Describing Violin Sound

January 15, 2008 at 06:48 AM · It seems terms like dark, powerful, bright, mellow, for example, do not always convey the same tone among violinists. I am curious as to what "dark" means to most. Is it more of a bass sound? Does "powerful" mean the sound projects much beyond the player's ear? What is generally meant by "bright"? Is "mellow" opposite of "dark"

Please forgive this neophyte and thank you!!

Replies (33)

January 15, 2008 at 07:04 AM · I think violin tone should always be described in human terms, such as:










Comical .....

January 15, 2008 at 12:10 PM · It will depend a bit of who is playing...

January 15, 2008 at 12:24 PM · i remember michael darnton once provided a list of very descriptive terms he uses on another site. good stuff. is md here to quote himself once more or did someone save that list?

ps. allan, i have seen your list in description of players but not sound:)

January 15, 2008 at 01:12 PM · Al, Probably you mean this this list, which was generated by audiophiles. It's the best set of descriptions I've seen, even though it differs from what violinists say. The source is here:

Airy: Spacious. Open. Instruments sound like they are surrounded by a large reflective space full of air. Good reproduction of high-frequency reflections. High-frequency response extends to 15 or 20 kHz.

Bassy: Emphasized low frequencies below about 200 Hz.

Blanketed: Weak highs, as if a blanket were put over the speakers.

Bloated: Excessive mid-bass around 250 Hz. Poorly damped low frequencies, low-frequency resonances. See tubby.

Blurred: Poor transient response. Vague stereo imaging, not focused.

Boomy: Excessive bass around 125 Hz. Poorly damped low frequencies or low-frequency resonances.

Boxy: Having resonances as if the music were enclosed in a box. Sometimes an emphasis around 250 to 500 Hz.

Breathy: Audible breath sounds in woodwinds and reeds such as flute or sax. Good response in the upper-mids or highs.

Bright: High-frequency emphasis. Harmonics are strong relative to fundamentals.

Chesty: The vocalist sounds like their chest is too big. A bump in the low-frequency response around 125 to 250 Hz.

Clear: See Transparent.

Colored: Having timbres that are not true to life. Non-flat response, peaks or dips.

Crisp: Extended high-frequency response, especially with cymbals.

Dark: Opposite of bright. Weak high frequencies.

Delicate: High frequencies extending to 15 or 20 kHz without peaks.

Depth: A sense of distance (near to far) of different instruments.

Detailed: Easy to hear tiny details in the music; articulate. Adequate high-frequency response, sharp transient response.

Dull: See dark.

Edgy: Too much high frequencies. Trebly. Harmonics are too strong relative to the fundamentals. Distorted, having unwanted harmonics that add an edge or raspiness.

Fat: See Full and Warm. Or, spatially diffuse - a sound is panned to one channel, delayed, and then the delayed sound is panned to the other channel. Or, slightly distorted with analog tape distortion or tube distortion.

Full: Strong fundamentals relative to harmonics. Good low-frequency response, not necessarily extended, but with adequate level around 100 to 300 Hz. Male voices are full around 125 Hz; female voices and violins are full around 250 Hz; sax is full around 250 to 400 Hz. Opposite of thin.

Gentle: Opposite of edgy. The harmonics - highs and upper mids - are not exaggerated, or may even be weak.

Grainy: The music sounds like it is segmented into little grains, rather than flowing in one continuous piece. Not liquid or fluid. Suffering from harmonic or I.M. distortion. Some early A/D converters sounded grainy, as do current ones of inferior design. Powdery is finer than grainy.

Grungy: Lots of harmonic or I.M. distortion.

Hard: Too much upper midrange, usually around 3 kHz. Or, good transient response, as if the sound is hitting you hard.

Harsh: Too much upper midrange. Peaks in the frequency response between 2 and 6 kHz. Or, excessive phase shift in a digital recorder's lowpass filter.

Honky: Like cupping your hands around your mouth. A bump in the response around 500 to 700 Hz.

Mellow: Reduced high frequencies, not edgy.

Muddy: Not clear. Weak harmonics, smeared time response, I.M. distortion.

Muffled: Sounds like it is covered with a blanket. Weak highs or weak upper mids.

