Category Archive 'Violins'

25 May 2018

Great Violins and the Human Voice


Atlas Obscura reports on a new research approach attempting to explain the superiority of violins made in the top workshops of Cremona during the violin-makers’ Golden Age.

Since the 16th century, a disproportionate amount of the world’s great violins have come from Cremona, a city in northern Italy. The luthier Andrea Amati, who had a workshop in Cremona, is widely credited with inventing the violin in the mid-1500s. About a century later, Antonio Stradivari began making his own instruments, also in Cremona.

These instruments—along with those of another luthier, Giuseppe Guarneri—have inspired almost every contemporary take on violin design, but the originals are still considered peerless. “I have heard Stradivari violins in concerts and at close range,” writes the new study’s lead author, Bruce Hwan-Ching Tai. “They sound very unique to my ears.” Tai is both a chemical biologist and a classical music buff, and over the past few years, he and his colleagues have set out to “find an objective explanation” for this stirring sound, he writes. In 2016, for instance, his research group chemically analyzed wood shavings from four Stradivari violins alongside similar bits of modern maples.

They found that, compared to its contemporary analogues, the violin wood had been through a lot. It had been treated with chemicals, possibly to ward off bugs and fungus—a hypothesis originally suggested by Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist and luthier who has dedicated his life to recreating old violins. It had dried out; and it had vibrated so much from centuries of playing that its very fibers had begun to separate. These centuries of experience, the researchers postulate, helped to give the instruments their particular tone.

For this most recent study, Tai took the opposite tack, focusing on the sound itself. Other researchers, including Nagyvary, had already found sonic similarities between Stradivari notes and particular vowel sounds as sung by humans. Tai and his colleagues undertook a broader investigation, recording a violinist, Chu-Hsuan Feng, playing 15 different violins: five made by the Stradivari family, three made by the Amati family, four made by other Cremonese luthiers, and two made by Brescian luthiers (including Gasparo da Salo, who some consider to have “coinvented” the instrument with Amati). The violins were from the Chimei Museum in Taiwan, and are played “only a few times a year,” Tai writes.

They then had 16 choir members, eight male and eight female, sing the same scale eight times, once for each of the following vowel sounds: “had, head, heard, heed, hod, hoed, hud, who’d.” When the researchers had all of the recordings, they put them through sonic analysis, seeing how different aspects of the violin and human sounds matched up.

Because the researchers were comparing violin sounds with vowel sounds, they focused largely on formants: particular frequency sets that make up vowel vocalizations. When a person says or sings an “I” sound, for example, different parts of his larynx, pharynx, and oral cavity each produce sounds corresponding to a particular set of frequencies, which come together to make up the vowel. The researchers found that, despite lacking this human vocal architecture, the violins, too, produce formants with “vowel-like qualities.”

Another finding suggests that Geminiani was onto something. All of the violins included in the study displayed some sonic overlap with the sung vowels. But in the 1570 Amati and the 1560 da Salo, “every violin note appears to carry some degree of human vowel character,” Tai et. al. write in the paper. “This may have been one of the … goals implemented by Amati” when he was inventing and perfecting his design: to make the violin literally sing.

Finally, while Amati and da Salo violins had formants that resembled those of bass and baritone singers, Stradivari violins’ formants were more similar to tenors and altos. This suggests that Stradivari took the basic idea of a singing instrument and made it his own by changing the type of singer to imitate. “In the future, someone may try to produce violins that mimic mezzo-sopranos or sopranos,” writes Tai. “Whether it can be done or whether it will sound good remain to be seen.”


11 Mar 2015

Why Do Violins Have F-Holes?

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BoingBoing reports that a team from MIT has figured it out.

Why did violins slowly develop f-shaped sound-holes? Because it makes them more acoustically powerful than their ancestors, which had holes shaped liked a circle — as a team of MIT scientists recently concluded.

Back in the the 10th century, the makers of European stringed-instruments were building “fitheles” — the ancestor of the modern violin — but they used round holes. By the 12th century, they’d started using half-moon shapes, and a century later they’d refined it to a sort of C-shaped hole. Then in the 15th century they pioneered little circles at the ends of the holes, which, by the 17th century, had become the modern f-shaped hole.

A team of MIT scientists recently wondered why the shape had evolved that way. After crunching the math and doing some experiments, figured it out: The f-shape turns out to have physics that push a lot more air than a circular hole, making the violin’s output dramatically more powerful. From the Economist:

    “The answer, arrived at after several pages of advanced mathematics, and confirmed by experiment, is that holes’ sound-amplification properties depend not on their areas but on the lengths of their peripheries. They showed how the shape of the hole varied over the centuries, and how that affected its power output. The final Cremonese design had twice the sonic power of the circular holes of the fithele.”

Read the whole thing.

27 Sep 2009

Biotech Violin Wins Over Stradivarius

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Four modern violins by Michael Rhonheimer and one Stradivarius made in 1711

Material scientist Francis W.M.R. Schwarze believed that biotechnology could modify contemporary woods to possess the acoustic properties found in the centuries-old violins produced by masters of violin-making’s Golden Age.

Schwarze used varying amounts of fungal decay to modify the density of the woods used in two violins built by Michael Ronheimer. An acoustic tone test was then arranged at the annual Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen (forestry conference).

English violinist Matthew Trusler would play the same piece on five violins, in a blind test including a Stradivarius worth two million dollars built in 1711, two Rhonheimer violins built of untreated wood, and two Rhonheimer violins built from wood subjected to varying amounts of decay.

Science Daily
reports the astonishing result: Schwarze’s biotech defeated the workmanship of Stradivarius.

Of the more than 180 attendees, an overwhelming number – 90 persons – felt the tone of the fungally treated violin “Opus 58” to be the best. Trusler’s stradivarius reached second place with 39 votes, but amazingly enough 113 members of the audience thought that “Opus 58” was actually the strad! “Opus 58” is made from wood which had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months.


Francis W.M.R. Schwarze, et. al. Superior wood for violins – wood decay fungi as a substitute for cold climate


Violins produced by Antonio Stradivari during the late 17th and early 18th centuries are reputed to have superior tonal qualities. Dendrochronological studies show that Stradivari used Norway spruce that had grown mostly during the Maunder Minimum, a period of reduced solar activity when relatively low temperatures caused trees to lay down wood with narrow annual rings, resulting in a high modulus of elasticity and low density.

The main objective was to determine whether wood can be processed using selected decay fungi so that it becomes acoustically similar to the wood of trees that have grown in a cold climate (i.e. reduced density and unchanged modulus of elasticity).

This was investigated by incubating resonance wood specimens of Norway spruce (Picea abies) and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) with fungal species that can reduce wood density, but lack the ability to degrade the compound middle lamellae, at least in the earlier stages of decay.

Microscopic assessment of the incubated specimens and measurement of five physical properties (density, modulus of elasticity, speed of sound, radiation ratio, and the damping factor) using resonance frequency revealed that in the wood of both species there was a reduction in density, accompanied by relatively little change in the speed of sound. Thus, radiation ratio was increased from ‘poor’ to ‘good’, on a par with ‘superior’ resonance wood grown in a cold climate.


It is possible to listen to this kind of comparison oneself. Ruggiero Ricci played the same opening of Bruch‘s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866) on 15 important violins, including examples by Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius, on a record titled The Glory of Cremona, currently regrettably out-of-print and expensive.

But all 15 Ricci performances and 3 additions are available via YouTube vidoes, linked here.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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