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Over 30% of the Oregon Symphony plays the violin. It is the soprano member of the family of string instruments that includes the viola and cello. This analogy to the voice is apt, as the violin is best known for its singing quality in addition to its quickness of articulation and versatility of sound. Orchestras typically have two violin sections, referred to as “first” and “second.” The instruments are identical, but the second violin section plays a line of music that is lower in register.
The violin got its start in the mid-1500s, largely because it could double a vocal line well and was portable enough to dance with. Violin making flourished from 1650 to 1750 in Italy, particularly in Cremona with Nicolo Amati and his pupils Giuseppi Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari. Instruments by these makers are still the most sought after. As the size of concert halls grew in the 19th century, violins were modernized by creating more pressure on the strings, allowing the instruments to produce more sound to fill those halls.
Without the bow, a violin is not much more than an expensive ukulele. Indeed, it is not unusual for a string player to own several bows, each with a different weight and balance for a specific style of music.
Source: The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.,  ISBN 0-333-43236-3