Nasal: Honky, a bump in the response around 600 Hz.

Piercing: Strident, hard on the ears, screechy. Having sharp, narrow peaks in the response around 3 to 10 kHz.

Presence: A sense that the instrument in present in the listening room. Synonyms are edge, punch, detail, closeness and clarity. Adequate or emphasized response around 5 kHz for most instruments, or around 2 to 5 kHz for kick drum and bass.

Puffy: A bump in the response around 500 Hz.

Punchy: Good reproduction of dynamics. Good transient response, with strong impact. Sometimes a bump around 5 kHz or 200 Hz.

Rich: See Full. Also, having euphonic distortion made of even-order harmonics.

Round: High-frequency rolloff or dip. Not edgy.

Sibilant: "Essy" Exaggerated "s" and "sh" sounds in singing, caused by a rise in the response around 6 to 10 kHz.

Sizzly: See Sibilant. Also, too much highs on cymbals.

Smeared: Lacking detail. Poor transient response, too much leakage between microphones. Poorly focused images.

Smooth: Easy on the ears, not harsh. Flat frequency response, especially in the midrange. Lack of peaks and dips in the response.

Spacious: Conveying a sense of space, ambiance, or room around the instruments. Stereo reverb. Early reflections.

Steely: Emphasized upper mids around 3 to 6 kHz. Peaky, nonflat high-frequency response. See Harsh, Edgy.

Strident: See Harsh, Edgy.

Sweet: Not strident or piercing. Delicate. Flat high-frequency response, low distortion. Lack of peaks in the response. Highs are extended to 15 or 20 kHz, but they are not bumped up. Often used when referring to cymbals, percussion, strings, and sibilant sounds.

Telephone-like: See Tinny.

Thin: Fundamentals are weak relative to harmonics.

Tight: Good low-frequency transient response and detail.

Tinny: Narrowband, weak lows, peaky mids. The music sounds like it is coming through a telephone or tin can.

Transparent: Easy to hear into the music, detailed, clear, not muddy. Wide flat frequency response, sharp time response, very low distortion and noise.

Tubby: Having low-frequency resonances as if you're singing in a bathtub. See bloated.

Veiled: Like a silk veil is over the speakers. Slight noise or distortion or slightly weak high frequencies. Not transparent.

Warm: Good bass, adequate low frequencies, adequate fundamentals relative to harmonics. Not thin. Also excessive bass or midbass. Also, pleasantly spacious, with adequate reverberation at low frequencies. Also see Rich, Round. Warm highs means sweet highs.

Weighty: Good low-frequency response below about 50 Hz. Suggesting an object of great weight or power, like a diesel locomotive.

January 15, 2008 at 02:00 PM · "...this this list, which was generated by audiophiles."

"...Veiled: Like a silk veil is over the speakers..."

In Stereophile there was at least one reviewer who could even tell you the exact number of veils :) Or at least get you to the approximate number.

January 15, 2008 at 02:05 PM · "Dark: Opposite of bright. Weak high frequencies"

lol, that is a cop out!

what is a dark sounding violin sounding like? any clips?

January 15, 2008 at 04:46 PM · Allan Speers wrote: "I think violin tone should always be described in human terms, such as: Arrogant, Bodacious, Shy, Demure ....."

I agree with the need to give thought to the emotional effects, such as those you list. However I think it is important to be aware that none of these is a description of sound. Rather these adjectives describe how a person might feel as a result of hearing a particular sound. This distinction is, in my view, crucial. A music lover doesn't necessarily need to describe sound; he may dwell in the world of feeling and remain there. However, a musician needs to know both how he wants the listener to feel, and what he wants to *hear* that (he hopes) will ellicit this feeling. If a conductor says to his orchestra that he wants a celebratory sound, that's OK with me, provided that the conductor understands that he told the orchestra nothing at all about sound,,,,What he said was: "Make a sound that makes me feel like I'm celebrating"! That, in itself may get the result he desires. But if it doesn't, and he is a good musician, he will not blame the orchestra for not making him feel celebratory! Rather he will know his craft well enough to actually talk about the qualities in the *sound* that he wants to hear. He will use words such as "accented, forte, accellerate the beat"; words like those on Michael Darnton's list, which are words which describe sound, rather than describe how he feels when he hears a certain sound. A musician needs to think clearly and speak clearly about both feeling and hearing.

