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violin shape

Instruments: how - why - did it end up the way that it does?

From bill kilpatrick
Posted June 13, 2011 at 01:07 AM

a question concerning the shape of a violin: how - why - did it evolve the way it did?

more to the point, how - why - did the violin get the pointy bits it presently has?  the rebec from which it evolved is more almond shaped and the sound chamber of a medieval violin looks a bit like a fat ukulele with a classic, figure "8" shape.  the shoulder-less, chanot design seems a logical step in the same direction but how - why - did we end up with points?

just curious.

From bill platt
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 02:38 AM
From Andrew Victor
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 03:53 AM

The C bouts of a violin are required, along with the curved bridge, to to allow 4 (or 5 or 6) strings to be bowed individually. The points that joint upper and lower bouts to the C bout make for easier construction of the ribs than continuous ribs (such as some of the new carbon fiber instruments have) without the points.

Perhaps that is what you are talking about.


From Roland Garrison
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 03:54 AM

Because the brass one with a gooseneck sounded like a french horn, so that is what they named it?

Then they tried one with lots of strings, and ran afoul of the harp guild, which promptly took it over and changed the name.

Next, the one with the skinhead stretched across a gourd.... well you get the idea.

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 08:43 AM

... this why i joined facebook

From elise stanley
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 08:58 AM

We have to admit that the sound of the violin, in particular in the hands of a novice, can be irritating to some.  In times of yore this could result in argument and even personal attacks.  The wise luthiers added the pointy bits to make the instrument double as a spiked club.

From oliviu dorian constantinescu
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 11:03 AM

Because the oldest precursor of the violin to resemble a violin was called lira da braccio, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. All subsequent designs of the violin were based on this instrument.

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 01:49 PM

lira di braccio (braccio - arm) - viola di gamba (gamba - leg.)  google images show a variety of shapes and sizes, some with points, some not.    would i be correct in thinking points are more decorative in nature than acoustic?  from the tenure of a good many of your replies, may i assume this subject has been done to death?


From bill platt
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 03:40 PM
From Roland Garrison
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 06:41 PM

OK, I was probably having a bit too much fun with my last post.

However, let's look at it as if the violin did NOT exist, and we wanted to make another stringed instrument with a significantly different sound. The guitar or a dilcimer is the only thing we have to go on at present.

We want to be able to sustain notes; plucking doesn't work.... hmmm, let's use a bow or something.

OK, now we need to miss some of the strings, and selectively bow what we want; curved bridge.

OK, now when we bow, we hit the sides; the c bouts.

OK, we want a bigger better echo chamber, so we make the body longer and longer. Getting a bvit unwieldy to hold, and there is a factor that the strings need to be longer than the chamber, or the sound is kinda strange; it's notgoing to be like a dulcimer; now we have the neck. Extra advantage is we can use the left hand a bit better now.

So, the shape for the most part comes from functional considerations. After that, a bit of success with a particular shape will get the other makers copying that work.


From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 07:18 PM

But have a look at Simone Lamsma: she plays the ex-Chanot-Chardon Strad, which has a smooth outline without corners. There must be a story of how that violin ended up the way it is, but I don't know it.

And in both Frisia, where she is from, and Italy, the sky is perfectly blue.

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 09:58 PM

this is what i was getting at - nicolo guseto is also associated with this design (not much on-line information about him.)  i can see that a figure "8" (double bout) shape for the sound chamber makes for more efficient bowing but while learning to control the bow i found it very easy to snag the hairs on the corners.  i don't see how "c" bouts make for a more stable construction - i would have thought a figure 8 shape sound chamber would be stronger and every bit as resonate as the traditional design.

From elise stanley
Posted on June 13, 2011 at 10:26 PM

I don't know one way or the other - but I can say that (familiarity or not) the strad in question does not look anything as beautiful as the more usual shape.  Perhaps the points are more a luthier workmanship issue than a musical one- like the scroll?  (assuming I'm right about the scroll that is since everything seems to affect the note coming out of this instrument!

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 07:54 AM

ahhh ... aesthetics.  the corner-less fiddle i have is inexpensive and sounds no-where near as sweet or as loud as my traditional, german-made one ("stander" 300-series.)  but as for looks, i think they're beautiful - simple and elegant; ancient and art-nouveau at the same time.

here's an enthusiast showing off his new "gusetto" violin - tuning "issues" aside (cough-cough) nice sound for such a small price:


From David Burgess
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 09:01 AM

Without conventional corners, there's no easy way to hook both ends of a rubber band. They hang useless from the endbutton, and your sponge falls on the floor.

From Andre A
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 10:16 AM

Bill the violin sounds like a tin can. Such beauty should be hung in a picture frame. 

