DDV Music - Music Information and Education

History of the Mandolin

by Vancouver Mandolin Society

There is no accepted origin for the mandolin.  Western Europe had a large number of multi-stringed instruments during the period 1000 to 1500 AD.

While the Italians consider the mandolin to be their national instrument, according to Tyler and Sparks in their book The Early Mandolin,  the first music known to have been written specifically for the mandolin is Pierre Brunet's Tablatur de Mandorre, published in Paris in 1578.

The first information about the mandolin appears in a French manuscript from c.1583-7; there is an illustration and a tuning chart.

There are many theories: The Russian school postulate that the mandolin, with four double strings and the domra with four single strings with the same tuning are both derived from the instruments used by the Mongol hordes when they invaded Eastern Europe in c.1250.

The Romantic school believes that the mandolin evolved from the instruments that were brought home from the Holy Land by the Crusaders.

Until the 1890's, mandolins remained in the Neapolitan style or bowl shaped.

In the late 1890's Orville Gibson hollowed out a teardrop-shaped flat mandolin body from a solid block of wood and fitted it with a neck and flat face.  A mandolinist in Portland, Oregon is still using an example dated 1898.
It was much more economical to carve the face and back and fit them to the sides which were bent to shape.

The twentieth century has brought other changes and modifications.


In 1902, the asymmetrical F-style mandolin was introduced.  The curlique on the bass-side of the instrument was to provide a larger sound box and then in 1922 the oval-shaped sound hole was replaced with F-style sound holes like those found on a violin.  This change produced a brighter sound with a fast decay, which is very popular with performers of country western and bluegrass music.


Raffeil Callachie, the Italian mandolinist and composer, added two small ivory sound holes between the bridge and the normal sound hole to emphasize the high notes on this 1919 example.
The mandolin family is patterned on the violin.  Just as the violin family consists of the violin, viola, cello and contra bass, the mandolin family consists of the:

The major differences being that the mandolin family has frets (metal bars on the finger board) and the mandolin, mandola and mandocello have double strings.

Both groups of instruments are tuned the same.  Any music written for the violin family can be played by the mandolin family.


The OCTAVE MANDOLIN, which is tuned one octave lower than the mandolin is very popular for providing the bass line for a mandolin ensemble.

The GUITAR is also very well suited to support either the mandolin alone or in an ensemble.  Many other instruments are also compatible with the mandolin: the recorder, the flute, the clarinet, and the harp, as well as other instruments are sometimes used in mandolin ensembles and orchestras.

In addition to the instruments described above, the Vancouver Mandolin Society has a PICOLLO MANDOLIN, tuned an octave higher that the mandola and a twelve string mandolin.


There is a rich and varied repertoire of music, including works by Handel, Vivaldi, Sammartini, Alessandro Scarlatti, Hummel, Beethoven and Mozart.  The famous violinist Nicolo Paganini started his career on the mandolin and composed an excellent concerto for a solo mandolin.

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Vancouver Mandolin Society