January 15, 2008 at 04:50 PM · Does anybody else sometimes hear sound as colors? It happens to me with enough regularity that I think I might have mild synaesthesia. It's neat, but sometimes it makes me look rather strange: last semester in my aural skills class, the teacher was getting us to distinguish between the IV and ii6 chords, and I mused aloud "Yeah, the ii6 is a little...bluer...."

January 15, 2008 at 06:25 PM · Interesting question, to which there is no answer, of course. Like describing wine, or complex foods. There is a certain vocabulary, but the words themselves mean something different to each speaker, based on their taste & experience. Sue

January 15, 2008 at 06:19 PM · mr steiner that is another great post on the distinction...

do you suggest a teacher should enlighten by the "celebratory" remark more or stay with emphasizing "forte..", in the violinist language? it seems that the former allows the student to be more creative in finding the right feel and the latter more mechanical...

i heard that ms delay did not demonstrate much during teaching (true or not i'm not sure), how does her teaching go along with the gist of your post i wonder? thanks!

January 15, 2008 at 07:16 PM · Al Ku wrote: "i heard that ms delay did not demonstrate much during teaching (true or not i'm not sure), how does her teaching go along with the gist of your post i wonder?

She demonstrated specific points, usually about the mechanics. She might play a shift between two notes over several times, to show what qualities in the movement helped the precision and reliability of the shift. In contrast, Mr. Gingold used demonstrations to thrill you and touch your emotions with gorgeous playing, so you would want to rush home and practice the phrase.

Miss DeLay "didn't like hocus-pocus.", by which she meant telling a student to play a phrase "like you are weaving a tapestry", and then sending him home to practice. She felt that one needs to know what he wants to hear and how to produce it, as well as what he feels and wants the audience to feel. In that sense, I think my earlier post in this thread reflects my study with her. When a teacher tells a student, in essence, to "Make me feel like I'm celebrating", and then blames the student for not getting the desired result, rather than the teacher re-framing the request in the form of ear training or mechanical analysis, I don't think: "bad student", I think: "bad teacher"! I got that from Miss DeLay.

January 15, 2008 at 07:50 PM · now i understand better, thank you!

January 15, 2008 at 08:38 PM · Oliver,

I was making a joke. ( ! )

Although, as an audio professional, I can tell you that actual descriptive terms fall very short of accuracy. I could, for instance, give completely different interpretations of 80% of Michael's list, even though I applaud his efforts for its scope. Recording engineers & producers often use terms like "brown" and "zippy" or "alive" instead of talking frequencies, because a frequency boost of XXX db @ XXX hertz will have completely different effects on different instruments, and in different musical contexts.

As for violins, one cannot even use a term like "balanced" with accuracy, since one could then say "balanced in relation to WHAT? Balanced for Bach, Paganini, or chamber playing?

Dark? Never was there a more nebulous term. Same goes for "bright" - Is that too much HF, or not enough LF? The great violins don't have much above 6K or so, so how can any good violin be described as bright?

Funny thing: I've spent an incredible amount of time over the last two years recording all manner of violins, carefully analizing their tone, response, etc, trying to determin not what is "best," but at least what I personally like. I have a very good idea at this point, I can hear that "perfect" sound in my head, but I absolutely cannot describe it to you in a few simple words. There just are no words in the English language that apply. Perhaps if I wrote several paragraphs, I might be able to convey the basic principles, but I think you'd literally have to be a recording engineer to fully understand. It's like how Eskimos have around 27 different names for snow...


Some terms I DO like:

Responsive - Large amount of volume & timbral range on tap.

Throaty - that classic GDG sound, as opposed to the typically smoother Strad sound.

Smooth - See above.

Thin / fat - kind of obvious.

Woody / glassy - polar oppositse, but hard to explain.

Tubby - I like Michael's definition

After that, it's the wild wild west. I still consider my favorite violin to be somewhat bodacious. Lots of fun to play, but can often be embarrassing in front of a crowd.

