Tonal qualities of violins

March 28, 2011 at 04:06 AM ·

 In my search to buy a modern violin, I'm discovering how impossible finding the "right" violin actually is.  I want something with great tone but what is that exactly.  I'm finding that I can love the sound of a violin from afar but dislike it under my hear, or love it under my ear but dislike it from afar. My question is what are the qualities of great tone both from afar as well as under the ear and what were the tonal qualities, specifically, of violins that you've played that were great both under the ear and afar?   

Replies (20)

March 30, 2011 at 03:05 PM ·

Hi Steve. There are some older posts on sound qualities - a rather confusing topic . It is hard to know if what you call bright is the same as what some one else calls bright. And that is one of the better  understood terms. "Loud" is not the same as "carries well" but sometimes it is. Is "reedy" the same as "throaty" ? What about "complex" sound? Even the term "dark" means different things to different people. My teacher wanted me to play a passage more "dark" the other day, and I thought dark was simply the quality of the sound of the violin, not something you could change except with a different set up.  When he explained it I thought I would have called that more "intense".

It's about 20 years ago since  my  first close personal encounter with a 5 figure plus value violin. The shop had a number of 2000 - 6000 dollar or so instruments and quite a few had a great sound in my opinion. Then the shop owner went to the back and got another fiddle. There were 3 or 4 people in the shop listening at that time and the owner and his wife were looking at me with expectation to see what I would think of this instrument. My first impression was " what the heck is this thing?" It sounded funny to me, not smooth at all, and was more difficult to play. In retrospect it was a violin with very much the "reedy" and " complex" sound characteristics of some great Italian violins. Can't remember the maker, but it was an Italian instrument from around 1900 - 1920, in conseignment. "So what do you think? "Wow, that is some violin" I said. "Which violin here do you think is the best?" . "This one"  I fibbed , "what's your price?".  It was clear from the reaction of the owners that this was one precious instrument. But if they had lined it up with the others I would have dismissed it right away. Had some one else played the whole group in a large hall I would probably have noticed how much better this instrument was then the others, but maybe not. And some under 10,000 instruments can really be a surprise.

Taste often changes over time. Learning to appreciate sound is maybe similar to learning the  appreciation of taste or visual art (except maybe even more personal).  A wine connoisseur was never born that way, and  the first sip of wine ever is not exactly culinary rapture.  Some people think that Thomas Kinkade is a great painter and there are tv programs to teach you how to paint " kitsch". Sure it is designed to have some pleasing superficial attraction. But if you have been exposed to great art you see there is no depth in that stuff. How many Italians living in Florence would be impressed with it?   Similarly without exposure to real good instruments under the chin how is one to learn what a real good violin  is about when you play one?

One luthier told me there are  only a few people in his experience that can tell by having a violin under the chin how well it will project in a hall.   I sure can`t.   I have a real hard time  picking  out the  violin  I was playing when some one else plays it in a group.  It is a learning curve.  And very fascinating.



March 30, 2011 at 03:21 PM ·

Erratum: the violin mentioned was a 6 figure instrument.

March 30, 2011 at 05:44 PM ·

If you want a dark sound then play a dark sound - it's possible on almost any instrument if you are a good enough musician.

March 30, 2011 at 05:57 PM ·

It's hard to generalize that you hear this and it'll be good.

I once played a 6 figure italian violin, a Nicolo Gagliano. My first impression is that it's not at all powerful, and not reedy nor complex. Just being smooth, warm and mellow, but with the maturity of sound you'll get from old violins that're well played (maturity as in "tightness" of the sound). Asked someone else play it, same impression, not at all loud. Some $8000'ish violin was even more powerful and clearer without sacrificing richness.

How it'll sound in a concert hall? I don't know. It was an exhibition. And it's not just 1 simple answer to the question - how it'll sound when the hall is fully seated? When played with piano/orchestra as in concerto or piano/violin pieces? Chamber music?

My advice is, get a violin that'll fulfill what you need. In other words, test it in a situation where you'll play the violin most often.

March 30, 2011 at 08:05 PM ·

Hendrik's summary was nice.

