August 25, 2010 at 06:58 PM ·

A bunch of questions regarding this....

What causes "undertones" on a violin? Why do we hear these clearly on some violins and not on others? Does it have to do with the make of the violin itself? Or the strings? Am I right to assume that on a higher quality violin the undertones should be easier to hear? Is there any reason why I should hear clearer undertones on my violin worth 1k, than I do on my "good" violin which is worth about 6k? When people refer to "undertones" and "resonance," are these the same thing? Is the bow at all related to this?

Thanks :)

Replies (25)

August 26, 2010 at 10:22 AM ·

Alison, can you find another way to describe what you're hearing? "Undertone" isn't a tone descriptive term I've heard used enough to have a sense of what you mean.

"Resonance" can mean many, many things.

August 26, 2010 at 10:30 AM ·

Sorry, I'm a dummy. I was just informed the correct term is "overtone"... please excuse me, I've only been just recently told this sound has an actual name :)

August 26, 2010 at 01:26 PM ·

Overtones being able to be heard clearly isn't always a good thing. Some cheaper violins can produce lots of overtones and ringing sound but those overtones are not smooth and can sound harsh. Smooth overtones can make the sound sounds brilliant, yet the overtones sound like they're hiding within the core tone.

It's like, strings on the piano, say a note consist of 3 strings. If one of the string went out of tune, you can hear the ringing overtones of the note but can sound tinny, yet when it's tuned smoothly, what you hear is big and rounded smooth tone.

Bow can contribute to the overtones but it's largely based on the quality of the instrument itself.

August 26, 2010 at 01:52 PM ·

I have always heard that these unintended tones indicate a good instrument.  I'm talking about, when you play a double stop, and you hear a third tone.  Some call it "Tartini tones."  This third tone seems to be lower in pitch than the notes being played.

August 26, 2010 at 04:23 PM ·

In that case, the lack of overtones in my new violin doesn't mean there is anything "wrong" with it? It is still curious to me why I would hear them in some notes and not others. Whereas on my old violin I could hear them quite literally on every "natural" note. I don't think my ear is good enough to judge whether or not these tones were shaky....

August 26, 2010 at 05:05 PM ·

The description you've given doesn't provide enough information to know if there is something wrong with your violin. Every violin will sound different..

Below is a spectral graph of a note played on two different sounding violins. The blue peaks are one violin, and the yellow peaks are the other. The actual note played is the peak on the far left, and all the other peaks are "overtones", The height of the peaks indicates how loud they are. Note that sometimes, the overtones are even louder than the actual note you're playing.


Which violin you prefer would largely depend on your personal taste. Interestingly, just playing a different note on the same violin can show as much difference as between these two violins.

August 26, 2010 at 06:28 PM ·

David, that's an excellent frequency chart.  A picture really is worth a thousand words.  Though taste is involved for some violins, the 2 in the picture have very different sounds.  The "blue violin"  has almost no overtones, and would sound thin, tinny, like a whistle, etc.  The "yellow violin" has multiple sounds at octaves, fifths, and thirds.  This complexity is usually perceived by the ear as rich sound.  If the comparison was between the "blue" and another with the similar peaks, then we might say taste is involved in preferring one over the other.

The human ear has evolved to be very sensitive to overtone frequencies in the 2500 to 3500 hertz range.  Its the reason we hear sopranos over the top of an opera orchestra at full volume.  Some violins, like the "yellow" one, pump out lots of overtones at high volumes in this range and they are desirable to many concert soloists because of their ability to project over and above the orchestra, even when it is at full volume.  A few years ago,  Joseph Curtin, a top luthier, published several articles in Strad about his acoustic research in this area.

August 26, 2010 at 07:07 PM ·

Differences between the relative strengths of the peaks is also how we distinguish between different vowel sounds.

August 27, 2010 at 02:20 AM ·

Alison - Lack of overtones on certain notes is what I consider lack of balance through out the register - some glorious notes, some dead notes. If overtones sound on natural notes, to me it's more like sympathetic resonance of other strings when you play a note, say, D on 3rd finger 1st position on A string will resonate with the D open string.

