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There are mandolins with f-shaped holes, oval holes, round holes; bowlback mandolins and flatback mandolins; archtop mandolins and flattop mandolins; mandolins with a pear-shaped body (A-style) or with a scroll (F-style); and even mandolin-banjos. Violins don't seem to have this kind of variance, and I've seen people argue that their shape inevitably has to be the way it is for them to sound good. Answers to this question give examples of some alternative shapes (e.g. with c-shaped holes), but they still are relatively similar to the "ordinary" shape. Both instruments are identically tuned, both are used all across the world for playing extremely different kinds of music. Why don't the rules that constrain the shape of the violin apply to the mandolin?

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  • Maybe a good starting point would be a quick Google of the history of mandolin. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_mandolin Commented Feb 17 at 18:58
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    Maybe the definition of "mandolin" is just that much more flexible than the definition of "violin"? (See pedal steel guitar for how flexible the definition of "guitar" can be.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 18 at 6:50
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    @Dekkadeci the pedal steel guitar is a nice example; however, if "less flexible definition" were the entire explanation, one would expect there to be many different kinds of "fiddles" (for a lack of a more precise word) that are essentially violins but look differently. Instead, we have the opposite situation, where instruments like the eight-string Hardanger fiddle basically look like elaborately decorated violins.
    – zabolekar
    Commented Feb 18 at 9:48
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    The only common properties are 1) the four courses of double strings, 2) the tuning, and 3) being played (mostly) with a plectrum.
    – rfbw
    Commented Feb 19 at 11:13

3 Answers 3

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There is one important difference between mandolins and violins, and that concerns the predominant direction in which the strings vibrate. For bowed strings, it is tangentially to the top, which necessitates a sound post and a body shape that can make use of it, whereas for the plucked mandolin the primary vibration is vertical which can be picked up with a suitably reinforced top of just about any shape. In that sense, mandolin does indeed objectively have more design freedom.

What makes it worse is that even most luthiers don't really seem to understand the physics of the sound post action (though the old masters most certainly did!) It is really a quite clever mechanism; basically any random change you could make to it would result in a worse response and only a properly thought-through redesign could hope to sound as good as a standard violin.

Still, I don't think that's the main reason why violins all look so similar. String players are just extremely conservative and everything diverging from "how it is done" has to offer very clear advantages to be even considered as an alternative.

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I don't think it's possible to give a conclusive answer as the question is somewhat speculative, but I think that several things are relevant and worth mentioning:

  1. It's to some extent a naming convention. "Violin" refers to a specific instrument, and "mandolin" refers to a family of instruments. As another example: "guitar" is a very generic name, "classic guitar" is much much narrower, and basically all classic guitars look almost the same. Or another example: in the "violin" world, the different sizes of the same instrument get a different name, in the "mandolin" world, the different sizes don't really have that (I don't know why is that and I won't get into more speculations).

  2. There are more types and shapes of bowing instruments, it's just that one got very prevalent, probably (speculation alert) for two reasons: (a) it's included into the symphonic orchestra (see below), and (b) it's super hard to learn to play it, so if you dedicate years and years into learning to play it on a reasonable level, you as well want to give yourself a chance of using it by choosing an instrument that people actually care about.

  3. Violin is an symphonic orchestral instrument, and for most of these, a lot of effort has been put into their perfection and standardization. The violin is maybe taken a step further as it's played by many in unison and they sit in the center of the orchester, meaning that even more standardization was sought for.

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    But how is it different from the mandola, the mandocello and the (admittedly uncommon) mandobass?
    – zabolekar
    Commented Feb 18 at 11:03
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    Technically, double bass is a viol, not a large violin. The others are large violins. Commented Feb 18 at 12:48
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    @zabolekar You know -- you can agree or disagree, that's not something I would like to change when the whole topic is very subjective :-)
    – yo'
    Commented Feb 18 at 15:45
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    @zabolekar While uncommon, there are fractions of larger string instruments used for children. Their look may be misleading, but appearance does not tell the absolute instrument specification. For instance, if you can just take an approximate look from a distance, a 1/4 double bass may look similar to a 2/4 cello, or even a full sized viola (depending on the perspective), if not even a violin. What's interesting here is that all these instruments are actually and historically derived from the viola, even if now it's common to refer to all of them as belonging to the "violin family". Commented Feb 19 at 3:38
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    Regarding names for different sizes in the family: For anyone playing in a plucked string orchestra, the difference between mandolin, mandola, mandoloncello, and (uncommon) mandobass is as obvious as the difference between violin and viola is for fiddlers. The last example in 1. is wrong!
    – rfbw
    Commented Feb 19 at 11:06
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There are ergonomic violas

(maybe ergonomic violins could exist too?).

Electric violins seem to come in all shapes and forms.

There are closely related instruments to violin with resonance strings.

There are small size differences as well between violins depending on what sound you want. And the head piece usually is kind of like a signum for you (as a luthier).

This is the picture I have of why you are not entirely right claiming violins are the same.

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  • What's a signum?
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 22 at 6:30
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    Like a signoff or signature. Some freedom of expression showing it is your creation. Maybe english doesn't use signum that way.
    – Emil
    Commented Feb 22 at 7:59
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    Oh I see. Wiktionary has it in English, but I haven't encountered it before. I'd consider "trademark" or "hallmark" or possibly "maker's mark" or "emblem," but I think each of these choices has its problems, and I can't think of a good single word. Anyway, with these comments, the meaning should be clear.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 22 at 10:11

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