the ring finger and the little finger are placed above the stick portion of the bow. Each of the four fingers have a different function to perform. The four fingers should be curved and placed on the stick and should not be kept flat. The above method is used in the West and also in my school of violin playing.

The tuning

The tuning adopted is CD and the octave of CD. Any note can be kept as the adhara shadja. It is tonic and dominant and the octave of tonic and dominant from the thickest string onwards.

Playing techniques

Right hand techniques: swara vil, sahitya vil, tana vil, bow stress, crossing strings, double stops (for tanam).

Left hand techniques: Use of the fourth finger in certain schools of violin playing alone including ours, janta technique, multiple finger stopping technique, slide, rocking, rolling techniques and fingering are used to produce the gamaka-s which is the pivotal feature of Carnatic music.

Violin in Hindustani music

Hindustani music is the classical music of North India.

Posture - The carnatic posture of holding the violin is used. Very few artistes hold the violin by the right hand and the bow is held by the left hand too.

Bow hold – similar to west

Tuning - usually Pa-Sa-Pa-Sa corresponding to Bâ™­-F-Bâ™­-F, for example.

Right hand techniques – long, short bows, crossing strings, staccato type of bowing

Left hand techniques include Meend, Gamak, Kan, Andolan, Kampit, Khatka and Murki.

Violin in Western classical tradition

The term Western Classical Music mainly centers around the music in the European region and referring to music having its roots in western art, ecclesiastical or church music and concert music. The origins of western classical music can be traced back to the middle ages where the catholic church was one of the major impact in music. Though Western classical music has gradually evolved through the ages, each stage of this evolution has been classified into a certain period like Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and so on. During Middle ages the music was monophonic consisting of a single melody and during the renaissance the music became polyphonic in nature. Then came the Baroque period which had Bach, Vivaldi and Handel contributing and this period saw the birth of opera. The Classical period had Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven a bridge between the Classical and Romantic period and saw the creation of the symphony orchestra. The romantic era saw Richard Wagner, Verdi and a host of others contributing.

The violin first emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century and was developed between the 16th and 18th centuries.


In Western classical tradition, the violin is held by the chin and the left hand holds the fingerboard. The violinist either stands or sits on a chair and performs.

Bow Hold – Similar bow hold as mentioned in Carnatic music - bow hold.


GDAE – in the circle of fifths.

Right hand techniques – Staccato, Martele, Detache, crossing strings, long and short bow turns.

Left hand techniques – Vibrato, Harmonics, Pizzicato, trill, use of 4th finger.

Violin in Algerian music

Algerian Music is identical with a form of folk music called rai that originated in Oran, Algeria from Bedouin shepherds mixed with French, African, Spanish and Arabic Musical forms. Algerian music was dominated by styles inherited from Al - Andalus, and included nuubaat which are suites. Algerian music also includes Shaabi or popular music, Andalusian Classical Music, Classical Arabic Music, Bedouin, Berber music and folk music including hofii. Traditional Maqams are played. Improvisations also find a place and this music is microtonal in nature. In Algerian tradition 800 kinds of Music are there and oriental influence is also seen.

Posture of holding the violin

In both the Algerian and Moroccan violin playing traditions, it is seen that the instrument violin is held on the left lap or the left thigh in an upright position (like a cello) and played. The fingerboard faces up.

Bow hold

The thumb is placed on top of the stick along with the other four fingers.


It is the western GDAE tuning that is adopted.

Right hand techniques - Mostly upper part of the bow used. Crossing strings, jumping notes, harmonics are also used.

Left hand techniques – Trills, slides, Vibratos, 4th finger and phrases resembling viraladis (which are typical violin playing techniques) of Carnatic music are used.

Hardanger Fiddle from the Norwegian Tradition

The Hardanger Fiddle is used mostly in folk, dance and is used in ceremonies. This is an instrument very special to Norway and is a national instrument of Norway. Before 1850s this instrument was played in venues, villages and not in concerts and only for the past 150 years this instrument is played in concerts. It’s a solo instrument. The scroll having the pegs, ends like a dragon or a yali or the lion of Norway and sometimes carved women’s head. There are 4 main strings and the rest are sympathetic strings. Totally there are 8 to 9 strings. There are 5 pegs on the left side and 4 on the right hand side.

The bow is concave like the baroque period and is black in color, taken from the black horse tail. This is used to get thick sound.

The usage of sympathetic strings is an influence from the Baroque period. Though it’s a baroque instrument, the music is different and not Baroque style.

Posture of holding the violin – Similar to the Western style

Bow hold - like the usual western style

Tuning - There are 26 ways of tuning and because of this one has to retune several times depending on the compositions. The common ADAE is also used for many hardanger tunes.

Right hand techniques - More of long bows, Cross strings

Left hand techniques - phrases resembling the viraladis are mostly used, Double stops, Trills, use of 4th finger.

The peculiarity of the style of playing is that there are no slides and vibratos used.

The music has Minute and small improvisations too.

The chin rest is not used too. Earlier the fiddle used to be more smaller compared to what is used now.

Russian Gypsy style

The gypsy music came from Egypt to Europe and gypsies took music from each place they travelled. In Russia, Violins are not that important and only guitars and singing is more predominant. In Russia the violins accompanied for singing and for dance, but this group Lokyo does only solos and do not accompany.


The usual posture to hold the violin like the hold in the west is adapted when playing with the bow and also while plucking the strings. The posture is also different, when the violin is held in the hands in side-ways and again the right hand pizzicato is rendered.

Bow hold

It is also similar to that of the West. While bowing different parts of the bridge and playing on, the finger board is also seen.

Tuning – Western tuning GDAE

Right hand techniques – Long, short bows used, crossing strings, staccato off string bow, pizzicato tremolo bow used.

Left hand techniques – slides, vibratos, double stops, different finger positions, trills, lot of lefth and pizzicato used. Usage of not only the tip but also the fleshy part of the fingers are seen.

Use of konnakol like phrases not jatis, but rap certain terms and repeat the same on the violin. Tapping with the foot and playing simultaneously with and without the bow is also seen.

American Country violin music styles

There are different styles of American Music designed by 400 yrs of European and African American culture, native American, Traces of Gypsy and middle eastern touches are also met with. In Jazz- ragtime, improvisations are part of it including Syncopations. Slow Spiritual music is also part of American Music.

Posture of holding the violin – Like the Western hold

Bow hold - Similar to the West

Tuning – Western tuning GDAE is adopted.

Right hand techniques - crossing strings, Double stops, Short and long bows are used in gospel music.

The gospel music has slides, usage of 4th finger, Vibarto while the American Blues also has much of slides.

(The author is a violinist, Fulbright Fellow, U.S.A. and Director of MS Academy of Global Music)