-or maybe that's just my playing skills. (g)

January 16, 2008 at 12:35 AM · I like it, Allan.

"Mr. Luthier, could you adjust my violin to sound "sensible", but with a touch of "comedy" for balance?" ;)

January 16, 2008 at 01:21 AM · This is an utterly ridiculous thread.

January 16, 2008 at 04:02 AM · Works for me. (g)

January 16, 2008 at 05:29 AM · Mr. Speers,

Thank you very much. I am now convinced that I can not explain to a luthier the sound I want, i.e. that "perfect" sound that exists in my head.

Thus I'm left to await completion of his work and then decide if it satisfactory. Someone else wrote (as I recall) that the perfect violin does not exist, or if it does, it won't be found. Thanks again.

January 16, 2008 at 11:04 AM · James, it sounds like you're still searching for answers, so I'll take a stab at it.

Listen to some recorded violin music and play with the treble and bass controls. For most people, a "dark" sound is what you might get from turning up the bass a bit and turning down the treble. A "bright" sound might be the opposite.

If you have tone controls that let you adjust specific bands, a "mellow" sound might be like turning down the mid range.

Unfortunately there isn't wide agreement on what these terms mean, so the above is a very crude generalization. "Power" could refer to the sound under the ear, the result of an experiment in an auditorium, or just a tactile feel that the player gets.

Allan has already described some of the challenges. Is "bright" too much high frequency, or not enough low frequency? I especially like, "It's like how Eskimos have around 27 different names for snow..."

Lots of times we need to learn a players vocabulary as we adjust a violin, by making a change, and then asking the player to describe the change so we can begin to relate their description to what we hear. This is a big part of Rene Morel's adjustment routine. If terms were standardized, it would be so much easier!

I think one good way to communicate sound to a luthier or anyone else is to bring in a comparison fiddle as an example, as in, "I want my violin to sound like this" or "I want my violin to have more of this" or "this fiddle has a quality I hate. Make mine sound as far away from this as possible".

When communicating sound to other musicians, a similar comparative thing can be done with recordings. Trying to get someone to understand the sound of an instrument from a single recording will be skewed by the recording method and the playback equipment , environment etc. But if you can provide back-to-back comparisons of two different sounds, lots of people can pick out the differences.

So now let me use some adjectives to describe the difference between the music of Bach and Telemann. (grin)

January 16, 2008 at 02:34 PM · You have dark like turning the bass up and the treble down, and you have dark like the sound that comes from the bottom of a still pond at midnight :)

January 16, 2008 at 02:33 PM · Mr. Burgess,

As a recent discoverer of I have come to appreciate the comprehensive value of your postings. Your above messsage is but another example. Thank you so very much for all of your assistance.


January 16, 2008 at 11:23 PM · quote: "You have dark like turning the bass up and the treble down, and you have dark like the sound that comes from the bottom of a still pond at midnight :)"

And then, Jim, there's dark like the heart of a serial killer.

-Such violins should always be kept in the hands of concertmasters. -as close to the conductor as possible. (g)

January 16, 2008 at 11:36 PM · And dark like buying Calculus for Dummies without working through Algebra for Dummies first.

January 16, 2008 at 11:28 PM · When one plays with a graphic equalizer, it's interesting to hear how boosting either of two frequencies, both of which might be called "bass", has a completely different effect. In listening to a male voice, boosting a band centered on 200 Hz sounds to me like cloudy and boomy bass, whereas boosting 100 Hz sounds more Basso in character, but without the boomy and cloudy sound. Boosting one high frequency makes the E string sound sweet...but another high frequency boosted makes the E string sound strident. Any violinist who has the opportunity to try out a graphic equalizer while listening to a violin recording, would soon appreciate that a word like "bright" might mean either of two opposite things!

January 17, 2008 at 12:38 AM · Yes, start playing with narrow ranges, like on a 30 band graphic equalizer or an FFT filter, and you discover all kinds of strange things!

January 17, 2008 at 02:47 AM · Messrs. Speers, Miller, Steiner & Burgess:

My Mother said to learn something new every day.

With your marvelous postings, how can I miss.

