GG: The Mandolin

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Gnomon's Guide

The mandolin is a small stringed instrument about the same size as a violin. It has steel strings and is played by plucking the strings with a plectrum1. It has a very sweet sound.

The mandolin is originally an Italian instrument, where it developed from a small member of the lute family. The name means "little mandola". It is rare in Europe outside of Italy, although it has made some inroads into Irish traditional music.

In America, many Italian immigrants brought mandolins with them and it was very popular in the late 19th century, leading to the design of a new type of instrument which is now the standard in America. It is still very popular although not as much as in the past.


The mandolin has eight strings, which are grouped into four pairs. Each string in the pair is tuned to the same note, and the four pairs are tuned to the same notes as the four strings of a violin, G3 D4 A4 and E5. (C4 is middle C). The mandolin is easier to play than the violin because it has frets on the fingerboard. This means that the fingers do not have to be positioned as accurately as in the violin.

Types of mandolin

There are three main types of mandolin: the Italian type and two American types.

The Italian Mandolin

This is the traditional sort. It has a teardrop-shaped body with a flat front and a round back. There is an oval hole in the front. The neck is very narrow. This sort of mandolin is commonly used as an accompaniment to lyrical songs in Italy and also made some headway into classical music with a few mandolin concertos. Italian mandolins usually play melodies, either a single note at a time, or in two-part harmony, by playing notes on two pairs of strings at the same time. The technique of tremolo is often used, where the strings are plucked in an up-and-down motion, so rapidly that a single continuous note is produced. It is not normal to play chords on Italian mandolins.

The Gibson A-style Flat Back

This mandolin was invented by Orville Gibson, an American instrument maker, in 1898. It is similar to the Italian mandolin but the body is bigger. The flat front and round back have been replaced
with panels which are called flat, but actually have a curved shape like those of a violin. This gives a fuller sound than the
Italian model. The neck is wider, making it more suited to playing chords.

The Gibson F-style Flat Back

This mandolin was developed from the A-style in about 1910. The oval sound hole has been replaced with f-shaped holes like in a violin. The body outline is a different shape, more like a modern electric guitar. This mandolin has a different tone from the A-style.

The two flat backed mandolins have completely taken over from the Italian mandolin in America.

Music for Mandolins

In America, mandolins appear in many different types of music, but most notably in Kentucky
Bluegrass music.

In Irish traditional music, the mandolin and its big sister, the mandola,
have been used since the traditional revival in the 1970's.

In the classical repertoire, mandolins are rare, but there are some works:

  • Vivaldi Concerto for Mandolin in C, RV 425
  • Vivaldi Concerto for Two Mandolins in G, RV 532
  • Paisiello Concerto for Mandolin in C
  • Mozart Don Giovanni - Song under the balcony
  • Hummel Concerto for Mandolin in G S.28
  • Mahler Symphony No. 7, 4th movement - about 15 minutes of mandolin
1Known in America as a 'pick'.

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