If your new violin "new"? Give it a little more time to play in, it'll eventually open up the sound for every notes.

Also, let some other player to play it and you listen, see if you still hear the same problem. Sometimes, due to the different projection direction of the sound under the ear, you might hear some funny notes but not when you hear it played by other player.

August 27, 2010 at 11:18 PM ·

 1. When just one single note is played on the violin, there can be just a plain tone (dead, without overtones).  This is generally not a good thing.  A good violin has a blend of overtones on each pitch  that adds richness to the tone quality of each note.  A bad violin also has overtones, but the blend of these overtones is far less pleasing to the ear.  The materials used in the construction of the violin, its shape, the graduation of its top plate (and bottom plate), the density of the wood fibers, the size and shape of the sound box, the type of strings, the bow used, the amount of rosin on the hair, the technique used, the ability of the player, how much and how recently the violin has been "played in"--ALL these things affect the sound.  It is here where the "art" of violin making meets the science of violin making.

2. In reference to  "Tartini" tones: When two different pitches are played simultaneously, each one vibrates at a specific frequency.  For example: a major third double stop has a vibrational frequency of 5 (top note) to 4 (bottom note).  (Going up the Pythagorean overtone series, using a fundamental of A1: 1. A0=27.5cps, 2. An octave up from the fundamental A1=55 cps, 3. An octave and a perfect fifth above the fundamental E2=82.5 cps, 4. Two octaves above the fundamental A2=110 cps, 5. Two octaves and a major third above the fundamental C#3=137.5 cps.  When the A2=110 and the C#3 137.5 are sounded simultaneously.  The two sound waves overlap each other at a distance of the DIFFERENCE TONE (137 cps -110 cps = 27.5 cps).  One can hear the difference tone as a soft A1 (27.5 cps) underlying the two tones being played.  There ALSO exists the SUM TONE (247.5 cps) which is even fainter (and exists in the out of tune cracks somewhere around B3.  (Personally, I have never heard a sum tone, but I trust my former physics professor that it does exist.)  When one plays the double stop of a major third, one hears a triple stop of the two played notes PLUS the fundamental (e.g.: A0, A2 C#3.  With a minor third, one would hear the two notes PLUS a major third BELOW the fundamental F0, A2, C3).

August 27, 2010 at 11:21 PM ·


August 27, 2010 at 11:23 PM ·


August 27, 2010 at 11:25 PM ·


August 27, 2010 at 11:27 PM ·

 I give up.  No more posts today. Too many typos.  Sorry

August 30, 2010 at 05:29 PM ·

my preference in violins has always been clean and even, somewhat focused. Don't like fuzzy/muddy at all. Really bothers me if there's even one or two or a few notes on the fingerboard that over vibrate or over resonate compared to the other notes because you know where those notes are and dread when they are supposed to be used. Fortunately, my current fiddle is very even throughout and still sounds fairly good for something around 3k. The even-ness is one of the main reasons I took it. It's true that this can be much more notaceable under ear than to the listener, but I'm the one who has to live with the fiddle under ear, at least that's the way I see it.

September 2, 2010 at 09:32 PM ·

The rock opera Tommy, by The Who, had both an overture and an underture. Perhaps the overtones went one way and the undertones another?

September 29, 2010 at 06:01 AM ·

David, are there spectral graphs that show frequencies below the actual note played? 

I just bought a 2007  violin (Jay Haide) in April this year and it is really opening up.  Lots of overtones, but now also undertones and not while playing double stops only.

Starting at the B1 on the E string  there is a faint undertone an octave lower with every note.The D2 on the E string has an  undertone  2 octaves lower and almost as loud as  the D played. Funny thing is it varies with the day and place , maybe humidity?  Never have noticed  this with any violin before. This violin is not too thin as far as I can tell,  around 3.0 mm at the F-holes I've been told, and the sound is not the most complex but really quite nice. Very responsive and quite even ( now that it is opening up it is not as even as it was at first, but still very acceptable).  I can get some some  different colours out of it.  It caries very well and I love this violin. Only a minor woolf higher up the G string that can be played through.