OK, so to communicate desired sounds to luthier, who resides in Italy, I shall forego the use of "dark", etc, etc. (1) He sent me an mp3 file featuring one of his violins. Quite good. (2) I plan to send him a CD featuring THE sound so dear to me...darker (lol) or more bass on G & D strings than (1) above. My sincere Thanks, Gents! James

January 17, 2008 at 03:30 AM · I've been to a couple of violin recitals where the sound was beyond sound. One was a local guy, who'd done well in the Tchaikovsky competition. I don't know how to explain really but it was like listening to a welder. It was like sparks were flying out of his contact point. It was about half visual, but of course you couldn't really see sparks.

Another strong impression was from a guy just picking up a violin from a shop I was visiting. He had that beautiful steely sound. You know what I mean if you know the sound. After that, that was an ideal violin sound I tried to hold in my head.

January 17, 2008 at 10:47 AM · There's another important quality to consider, and I'm not sure what you'd call it:

Some violins, regardless of their overall tonal spectrum, just SING. the sound flows, like liquid. I'm sure anyone who's played a fine fiddle knows what I mean.

Lesser violins, again no matter what their tonal spectrum, can be gruff, choppy, obstinate. (there I go again. "Mr. luthier, can you adjust my fiddle to be more cooperative?...")

I suspect this has something to do with sustain, but I'm not sure. I don't even really understand what "sustain" means on a violin. I have heard that too MUCH sustain on a violin is a bad thing.

Perhaps David Burgess could elaborate on the fluidity thing.

January 17, 2008 at 09:16 AM · (Perhaps David Burgess could give me one of his violins so I could describe its tone.)

November 7, 2009 at 10:47 PM ·

here are some personal observations on violin sound, no matter what adjectives apply--

1. Choice of strings and bridge is crucial. Last night I took an "unbalanced" 1919 Heberlein which was strung up with a flat bridge and steel strings, and set it up with new Dominance strings and a standard classical bridge arc , and strung it up to pitch and played it with a well rosined nice bow and VIOLA - it sounds like $10,000 violin. Each string sounds like the other, double stops somehow are more in tune than I'm used to, and spiccato is effortless.  Of course, I wouldn't want to play Sally Goodin on it.

2. Sound post placement - there is no right or wrong - and get a sound post tool. Move it around a bit until you hit the sweet spot.  Don't do it yourself on an expensive violin.

3. A good bow is just as important to sound as a good violin. Spend a few bucks and try one that is weighted just right, and you will hear the difference.

4. Breath while you play, practice in a mirror, and try playing while leaning against a door post to free up your back and loosen your shoulders.

5. Violins sound better without shoulder rests, if you can hack it.

6. A fiddle is any violin under $500.00

7. My bowing is smoother after I have exercised with bands or light weights.

8.  Electric Violins don't have to sound good acoustically, and accoustic violins don't have to sound good electrically. Different instruments.

9. Nobody sounds good on a 5 string violin.  Who needs a half assed viola anyway.


November 8, 2009 at 03:24 PM ·

"9. Nobody sounds good on a 5 string violin.  Who needs a half assed viola anyway"

 I beg to differ with you.......I would say Casey Driessen, Darol Anger, Brittany Haas, and others that play well designed 5-string violins sound great to me, and a lot of other people too !!


David Blackmon

November 8, 2009 at 05:48 PM ·

For me dark would mean ominous or painful. I like playing ominous pieces but not all the time. I also love to play mellow pieces and bright pieces to liven up the mood=)

March 18, 2011 at 06:50 PM ·

I had a 5 string I sold, but would consider buying back; opurely for the sound. It sounded wonderful, but the neck was too narrow for me with 5 strings. I sold it to a friend, and she loves it. It didn't sound so much 'dark' as 'moody'. It had subdued mid-high sound, but there was a point 1round 650 Hz  where it started geting clear and crisp. Not sure how it did that combination, but I loved it.

March 20, 2011 at 05:30 PM ·

Another word sometimes used is "reedy". It may be related to what Allan calls "throaty" but I think have heard reedy in Strads also.  Maybe  people mean a reedy sound when they talk about "typical old Italian sound" . There probably isn't such a thing as the "typical old Italian" sound? Would  excessive reedy sound  be called "nasal" by some or is that unrelated?

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