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The mandolin is a chordophone (stringed) instrument and a direct descendant of the Lute family. The normal mandolin contains four sets (also known as courses) of double strings tuned in fifths, and at the same pitch as its cousin, the violin: g d' a' e". Like its violin family cousins, the mandolin family has a similar structure in instrumentation: mandolin (violin), mandora or mandola (viola), mandocello (violoncello), and the (extremely rare) mandobass (contrabass). Each 'cousin' is tuned alike, and represents the soprano, alto, tenor and bass ranges within their respective group.
The tones are rendered through use of a plectrum (also known as a pick), either by single note, strummed, or through a sustained tremolo, which is produced by a quick vibrating movement of the plectrum. Some Brazilian styles of mandolin playing use the fingers in place of a plectrum, as is common with fingerstyle guitar playing.
Being a Lute descendant, variations of mandolin construction have occurred over time which more closely resemble its predecessors, with some instruments having five double courses (Fiorentine and Padovano mandolins), six courses (Genovese mandolin), and four single-courses (Mandolino Senese and Sicilian Mandolin) being the more historically-common examples. The Mandolone, or Arcimandola, now obsolete, carried the largest number of courses, either seven or eight depending on construction, but otherwise was similar in all respects to the Neapolitan mandolin.
The mandolin of the late 1800s to the present stem from the Neapolitan mandolin (mandolino napolitano) of the early Eighteenth Century. The Neapolitan mandolin was constructed with a deeply vaulted piriform body formed with narrow ribs of wood (colloquially known as bowl-back or gourd-back, since the shape favored that of a hollowed gourd) to which was connected a fretted fingerboard neck. A pegboard set at an obtuse angle to the neck contained the tuning machinery upon which the strings of the instrument were wound (formerly of catgut; now of steel wire). The strings pass over a nut made of ivory, bone, hardwood or (in more modern times, solid plastic), up the fretboard, across a bridge placed on the top of the instrument, and end by being looped over posts at the tailpiece.
Most mandolins constructed before circa 1900 were of the Neapolitan design. In 1898, Orville Gibson was granted a patent for a new form of mandolin whose construction more closely favored that of the violin: the sides and neck were carved from a single piece of wood, with a symmetrically-carved design (eliminating the bowl-back in favor of a shallow arch build) which revolutionized the look, and sound, of the mandolin. Gibson's "A-series" mandolin had a symmetrical teardrop body:
while the "F-series" mandolin augmented the teardrop design with a scroll on the bass side of the body and two points on the treble side.
From 1919 to 1924, Lloyd Loar and Guy Hart took Gibson's mandolin design one step forward: f-style holes replaced the oval soundholes, an additional tone bar was added (versus one in the violin), and the fingerboard was raised off the top of the instrument (akin to the violin), which allows the top to resonate more freely, providing more resonance and a larger volume of sound. The A-style and F-style mandolins are the instruments most often played today by soloists and orchestras, with the Neapolitan-style mandolins preferred by early music and/or period instrument ensembles.
The mandolin has been used in many styles of composition throughout time, both as a solo instrument and in ensemble.
In Classical writings, it is found in compositions by Vivaldi and Hummel (numerous concerti for mandolin and orchestra), Handel (Alexander Balus oratorio), Paesiello (Il Barbiero de Sevilla), Mozart (Don Giovanni), Verdi (Otello), Beethoven (various Sonatas for Mandolin and Piano), Mahler (Symphony No. Seven), Stravinski (Agon), among other composers and compositions in musical literature.
Folk music has drawn the mandolin into its fold very easily. From music of the British Isles to North American Appalachia to South America and beyond, with particular favorites found in reels, jigs, and other assorted tunes, the combination of the mandolin with violin, guitar, acoustic/upright bass and occasional vocals has provided musical comfort unique unto itself from the middle of the Twentieth Century forward; with bluegrass -- and the foundations laid by mandolinist Bill Monroe (1911-1996) -- being the pinnacle of the genre. Jazz, Rock, New Age, and other musical styles have incorporated the mandolin in varying ways with success.
With the advent of the Twentieth Century, and the surge of immigration in America, mandolin orchestras grew in popularity. Many towns featured "mandolin clubs", where local talent gathered to play waltzes, parlor songs, college songs, light classical music, marches, ragtime and other popular music of the day. These clubs, particularly in larger metropolitan areas, grew in size and membership, forming full-fledged mandolin orchestras, which featured the members of the mandolin family, in addition to guitar, bass, and occasional other instruments as the local talent pools had readily available. After World War One, however, and the rise of Jazz and Big Band/Swing, the mandolin faded from the limelight. Most of the mandolin orchestras of the era retired into the pages of history...but not all.
Some of the more long-standing organizations to survive the changes over time include: The New York Mandolin Orchestra, one of the oldest continually-performing orchestras in America, which celebrated their eightieth anniversary in June, 2004; The Sydney (Australia) Mandolin Orchestra, founded in 1932; the Bloomfield (New Jersey) Mandolin Orchestra, founded in 1942. For more information on current mandolin orchestras, see the Mandolin Orchestra Community page at the "MO Community" link below.