“Fiddle” vs. “Violin”: Are They Different Or In Harmony?

What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin, anyway? They seem to look exactly the same, so why the different names? Was the fiddler on the roof secretly a violinist? And what exactly was Nero playing?

No fiddlin’ around—just answers to your burning questions about the fiddle and the violin.

⚡️ Quick summary

The words fiddle and violin are two names for the same stringed instrument—fiddle is just an informal way of referring to the violin. In the context of classical music, it’s typically called a violin. In a bluegrass band, it’s more likely to be called a fiddle.

What is a violin?

A violin is a stringed instrument played with a bow. It has a double curved body and a long, thin neck, somewhat like a guitar. But it’s smaller and it’s held horizontally, with the bottom part tucked between the shoulder and chin and the top of the neck held in the hand. Sound is produced by drawing a bow across the strings.

Violins are known for their especially beautiful and flexible tone. They’re common in string ensembles and orchestras and are an important instrument in many classical music compositions. The violin family of instruments also includes the viola, which is slightly larger than the violin.

What is a fiddle? And is a fiddle a violin?

Technically, the word fiddle can refer to any instrument in the viol family (a family of stringed instruments that preceded the violin family). But most commonly, fiddle is simply used as an informal name for the violin.

The word fiddle is typically used when a person is playing the instrument in an informal context, like during a jig at a party or in a duel with the devil—not in a full symphony orchestra or a formal string quartet. Musicians playing the instrument in a bluegrass band are probably more likely to call themselves fiddlers than violinists due to the nature of the music and the performance. In contrast, saying that world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman “plays a good fiddle” would be done jokingly. But that doesn’t mean fiddlers can’t be excellent musicians.

What’s the difference between a symphony, orchestra, and philharmonic? Find out here.

What else does fiddle mean?

Fiddle can also be a verb! It can literally mean “to play the fiddle,” as in Nobody fiddles like Jed does! This is how the word is used in the expression fiddle while Rome burns, a reference to the legend about how the Roman Emperor Nero played a fiddle instead of doing anything about the fires destroying the city (at least one part of the story isn’t true—the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet).

Fiddle can also mean “to fidget with something with the hands” (as in She fiddled with the pen absentmindedly) or “to tinker with something” (as in You have to fiddle with the switch a bit to get it to work). To fiddle around is to mess around or waste time doing something trivial—which doesn’t seem fair, since playing the fiddle takes a lot of practice and skill. No one ever says “Don’t violin around,” right?

Triumph over another confusing pair by reading up on the difference between "reign" and "rein."

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