When I was learning sound, I had the advantage of playing and listening to a lot of fiddles, accompanied by comments like, "This is an exceptional Strad". "This one does really well in a hall." This Strad is barely mediocre."

No amount of reading and descriptive text would have had much value, compared to this, and nothing you read will teach like your experience with real instruments, accompanied by some objective feedback on how they perform.

March 30, 2011 at 11:07 PM ·

I've never been able to tell the top end from the moderately good very well, either, and wonder how it would be possible to play enough quality instruments to really get a feel for it if one were about to purchase in the six figure price range.  Perhaps this just underscores that at least when picking an instrument in the next level, it would be very helpful to get the input of a good player/teacher who does have more access to that level of instrument; it seems to me in any case, one would still have to rely on other judgments than one's own ear, simply due to lack of personal experience.  I played a prized del Gesu in the shop where I purchased my violin, and I was disappointed not to be able to tell the quality from playing it.  My teacher who was accompanying me, with his doctorate from the Julliard and possessing a very fine violin himself, could tell, but I couldn't.

March 31, 2011 at 02:30 AM ·

Peter, that is exactly the point. My previous  teachers used a different terminology for playing "dark" but had  the same thing in mind.

March 31, 2011 at 10:05 AM ·


Thanks, I think we may have both been saying the same thing!

It's always much easier to demonstrate these things on the fiddle rather than trying to explain it.


April 15, 2011 at 06:22 AM ·

 Hendrik's summary was nice.

I agree. And it does seem that the ill-defined verbiage surrounding this tricky subject can get in the way. I've never found out what is meant by, for example,"core" in the sound, and why dealers would grab a violin by the neck, pump up and down and then pontificate by the apparent weight of the instrument (not even taking into account the avoirdupois of the chinrest) whether the fiddle would "carry". "Dark" and "Bright" I get, but "Complex" ??
My own learning curve began at age 9 when I had to play in a concert organised by my teacher. One mature student had bought an expensive Italian violin. He let me try it. Compared with my cheap factory squeakbox it seemed harsh and fizzy under the ear, but when I listened at the back of the hall the effect was wonderful. By comparison, my teacher's Alfred Vincent seemed "bottled up". Although the owner of the maybe Carlo Bergonzi (??) wrote the name of the maker on a visiting card and popped it into my top pocket, I lost the card ! Stupid boy !!
I found when playing in professional orchestras that many expert players given the opportunity to try fine fiddles will dislike them. One man, offered the use of the Concertmaster's Girolamo Amati II couldn't play it, finding it harsh. Another colleague owned a superb "Grand Amati" which one or two seemed to think pretty useless, yet it was borrowed to great effect by the Concertmaster during a recording of Sibelius 6, when it delivered the solos brilliantly. With "Contemporary" Italians, players already using old Italians tend to be in favour yet those playing daily on French, German or English work HATE them. (Sorry, not many American fiddles in Manchester, UK !). In other words, quality is not easy to recognise without lots of experience, and an understanding of one's own situation and needs. What I am trying to convey is that even an expert professional player can have an "agenda" that can put you off-target, and that in the end it comes down to you. Some "Pro's" will use the same instrument from leaving college until retirement, and simply don't have any knowledge about the many and varying ways in which violins can be desireable. So take all advice with a pinch of salt.
Experience will enable  a top player to adapt to a great fiddle and get the best out of it - the violin might SEEM to respond to the player but because the fiddle's inanimate it's not quite the two-way street you might think !
I recommend Smiley Hsu's posts regarding his search for a violin. As it happened, he did not buy the most expensive one.
Presumably you will involve your teacher or someone you know and trust to play any violin you have on trial back to you in varoius situations, such as a hall - just be sure whoever it is is not getting a backhander from the dealership !!

April 15, 2011 at 06:42 AM ·

To make matters worse so much depends on how the violin was set up - in particular the choice of strings.  A violin that sounds loud and bright can become dark and intense simply by switching from synthetics to gut.  Mine came with Evah Pirazzis (synthetic) on but I just switched to Passiones (gut core; topic elsewhere) and had I tested the same violin with both sets I would certainly have preferred the latter.

