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Nail violin & bow, Anonymous, ?German, c. 1800, RCM 136
Picture of the nail violin with its bow

This anonymous nail violin consists of a wooden sound box, semi-circular in plan, around which are fixed a series of nails, the latter being the sounding bodies.  Named in tonic sol-fa on a curved strip of paper fixed to the upper surface of the sound box, these nails are positioned in the same layout as a piano keyboard with the ‘naturals’ at lower level and ‘accidentals’ slightly higher.  The compass is three octaves and a note, from ‘Ut’ to ‘Ut’.

The German violinist Johann Wilde is credited with inventing the nail violin in 1740.  Some instruments utilise a small hammer to strike the nails while others, such as this one, use a bow to excite them.  The instrument is held in the left hand, placing the thumb in the hole in the top of the sound box, while the right hand bows the upper ends of the nails.

Donaldson Collection, 1894.


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