violin resonance

May 9, 2010 at 06:58 PM ·

The main guide for my ear as to when I am in tune is the resonance of the note.  So this got me wondering what factors are responsible for this and how they interact?  I know that each instrument has a resonant frequency (dictated I guess mainly by the volume of the box)  but there are also resonaces stemming from each open (or stopped?) string.

Love to have both players and luthier's take on this - obviously an important factor in violin construction....


Replies (24)

May 10, 2010 at 01:55 AM ·

Elise--You hit the nail on the head when you said it has something to do with open strings. It's the sympathetic vibrations that get your violin going when you hit the note in just the right spot so that it vibrates sympathetically with your open strings. But this only works on A, D, G, and E. Also, B is a slightly ringy note, due to the overtone series, and the fact that "B" is a harmonic on the violin....but honestly, it's very subtle.  For me, those sympathetic vibrations are a very simple way to unlock good intonation. I have a video that goes into it on YouTube, if you are interested. I don't want to shove it down anyone's throat, so if you want it, just search "Violin Intonation--A Simple Approach" on YouTube and it'll come up.

I'm not sure what you're looking for in an answer, if you wanted something more complicated, then I'll let someone else take a stab at it.  --Lora

May 10, 2010 at 09:41 AM ·

Hi Lora - thanks for the reply, I was starting to wonder if I was on a taboo subject :D

I 'feel' the vioiin when I am in tune and I am sure its there for more than the basic notes.  The open string resonance are very loud but there is a more subtle resonance for many other notes that kinda 'tell me' I'm in tune.  

I don't know if I am right about this but a string resonates primarily at its frequency but also, and more subtly, at  thirds and fourths.  If so there are many notes that generate resonance.

I was also interested in the fundamental frequency of the violin itself and how that relates to the tuning.  There is an overbearing resonance when you play high on the G string - I know it has name but it escapes me, oh, here it is 'Wolf tone' (thanks Google) which I guess is the fundamental frequency of the violin box. 

Maybe I should not have gone to Google - but this is fascinating.  [Funnily, when I originally searched the subject - this discussion came up!].  The box volume of the box gives a fundamental sound like blowing across a bottle - called the Helmholtz resonance. - there's a great understandable physics article at:

So the box is tuned to a note but I can't seem to find out what the actual frequency is or whether it varies much.


May 11, 2010 at 05:31 AM ·

Elise-- From your description, it sounds to me like your ears are extremely sensitive, and are picking up on the overtone series, which accounts for your comment that notes also resonate on the 4th and the 5th...but your query is digging much deeper into physics than I could go....although I find it fascinating.   "Strad" magazine has had some EXCELLENT articles on the physics of the violin....if you can dig through "Strad Archives" I'm sure you'd find a few enlightening articles.

No, your topic is not's just pretty darned technical! And it's past my bedtime!

Your ears are very sensitive!  --Lora

May 11, 2010 at 05:44 AM ·


I came back to the violin just over 2 years ago and tried to play my nice german workshop one - but I could not find the note and (I just described this in a blog) blamed this on all the confusing overtones.  I took the plunge and traded it in for a french one that has a much purer sound.  At the time I thought I was just making excuses (it also seemed an appropirate way to get a clean start) but if I really do have a sensitive ear maybe my instinct was right on the money. 

I hear colours in notes.  They are not synestheitc colours, I don't see blue or green, but I hear each note as a distinct tone and if I vary my finger positioning just the slightest amount the note has a totally different resonant character.  I wish I could put words to it - but its as futile as trying to describe light colours, they are what they are!  This is fascinating.  Perhaps this is also why I feel the fewer instruments the better - I don't care for orchestral sounds much at all, like chamber music (I  can hear each instrument) and love solos. 

Sorry to babble on but you've given me a startling insight... thanks!!



May 12, 2010 at 03:07 PM ·

Whats the fundamental frequency of a violin and has this changed as the tuning frequencies have gone up (440, 442, 444) etc?

