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What is a Mandolin?

S. Mithra
S. Mithra

A mandolin has eight strings, arranged in four pairs, and a rounded wood shell. As part of the chordophone family, the mandolin is a specific kind of lute. The sound of chordophone instruments comes from vibrating strings. The mandolin, and its neighboring mandola and bouzoukis, qualify as citterns because they are plucked with a plectrum like a guitar's pick, rather than played with a bow like a violin.

Mandolins are tuned like violins, since their pairs of strings correlate with the four strings of the smaller instrument. In chordophones, strings made of wire or sinew are suspended between two end points. The distance and tautness between those anchor points determines the tone. Mandolin strings are tuned in unison and differ from the next pair by a fifth of a note. Some variations on the mandolin are the mandola, tuned a fifth lower, the mandobass tuned like an upright bass, and the mandocello, tuned an entire octave below the mandolin.

A mandolin has eight strings arranged in four pairs.
A mandolin has eight strings arranged in four pairs.

Many stages of evolution changed the mandolin from an ancient lute to a modern American folk instrument. Mesopotamia originated a hollowed wood bowl with strings called the Oud, meaning "wood". Many European countries adapted this simplest chordophone, adding strings, frets, lengthening or shortening the strings, and changing the body's shape. Fifteenth century Italy saw the rise of the Mandola, Italian for "almond," the direct ancestor of the Mandolin.

Centuries later, Italians brought their beloved instrument to America in the first and second wave of immigration in the 1830s and 1880s, respectively. When the round-backed variety was introduced to the scene, a musician and manufacturer named Orville Gibson made significant changes to modernize the relic. In the early 20th century, as vaudeville and jazz became popular music forms, Gibson remade the mandolin as an American pastime by flattening the back, curving the neck, adding a fingerboard, and other innovations to make it easy to learn. In parlors and theaters across the country, ordinary people gravitated toward the reinvented instrument for evening entertainment. Even with the fall of vaudeville theater in the 30s, mandolins remained popular. Today their unique sound is associated with musical forms as diverse as jazz, country, folk, bluegrass, classical, and even electric rock.

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Discussion Comments


You can hear the mandolin on Rod Stewart’s song “Maggie May.” Led Zeppelin also used the mandolin for some of their acoustic ballads.

The mandolin to me sounds like a music box. The somewhat tinny, ringing notes it produces seem like they would be right at home inside one of these trinkets.


@blackDagger - The mandolin does look like a lot of work! I saw The Courtyard Hounds in concert awhile ago and I was amazed at the way those ladies played their stringed instruments, mandolin included. They were constantly switching between instruments and they played them all wonderfully! It was really amazing.


I really like the sound of the mandolin! I think they're definitely an amazing instrument. I was kind of surprised to learn they were brought over by Italian immigrants though. I always associate the mandolin with country and bluegrass so I would have assumed it had more southern, possibly cajun, roots.


I’ve always seen mandolins far off on the stage, as my parents were huge country music fans as I grew up. However, once I went to college, I had the privilege to see these beautiful instruments up close and personal.

I went to a small liberal arts college in the mountains of North Carolina where blue grass is alive and well. The mandolin is a huge part of this kind of music.

It’s hard to explain just how it sounds, but it really does have a unique voice that is all its own. And a person that plays a mandolin definitely has to put in his share of work to get that sound out.


i just found this out cause my friend plays it and won't tell me what it was and just told me to google it so i did hahahahahahah its true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


What is every thing a mandolin is made of?

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    • A mandolin has eight strings arranged in four pairs.
      By: schankz
      A mandolin has eight strings arranged in four pairs.