Enhancing Violin Acoustics

January 8, 2008 at 10:43 PM · Consider a hypothetical: Three violins are identical in every respect: same age; same wood;

same model; same dimensions...same everything.

On day one, all are played and sound the same. For 20 years each one is subjected to the same temperature and humidity environment. Violin #1 is never played. #2 is played eight hours daily. #3 is never played but is put on a stand facing a nearby Hi Fi speaker activated eight hours daily. After 20 years all are played again. Might they still sound the same- although improved; or might one sound better and if so which one?

Replies (27)

January 8, 2008 at 11:12 PM · Hi James! First, it's impossible to make 3 identical violins (at least I can't do that). Every piece of wood is slightly different (even from the same trunk) and we always make something different here and there and, eventually, every instrument we make will be unique.

Even Stradivaris are different in colour, f holes, and sound.

A good instrument will sound good in the very beggining of its life. I had one of my violas as a solo instrument in Harold in Italy last year, it was just some months old. Of course there is some influence of playing in (but no miracle, I think) but the instrument itself - and its set up - is what counts most.

It's difficult to say wich of your 3 identical instruments would sound better. But, if made by the same maker, they will have something in commom, such as the sound character, response and volume.

I'm making mostly violas now, and the differences are small, in general one will be a bit darker, the other a bit more aggressive.

January 8, 2008 at 11:47 PM · An open sound is general associated with a played in instrument, but a good new instrument may have an open sound too.

In many cases the player, after playing the instrument for some months, learns how to get the best of it and thinks it was caused by playing in, and sometimes the instrument is sounding the same way.

January 9, 2008 at 04:04 AM · Luis- Thank you, Sir.

I think you missed my point. I suspect no two violins are identical,let alone three. That's why the hypothetical- the make believe. I started this because so much has been written about age improving the sound.

I agree with all that you said, except there seems evidence that age improves the sound.

January 9, 2008 at 10:05 AM · I find that there is indeed an improvement in the very first months of playing, something about six months. Violins were made for princes and kings, and they are like children and lovers, they don't want to wait for nothing, hence I think old violins sounded good from the very beggining too.

January 9, 2008 at 12:54 PM · My experience is that over the first few months of playing, good violins become smoother, losing their harsh edge, and develop a more aggressive, barking response. That's true for both new violins and old ones that haven't been played in a few years, and if a violin isn't played regularly it reverts to its less refined state. That's in combination with the effects of [unplayed] age, which are similar. I have seen this consistently with my own violins, and with things like Strads, as well.

The thing I call "smoothness" sometimes is perceives as becoming darker in sound, but what I really think is happening is that the higher frequency parts of the notes learn to (or are worn into) vibrate more in tune with everything else, and so that they aren't as obvious, offensive and jarring. A player commented to me once that a well-played in violin seems to want to play more in tune than a new one, and pitch is easier to find, which I take as an indication that the note itself is more pure, making it easier to identify. The effect is similar to the sound of a perfectly-tuned piano vs one that's not out of tune, but not quite right, either.

I've developed ways to tune some of the upper partials in the adjustment process, which can effect something a bit similar to playing in, though less completely. It's a nice way to understand and demonstrate the difference within a few seconds, though.

These changes can vary quite a bit, too: I've heard bad violins not really get too much better, and good ones develop nicely. So there are no guarantees.

January 9, 2008 at 01:05 PM · In addition to what Luis and Michael have written, I would like to say that it depends on who plays the instrument and how it is played. I think the player can really shape the sound to a certain extent.

Usually soloist instruments are being handed from one good player to the next. So they probably didn´t only sound good from day one but have also been in the right hands, so to speak.

I agree that there will never be 3 identical instruments so your question cannot be answered. But if it were so the one that´s being played would probably develop best......


January 9, 2008 at 02:14 PM · Why would we ever want to have two nice violins go unplayed for a long time??? I would put it this way; a violin with inferior sound initially will almost surely always be disappointing. Sue

January 9, 2008 at 06:00 PM · In the Australian study below, they found that their test violin changed almost none with playing, versus a control which wasn't played. If you want to skip over the tech stuff, see "conclusions" on the last page.


On the other hand, I received this recently from a customer, also in Australia:


"The violin is sounding great; its continuing to develop and open out gaining richness on the lower two strings."

Four days later:

"The violin is sounding fantastic!"

So I guess Australians can't agree on this issue either. ;)

David Burgess

January 9, 2008 at 07:20 PM · I've always been skeptical that putting a violin in front of a loudspeaker would ever accomplish anything. I suspect that the amount of energy transmitted to the violin is miniscule.

January 9, 2008 at 07:48 PM · "Everything effects everything" ?

I know violin makers who place their instruments in front of speakers OR ask players to "break them in".

There may not be scientific evidence for same BUT these methods seem a more appropiate approach to a better sounding instrument;as compared to allowing the instrument to remain idle--until sold.

January 9, 2008 at 11:26 PM · Shortly before the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré became terminally ill with MS, her masterpiece Strad cello named Davydov became unplayable. Some have speculated that her contant touring, flying around the globe in the earlier years of airtravel, took a toll on the cello. Or maybe, I have wondered, if the cello simply withdrew from the world as du Pré became ill.

Anyway, Yo-Yo May now plays the Davydov Strad cello. It sounded bad when he first received it. But slowly, slowly, slowly as he played Davydov, he said, each time it slowly get better, and slowly a little more better, and a little more better each time. And now it is back to health.

The point here is that, in real life conditions, your instrument needs to be taken care of. Your relationship with your instrument is what matters.

January 10, 2008 at 03:03 AM · To each of you, my sincere thanks and appreciation for your thoughts and comments.


