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From Rebab to Violin

The history of stringed instruments is longer and more varied than one might expect. The earliest chordophones, another name for stringed instruments, were played by plucking the strings. However, the debut of the violin was not the first time the world saw stringed instruments played with a bow. The rebab is one of the first bowed string instruments, made with a long neck attached to a rounded body with one-to-three strings. The bottom also has a protruding spike to support the instrument upright, like a cello.

From the rebab sprang a variety of stringed instruments played with a bow. Though the technology and materials of the rebab is similar to that of more modern string instruments, the difference is clear from the sound. With only three strings, the range of notes and melodies that the rebab can play is more limited than contemporary instruments – which tend to have four or more strings. Yet the rebab is hailed for producing voice-like tones that give it a unique musical quality. So, how did we come from early chordophones to contemporary violins? Let’s look at some history of stringed instruments.

Understanding the history

After the rebab reached Europe, it was modified and developed into the rebec by Spanish and Arab merchants.

Later came the medieval fiddle, a staple of the folk genre and a more obvious ancestor of the violin. The medieval fiddle made its way to Italy, where instrument manufacturers decided a better adaptation was necessary. This led to the development of the lira da braccio and the viola da gamba. But both were overshadowed by the advent of Andrea Amati’s violin.

The first modern violin was built by Amati in the early 16th century and ever since, the Amati name has been synonymous with expert violin craftsmanship. The Amati family also served as the teachers to two prominent violin makers—Guarneri and Stradivari—cementing their place in violin history. 

The future of the violin

When you look at the history of string music, it becomes apparent how the violin came to be. Comparing rebab to fiddle and then to violin shows a clear evolution through time. We would have never had master violin makers like Guarneri and Stradivari if not for the movement of violin predecessors to Italy. Even with the rich history of the instrument behind us, it’s difficult to imagine how the future of the violin may emerge.

Though predicting how music will change in the next century is a fool’s errand, looking back at the genealogy of influence that brought us the contemporary violin can shed some light on how modern violin makers may continue to innovate. Perhaps inventors will take inspiration from other string instruments or international cultures. Or perhaps novel materials will be used to bring a new sound to our favorite instruments (e.g., 3D printing). The only way to know how the future of music will play out is to play along!

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