May 14, 2010 at 12:41 AM ·

There are magic spots all over the instrument that we call internal resonance. This is not only done while playing a D for instance in third position on the G string in sympathie with the open string. You can try the sequence G and E flat in first position on D and by doing a slow motion tremolo, you will have a full resonance there. There are many sequences like this one you can try on your instrument. Kreisler and Toscha Seidel were experts in that particular field and used light bow speed to enhance these kind of resonance...

May 14, 2010 at 07:06 AM ·

hi marc - so that explains why I hear different resonances - they can also depend on the immediate history of playing. 

Is there also 'anti-resonance', I mean parts of the violin (or playing sequence) where the notes cancel each other?  I started another discussion topic on 'dead' notes round F/G on the G string.  that feels like the instrument is sucking the resonance out of the string....

[I noticed on your profile that you are in remote Quebec - right now I'm nearly in your province, at a meeting in Ottawa ;)  But I return to toronto today.]


May 14, 2010 at 12:25 PM ·

Hi Elise,

Glad to hear we are not so far away... In fact, when you play with precision there are no such things as anti-resonance or dead notes. I have read and commented on the subject-matter about wolf notes that you encounter more often on a cello than a violin... Of course,the better the instrument is,the better you will find internal resonance. If you are questionning yourself about it,it means that you are in the good way and that you are trying to achieve something of a higher level. This "ringing" tones are often the result of a particular sequence. Take for instance the opening bars of the first sonata for piano and violin by Beethoven: the d major arpeggio on the A string. It must be done in the third position with an extension of the A harmonic the ascendant way and then, with the first finger on the E string the descendant way. By practicing this way, you will notice the ringing effect of the entire seqence until you get to the opening D. You have always in any music you play to find the proper fingering that will enhance the internal resonance. Sometimes it is done with a quick shift and light bow speed like in the first 3 notes of the Rondino in the style of Beethoven(Kreisler) : E flat, F and then shift on natural G first finger,D string. And then again, G and B flat must be interconnected with the internal resonance of G until you reach the A flat...  Examples could be given in an infinite way. Some violinists sound flat,even famous ones. Brilliant sound is given only to a few elected. You have to teach your ear in search of this kind of playing.

May 14, 2010 at 04:35 PM ·

The violin has quite a few major resonances within the normal playing range. They can be from the natural vibrating frequency of wooden parts of the violin, air inside the violin, or combinations of the two. They typically show up as loud notes with a slightly different tone character.

These aren't very useful as intonation cues, because they can coincide with different notes on different violins; can be between notes; can change pitch with the weather.

In between these peaks are notes with lower volume, sometimes dipping extremely low on a few notes on some violins.

Yes, it's possible to have some vibrating parts which will absorb some of the energy from a note, making the note sound different or reducing its volume.

May 14, 2010 at 07:25 PM ·

The internal resonance I was talking about is clearly audible in a "dry room with carpets and furniture" It is more a question of technique than violin per se. Kreisler could do it on an average violin, a Vuillaume or a del Gèsu... You need to play on the flat part of the fingers to make the instrument ring, like if each finger was a  small cushion... Kreisler removed the bow often when he played if you compare to other violinists, using the "Parlando" technique which is ignored today by most teachers... John  made a good point here...

May 15, 2010 at 07:36 PM ·

this is all to fascinating.  What it comes down to is that there are competing resonances on each violin - which I guess is one of the key things that distinguishes one instrument from another.  The main ones are the sound-box resonant frequency - and yes I have blown accross it and figured it was set to C - its higher?  I suppose the object is to have it NOT resonate with any particular note else that note would sing too much.  That contrast with a guitar which does, I believe resonate at A if you do the same thing - in this case sing a slow glissando into the hole (same thing works on the violin of course) and the resonant frequency sings back to you.

The resonance of the box is then out of tune with the notes but the resonance of each string most certainly is in tune.  Maybe that explains the 'lively' and 'dead' notes where you are close to the box resonance.  I note that E string A has one of the strongest resonaces on the violin - even when I dampen the A string I can hear it.  However, if I dampen D and G it disappears demonstrating that its a string thing and not a box one.  I think its because its a 4th from D AND its out of phase with the box resonance....

But thats just my guess.