Has anyone else ever had this kind of undertones? Would it be an asset or just of little consequence, or maybe indicates a problem?  It doesn't bother me and is harder to hear at a distance.

September 29, 2010 at 10:28 AM ·

Hendrik, that's an interesting observation about the undertones (or "subtones", perhaps) on your Jay Haide.  My second violin is a 2002 Jay Haide that I use for folk music and general practice. It's currently strung with a Pirastro Chromcor all-steel set.  When the builders have finished my loft extension I'll be in a position to investigate the phenomenon more thoroughly.

September 29, 2010 at 05:53 PM ·

Dang it, every time I read the word "undertones", I picture a line of "slimming" garments which go beneath your regular clothes. LOL

Hendrik, so many things have been discussed here that I'm not sure exactly what you're asking. If your question is whether a played note on the violin can cause a part of the violin to resonate at a lower pitch, yes it can, and this can show up on the graph.

If the question is whether things which are generally described as "psychoacoustic" phenomena, such as Tartini tones will show up on the graph, then no, they generally don't. That gives rise to a fun question: If something you hear doesn't show up on a spectrum analyzer, does it really exist?

September 29, 2010 at 06:15 PM ·

Thats easy David: only if the violin is from a tree that falls in a forrest...

But seriously the question is of course, yes and no.  A nice analogy is phantom limb syndrome: feelings from an amputated leg.  Obviously the sensations are psychological but the feeling to the person involved are very real and reflect, presumbly, neurons that originated from that area.

The same argument could be made for hearing a chord: you may be able to dissect out the notes but I think most people hear it as a synthesis, and that synthesis itself can not be depicted on a spectral diagram.

September 29, 2010 at 07:23 PM ·

@ Elise and David -

So then along the lines of your discussion as to whether or not something does/should exist, I suppose my carbon fiber instrument should be named,"Who's Your Daddy?" since it's origins are "questionable"?

---Ann Marie

October 1, 2010 at 03:46 AM ·

Thanks David for your explanation.    If I understand you correctly my violin may have undertones to look skinnier?   Hmmmm .....  Thank goodness it also has overtones so hopefully that will prevent it from falling of my shoulder!   I think some violas could use a few more undertones ;) !

Seriously, I was wandering if "undertones" -- lower vibrations of the instrument when playing a single higher note  ---   indicate a problem or are normal, or may be even a good thing. I'm convinced these are not like Tartini tones, they sound similar to overtones but lower rather than higher compared to the original note played.  Any thoughts?

September 7, 2014 at 08:50 PM · This is a very old thread, but I was just re-reading it. I wanted to add another comment:

Because the violin has four strings, the violin ALSO has a series of overtones (or sum tones) and undertones (or sub tones or difference tones) caused by the sympathetic vibration of the other strings not currently being bowed or stopped, as an additional source of the complexity of the overall tone of the instrument.

September 7, 2014 at 09:11 PM · Erm, the picture in David's post of August 26 2010 has changed rather somewhat! My faded recollection from way back is that it was indeed a spectral graph, but now I'm looking at a photo of a humidity controller, the URL of which is http://www.burgessviolins.com/image002.jpg.

September 8, 2014 at 08:58 AM · 1)Tartini tones don't show up on a graph because they are produced in the ear, not in the violin.

They are in fact a special form of distortion!

They also give the illusion of hearing low tones that a 3" desk speaker simply cannot reproduce.

My computer spekers have an option to reproduce them eletronically.

2)Low sounds resulting from single high notes are likely to come from part of the violin unglueing (e.g. the bassbar), or even a loose screw on a fine tuner or chinrest.

Tapping gently round the edges of the plates should not produce a "clack' sound.

My violin has well balanced but weak overtones and a pleasant but slightly muffled sound. I changed to low tension strings, and it "woke up".

(Lack of overtones will give a dull tone, not "weak or tinny").

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