January 11, 2008 at 01:27 AM · It would seem logical that a regularly played instrument would "open up" in a way that's unique to the person wielding it.

After all, the wood is under constant pressure/tension from the strings as well as from the overall way that the instrument is set up. These factors (i.e., string pressure/tension and setup) are, in turn, directly influenced to a lesser or greater extent by the player's particular style, posture, and other personal preferences.

It's plausible that the wood gets "compressed" in a way that's specific to the individual player, and when the instrument changes hands and/or isn't used for a prolonged period of time, the wood "decompresses" and needs to readjust.

January 12, 2008 at 05:56 AM · Noting the hypothetical - and recognising that there are no identical instruments, the one sure thing is that the one left in silence will not sound as well as the other two - if the wood is continually vibrating - whether by playing or by being placed in front of good speakers and resonated, the microscopic air pockets in the timber will remain open, whereas the silenced one will have those air cells close, thus reducing the natural resonance of the instrument. There are of course many other factors, ranging from playing style to humidity and temperature that will all have an impact in reality.

January 12, 2008 at 11:32 AM · I must have missed the "air pocket microscopy" study.


January 12, 2008 at 11:53 AM · 2# will sound great

3# will sound a little better than 1#

1# will sound almost like it did 20 years ago

January 12, 2008 at 02:51 PM · David, I have an old Strad magazine somewhere with "air pocket microscopy" photos. I'll dig it out, and praece it for you.


January 13, 2008 at 12:58 AM · Hi Graham;

I've seen microscope photos supporting a difference between cells or pores in 17th century Cremonese versus new wood, but not anything supporting that this can go back and forth depending on use.

Does the article address this?

January 13, 2008 at 02:17 AM · It was, as far as I can remember, talking about about the soaking business, but there were photos of pores with disc membranes in pore pockets that were either attached or detached. The theory was that the discs became detached through soaking and gave that Italian reedy sound when played.

Now I thought that might just as well be brought about by good strong playing over the years wobbling those discs out, and breaking the thin little fibres that held them in place.

Will dig it out


January 13, 2008 at 04:07 AM · Very, very interesting, Gentlemen.

I'm getting an education here. Again- thank you

one and all


January 13, 2008 at 02:17 PM · The Strad article may have been one from around 1991, research done by Woodhouse and Barlow at Cambridge University using a scanning electron microscope. Woodhouse is well-known as a major researcher in our field (instrument making, materials and acoustics).

There was a belief at one time that the great old makers soaked or "ponded" their wood before use, and the evidence of this was thought to be bacterial degrading of something called a "pit membrane". In a living tree, this membrane serves to open and close spaces in the wood, and is probably part of the water transfer mechanism. Can't remember now where I saw photos supporting this notion...maybe something from Nagyvary.

Barlow and Woodhouse found no evidence of such degradation in the Cremonese samples they tested, finding that at least when it comes to this particular feature, the tested old wood was similar to new wood.

Here is a link to one version of that article, including photomicrographs.


As far as I know, there is no evidence that these membranes can continue to open and close in a violin, and general agreement among biologists that they become immobile once the wood is dried. Perhaps they can undergo some permanent change due to vibration. If so, the study failed to find it in their samples taken from old violins.

David Burgess

January 13, 2008 at 02:16 PM · David, someone here said cutting old wood feels different, that is, a gouge feels different going through it. Is that your experience too, or might there be psychological aspects of touch as there is with hearing.

But intuitively, I'd think three hundred year old wood has to be different from wood that finished drying last year. The former should just be a lot further along on the road to becoming dust :) Whatever that entails.

January 13, 2008 at 03:14 PM · Hi Jim! There are strong evidences that Del Gesù used wood that was ... ... 2 or 3 years old.

And the Hills mention that violins made with very old wood were not good. Vuillaume stablished that 5 years would be sufficient for seasoning, if I'm not wrong.

Good old instruments were made with wood that would be considered unsuitable by today's frowner's standarts, that is, wood with knots and resin sacks (used by Stradivari), run out, plain maple, plain "pioppo", plain "salice", "cipollature" (I don't know how it's called in English), wood that is not perfectly quarter sawn, North American maple (Rocca used it) and even wormy wood. What really matters is the maker ability.

January 13, 2008 at 03:47 PM · Hi Luis! "What really matters is the maker ability."

I have to think so too. M. Darnton once logically established here (to my satisfaction) that it's mainly in the archings. Burgess attributes a lot to setup. I suspect the secret of a good violin is right in there.

Using wood with runout, knots, sap pockets, and so on isn't acceptable today, at least to the "frowners" as you call them. I have to wonder why. It must be something that's visible to point at to sell violins, a competitive edge. I suspect some of the +-1mm specifications are the same thing. Interesting stuff.

January 13, 2008 at 04:15 PM · Yes, David, that was the work that I remember. Same photos as the Strad article, too.

Thank you.


January 13, 2008 at 04:38 PM · Yes, I'll support the importance of setup, too, as long as the violin underneath the setup is good to start with.

January 13, 2008 at 05:07 PM · And I'll support the importance of the violin underneath!

Jim, cutting qualities of wood on old fiddles I've worked on was all over the map. Rare examples seemed to be severely degraded, cutting almost like cardboard. I guess none of it tells me what the wood might have been like originally. We don't know what some of these fiddles may have been exposed to, and environment plays a big role in what happens to wood.

There seems to be a general belief among woodworkers that wood gets harder and less flexible with time. There are some studies somewhere (if I can put my hands on them) but there may be significant flaws. Obviously, old and new wood samples didn't come from the same tree growing in the same period, so that would be a "wild card".

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