On the other issues you guys raised I am going to have to spend a couple of hours trying that out - maybe after stripping the living room :D


May 15, 2010 at 08:24 PM ·

May 15, 2010 at 09:21 PM ·

Elise, the A (third finger on the E string) is probably mostly resonating the open D. The third note in the harmonic series of the open D happens to be that same note. In other words, the open D is 293.7 hz, The next in the series is the octave, which is 293.7 times two. The next is an octave and a fifth, which is 293.7 times three, or 881 hz. That's the same pitch as your 3rd finger A on the E string. 

A violin string is actually playing many notes at the same time, even though our brain processes this in a way that we hear only one. An example is in the spectrogram below of a bowed note on the violin. Select notes played on other strings can align with notes (spikes on the graph) in the multi-note sound recipe of an open string, and excite these strings very strongly.

You'll notice that the lowest yellow spike (the fundamental of the string) is about 480 hz. The next spike is at 480 times two, which is 960. The next one is 480 times three, which is 1440. Also notice that on this particular note on this particular violin, the fundamental isn't as strong as the next two harmonics. If 480 hz happened to be an open string (it isn't, but I had this graph handy), any time you play a note on another string which contains a strong multiple of 480 in it's own harmonic series, (has a spike which is the same as one of the spikes on the graph), it has strong potential to excite the open string.

How useful is this as a tool for playing in tune? That depends. The harmonics on a string don't always fall on the pitches where they  theoretically should. And assessing intonation this way doesn't allow for various pitch tempering schemes very well. For example, if pitch is determined this way when playing the violin, it won't be in tune with some of the notes on a piano.

There's something else interesting to see from this graph. The blue spikes are a slightly lower note on the same string, same violin. See how the height of the blue spikes is different, relative to each other, and also relative to the yellow spikes? What you're seeing is a visual representation of the difference in "tone color" between the two pitches.

May 15, 2010 at 10:15 PM ·

thanks for that.  And that makes me wonder to what extent the string type is a factor in the 'tone colour.  Obviously that will change things but there may be characterisitcs for each instrument that would permit one to derive a 'signature' for a violin from its spectral output (I'm reasonably cool with physics BTW).  Or one could use a standard string type (hello Dominants :) ) - I suppose someone has tried to do this and test if, perhaps, a particular maker had a spectral characterisitc or perhaps characteristics of particular wood combinations.

So, what I need is for every member to send me their violins and I'll make a library of spectral signatures :D



May 15, 2010 at 11:05 PM ·

If  you're comfortable with physics, I apologize for using words like "spike". The descriptions were targeted for a broad audience.

On quantifying tone by spectral output, it's something that is being vigorously worked on already. At this point, the challenge is interpretation. There may be people who can look at a graph and give a general overview of the violin's sound, such as dark, nasal or bright. Identifying a "great" violin by the spectral output alone has been more elusive. Part of this challenge may reside in the phycho-acoustic realm. What's really happening isn't necessarily what we "hear". The brain processes what comes in the ears, and makes some adjustments. So far, I don't know of a spectral analysis program which compensates or adjusts for all this brain processing, so that what we see on the screen is truly representative of what we hear.

An interesting example is playing the open G on a violin. We can remove the fundamental entirely, and a listener won't hear much difference. The missing fundamental is synthesized by the brain from the remaining harmonic series. Test listeners will be absolutely positive that they hear a G, even though the pitch is not really there.... only implied by the structure of the remaining noises.

To take all this a step further, where is "reality"?  When it comes to music, is it found in what we can measure, or in what we perceive?  Music pitches and music notation have strong correlations with math. Is that significant, or not?

I have one foot in each world, so I don't have any particular agenda. Just Interested in comments.

May 16, 2010 at 02:00 AM ·

May 16, 2010 at 01:44 PM ·

@ David Burgess- Thank you for your input on this post!!!!

May 17, 2010 at 02:19 PM ·

"To take all this a step further, where is "reality"?  When it comes to music, is it found in what we can measure, or in what we perceive? "- asked by David above

If one meditates on the ancient koan, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make any sound?"  one may see the answer to David's question in a life-altering flash of insight.


Also, the latest research on psycho-acoustics, according to a uni class I audited, shows the ears have no "processing" function in "creation" of sound- only transmitting. 

