The Formalized Fiddle

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Towards a New Methodology of Organological Research Using Interoperable Digital Data


Area of research:

Organology, Musicology, Information Sciences (Collection Management software, standards and norms (metadata, ISO)), Classification systems and thesauri.


On the 1st of June 2012 the research project The Formalized Fiddle started in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels. This project focuses on fiddles, string instruments played by bowing with a bow, and is part of the Action 1 programme supported by POD Science Policy. For three years the mim has been given the opportunity to study fiddles from all over the world which are digitally accessible. Goal of the project is to compare the available digital fiddle metadata and research similarities, differences, evolutions and migrations through a large body of metadata.


The information on fiddles from the different museums is gathered in one digital depot in our database MuseumPlus. In order to have a clearly defined scope of the research domain, in this study only the ethnic and folk fiddles are included; Western classical instruments (both historical and contemporary) are left aside.

A database is used to store information on objects, such as object names, authors, object history, measurements and materials. For The Formalized Fiddle this information is complemented with a large number of classification tags, parameters which refer to the physical characteristics of a certain instrument. For example, soundhole shape, neck length, decoration, number of strings, bridge type, soundboard shape and bow type. This enables us to link fiddles outside the limiting tree structure of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification.

Progress January 2015:

The starting point is the collection of the 166 ethnic and folk fiddles of the mim. They have been supplemented with information from the new MIMO database, Musical Instrument Museums Online, where twelve European museums have imported their information regarding fiddles (amongst others). This led to an expansion of the fiddle corpus to 795 objects. Other museums from all over the world have been contacted and asked to share their information on fiddles, to reach a collection as large as possible. Some of these museums have their collection readily accessible online, while others have been so generous as to send us datalists and photographs of their fiddles. Furthermore, fieldtrips have been undertaken to the Danish Music Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Musée de la Musique in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and the Musée Panafricain de la Musique in Brazzaville, Congo, to gather their information on site. At present, the project has harvested from 35 external museums, among which the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. At the moment 142 fiddle types have been identified and described, and the total number of fiddles in our database is 2456.

Thus a large network of fiddle parameters is being created, which are linked through different thesauri and metadata. It becomes possible to formalize part of the organological research. With specific search commands and data filtering, certain evolutions or other relations between instruments can be examined. For example, it is possible to search for all fiddles with sympathetic strings and to study the geographic distribution and historical evolution within the corpus of instruments with this characteristic. Or to observe the prevalence of all anthropomorphic decorations and their similarities and differences. A wealth of data becomes verifiable, manageable, digestible and explorable.

Such a formalization requires a thorough reflection of objects and their characteristics. The fiddles are reduced to data lists, which may not be able to do justice to their complexity. Consequently, the practicability and the desirability of the formalizations will be examined by means of case studies.

An article on a day of fieldwork in Burkina Faso can be found here:

To see some video recordings made during fieldtrips, watch the videos below.




Carolien Hulshof, Musicologist
Tel: +32 2 545 01 61


Dr. Saskia Willaert, curator of African instruments, head of Workshop for Restauration and Conservation
Tel: +32 2 545 01 67

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External Video
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