From John Cadd
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 10:56 AM

If you look at the decorated Strad  with the curly patterns , that gives a good example of the design habit used for many years.  In a decoration showing a growing plant the new shoot will branch off left as the main stem turns right. So as the bouts rise and turn into the bowed area the style tendency is for the new shoot ( the corner ) to turn outwards.  The style influence is hard to overcome in a society that has grown used to it. Look at the kind of skyscrapers being built in Middle Eastern countries and compare them with New York skyscrapers.  Or maybe they just want to be different on purpose.  Traditional violin designs will always be defended by most players because the style is what they are used to.They like it and will resist change separate from whether it sounds better or worse. It`s what they like and what they are used to.

From Christopher Payne
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 11:45 AM

 As the owner of two cornerless violins and a cornerless viola I can say that they sound good and look good. When you get used to the shape corners start to look very fussy. When you switch back to a conventional shape it really feels like the corners are in the way and very vulnerable. Cornerless instruments seem very sturdy to me and I'm sure the less blocks and pieces of wood the better the tone. It's hard to argue this as you can't swap between corners and no corners and compare the sound and let's face it, conventional violins vary in tone so much anyway, shape only being one factor.

I know one maker who makes student models like this to cut down cost so obviously it's easier and quicker to make a cornerless. I'm not suggesting that every violin made hereafter should not have corners but I do think we are short on choices as violinists. 

I also have a five string instrument that is viola d'amore shape which I really like. The corners are much blunter like a double bass, somewhat like this:





From Smiley Hsu
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 12:15 PM

I think the reason is obvious.  If they made it a different shape, it wouldn't fit in the case :-)

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on June 14, 2011 at 12:32 PM

... a case in point

From John Cadd
Posted on June 15, 2011 at 01:02 PM

Therefore the next item on the chopping block will be the scroll. If there were just as many cornerless violins and there was no tone difference we might choose the corners because they look nice.There would have to be a bonus in sound quality for the change to happen . You need longer strips of wood for the sides if you lose the corners. Corners are an indication of the makers skill. The maker is expressing himself.

From Christopher Payne
Posted on June 15, 2011 at 11:34 PM

 Mine all fit in regular cases!

From Robert Spear
Posted on June 16, 2011 at 12:58 PM

It's a subtle point, but when a violin is played, the entire body twists in certain ways depending on the frequency being reproduced. The degree of stiffness in the center bouts, including the ribs, has a marked influence on the twisting, and hence the sound, according to physicist and acoustician George Bissinger. The corner blocks, the curvature, and the thickness of the ribs in the central area will regulate the degree of twisting. My feeling is that the old master makers would have gradually tended toward whichever shape worked best for good sound, based on their accumulated practical observations.

The situation is not unlike the debate that went on for years among architects and engineers about the reason for flying buttresses on cathedrals. There was a theory that the buttresses somehow stabilized the structure, but the matter could not be proved or disproved until recently through the use of sophisticated computer modeling (the buttresses did, in fact, help stabilize the structure) Subsequent historical research revealed that the architects of the cathedral believed the same thing, but written records were lost so eventually everyone came to the conclusion that the buttresses were decorative or stylistic and had no practical function.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on June 16, 2011 at 01:38 PM

I wonder if Leonardo da Vinci had an input into the design of the violin. He was in the right area at the right time, everybody knew him, and he would surely have known the leading craftsmen. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any documentary evidence for this, but I like to imagine him visiting a local luthier, watching him work, making suggestions about the size and proportions of the instrument , and then leaving behind one or two done-on-the-spot sketches.

From Christopher Payne
Posted on June 16, 2011 at 08:42 PM

 The thing is, if some violins without corner blocks sound good and many that are made with blocks don't sound good and vice versa, what does that tell you?!  What if it doesn't work in all cases, given the variations of wood etc.,  but works in others? If blocks have a positive effect is this consistently over the whole pitch range? If corners are so important must they be quite so pointy or can they be made blunt with little or not effect? What if cornerless violins give a different sound, not worse or better? 

Really, it's impossible to compare the same instrument with and without blocks, you can only compare different instruments and as we know there is so much variation in the generic violin shape. 

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on June 16, 2011 at 09:13 PM

the minutiae never ends so it's perfectly logical.  i like to think of the points as a baroque embellishment that's alive and well - thank you - living a good life in the modern age.

From John Cadd
Posted on June 17, 2011 at 01:13 PM

For Robert Spear     In this month`s (July 2011) Strad there is an outstanding article describing the Guarnerius Plowden violin (1735) and SamZygmuntowicz  refers to the flexibility of the body. The narrower waist he is talking about.  "Structurally these sleek bodies tend to be more flexible (more so than the Stradivari or Amati models for instance ).This allows the top and back to be slightly thicker , yet still vibrate freely"

That was Sam quoting his own article from years ago.  The Plowden is on Utube played by Ruggiero Ricci  in The Glory of Cremona. 

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