May 17, 2010 at 02:50 PM ·

@ John- But  why blow for one and hum for the other?  And why    hear something     an octave below 550?

Because of the bass bar?

May 17, 2010 at 06:14 PM ·

Here is a cool thing to note on violin construction.  Because of the "air tone" of a violin, which does come in around Bb to C on the G string, depending on the volume of air in the particular instrument.  The construction of the instrument has to be such that there is specific strength enough to contain the extra strong resonance when this note is played.  I have had several of my customers and other musicians express that even fine instruments will "fuzz out" if they are played strongly on this note.

May 17, 2010 at 10:50 PM ·

Tom Bop wrote:

"If one meditates on the ancient koan, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make any sound?"  one may see the answer to David's question in a life-altering flash of insight."


That works for some people. Others get more profound insight from pondering the question, "What if somebody toots, and nobody smells it? Did it really happen?  ;-)


 Tom wrote:

"Also, the latest research on psycho-acoustics, according to a uni class I audited, shows the ears have no "processing" function in "creation" of sound- only transmitting." 


Note that I mentioned "brain processing", not "ear processing". However, the physical ear does put its own imprint on the sound, as does the distance between the ears, the existence of a head-shaped object between the ears, and rotation of the head relative to the sound source. The difference in the signal coming in each ear is thought to be the major mechanism by which we sense the direction of a sound source. A lot of this has been vigorously studied by doing things like placing tiny microphones inside the ear canal, and by recording in stereo with the microphones separated by a head-shaped object. The ear is involved in processing, for sure.


John, the 260-290 hz range for the lowest air mode is correct. What did Hutchins mean by the "hum tone"? Beats me, and I don't hear that term used much these days. Probably what she was hearing was some combination or interaction of the lowest air resonance, along with the body resonance that physicists are now calling "B1+". Another possibility is that in finding a difference between the frequency of the "helmholz" and "hum tone", she was noticing what was really the same resonance, but the pitch changed when the method of excitation was changed. Things have come a long way since Hutchins. We've gotten much better at separating combined and interacting resonances into their component parts.

May 17, 2010 at 11:54 PM · David, the point of the koan is that sound doesn't even exist except for the synthesis that occurs in the brain. You speak of it as something that's outside us that we perceive, not something that we totally synthesize out of vibrations. The spectograms show rates of vibrations, but they are not sounds. Your violins vibrate, but make no sound. To hear in stereo and calculate directions, the brain has to pick up different timing for the ears vibrations- and ears just transmit. Otherwise each ear would have to hear what both hear and perform a differential it's all brain function as well (there's a lot of research on this stuff lately). As to your equally puzzling koan, ...well, I'll keep it G-rated.... :)

May 18, 2010 at 12:19 AM ·

Elise: your post is very popular! Now, you can experiment with science an then become a violin-maker, or you can trust your sensitivity and make your violin ring all over! My phrase rhymes... poetry resonance it must be...

May 18, 2010 at 02:18 AM ·

"David, the point of the koan is that sound doesn't even exist except for the synthesis that occurs in the brain. You speak of it as something that's outside us that we perceive, not something that we totally synthesize out of vibrations. The spectograms show rates of vibrations, but they are not sounds. Your violins vibrate, but make no sound."

I guess it comes down to definition and interpretation. Some would define "sound" as air compression variations. Others by what we perceive. Some would define vision as a narrow band of radiation for which we have receptors. Others as what we perceive. Is the color "red" a band of radiation, or is it a learned name which we have assigned by agreement? Could my perceptual green really appear as red to you, but we both have learned to mean the same thing, out of using common established and learned references?

"To hear in stereo and calculate directions, the brain has to pick up different timing for the ears vibrations- and ears just transmit."

I think that's come into question recently. Experiments with varying the timing to each ear (using headphones) haven't shown good directional results. Experiments with changing the tone color provided to each ear, similar to the very slight change produced by a head-shaped object between two microphones, have done much better.

Accurate pitch perception is now thought to be highly dependent on standing-wave mechanical excitation of cylia in the ear. Brain processing is highly involved, but the ear does some sorting and processing before the signal gets to the brain.

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