The mandolin is a small plucked string instrument, of the lute family, with eight strings in four pairs or “courses”. It is played with a plectrum held between thumb and forefinger.

The tuning for a mandolin is exactly the same as a violin (GDAE). (String players please note, this means that anyone who has learned violin will quickly learn their way around the mandolin fingerboard).  Unlike a violin (but like a guitar) the mandolin fingerboard is fretted. So playing in tune is not a problem.

A bowlback mandolin

The mandolin originated in Italy, but has found its way round the world and found favour in countries as diverse as Japan and Germany (both countries have flourishing mandolin orchestra scenes), the USA (it is a mainstay of most bluegrass bands), and Brazil (where it is the lead instrument in choro music).

Bluegrass style mandolin with scroll and F-holes

There are two main shapes of mandolin: the traditional bowlback – which was the original shape of the instrument as it developed in Italy – and the modern flatback,which developed much later in the USA. They look very different, and are associated with different kinds of music, but the difference in sound is not as great as you might imagine.  You will see both kinds of mandolin in the MMO.


In the plucked string orchestra, the mandolin players are generally divided into 2 sections. Mandolin 1s mostly play the main melody, while Mandolin 2s play harmonies and counter-melodies.


Finally, let’s get one important thing out of the way: there is one thing which the mandolin is NOT. It is NOT a ukulele. (Just saying). If you are looking for a ukulele orchestra, you could try auditioning for this excellent group.