Which begs the question: when purchasing high-end violins do customers routinely try different string types to get an overview?

April 15, 2011 at 08:14 AM ·

The bow makes a difference, too.

I had a violin on trial from a London dealer who threw a fit when I changed the strings before agreeing to buy. Don't be put off ! You need to be quite sure before you part with the cash. The standard of making world-wide is high nowadays, and the right new one for you has to be out there.

While I can now pick out a fiddle that would suit me pdq I couldn't do the same for anyone else with any degree of certainty !! But generally, if looking for a fiddle to play "solos" I'd be listening for a "ringing" quality, but for orchestra I'd want volume and less "colour" under the ear, so that I'd be able to "pull my weight", and hear where i was in the general ensemble without making a sound with such individuality that I "stuck out". Also, a lot depends on how advanced your playing is - some fiddles are like thoroughbred horses, temperamental and difficult to handle until the knack's been aquired.

April 15, 2011 at 07:04 PM ·

When searching for a violin about a year or so ago, I had the experience with a couple of shops that when a violin was a serious contender, they could be persuaded to swap in a different set of strings (or allow me to do so on my own) or make minor tonal adjustments, then allow me to test for another week. Sometimes the difference can be so great that an instrument which would have been passed over could be "the one" when treated to some TLC. That's one reason why I'll never trial a violin by mail, only from shops that I can visit in person. I find that if they know you're serious they will take the time to work with you and earn that commission.

Still, finding "the one" is very elusive, but you'll know it when you hear it. I had a very accomplished violinist play my prospects for me, and that helped me to experience what they truly could sound like. I'm not proficient enough to be able to get the best out of my fiddle consistently. It's very finicky, and the Passiones it's strung with make it even more so, but when I hit the sweet spot it really sings, and reminds me why I chose it. Unfortunately, it also reminds me how utterly hopeless I am as a violinist!

April 22, 2011 at 04:48 AM ·

Having grappled with this question for years, I am now certain of a few things.  It is essentially a 3 part process.

1.  If you are not a touring professional violinist go to step 2.

2.  Play your violin with the belief and as though it has great sound and power

3.  Go to step 2



April 27, 2011 at 01:44 PM ·

Does anyone here think they can judge the carrying power of a violin (or a particular setup) when they are playing? I mention setup becuase sometimes it is argued that gut strings make a sound which carries better than apparently louder strings. Or is it a question of asking someone else, or getting a recording? The same question would apply to the quality of sound at a distance: is judging that something which can be learned, or must violinists accept that it is hopeless to to try to hear it for ourselves.

April 27, 2011 at 03:13 PM ·

Yes, I can play a violin, and accurately judge the sound at a distance..... except for all the times I'm wrong. LOL

If I truly want to know the sound at a distance, I take a violin into a hall. That seems to be the normal procedure, even for exceptional players.

Short of that, there are a couple of things I've found can provide some good clues:

Recording at a distance from the microphone, at least 20 feet away; or playing in one part of the house, and listening in another. To be most helpful, these require a comparison instrument with known qualities, but it's also hard to know what's going on in a hall without a "control" instrument, unless the instrument sounds rather unusual.

April 27, 2011 at 04:13 PM ·

 "playing in one part of the house, and listening in another". 

My wife has never been particularly fond of the sound of my Lucci violin, but one day observed that it sounded much louder 3 rooms away ! 

I am all for testing in "real life" situations - as we all know only too well a violin can sound wonderful in a dealer's premises, surrounded by reflecting glass, but can disappoint "on the job". I have known dealers who try insisting you decide "there and then", without allowing a trial off their premises, and to be fair, there's a reason for that. Take even the finest of trial fiddles into a professional band and some wiseacre or other is sure to rubbish the thing with a crisp one-liner. 

It does take a great deal of courage and experience before a player can confidently know his/her own mind, and there's "no accounting for taste". You have to stick to what you happen to like, regardless.

April 27, 2011 at 09:22 PM ·


I can't help you with your specific query, short of repeating David's recommendation. However, one very important thing to look for, in any instrument, is its ability to respond to your variations in playing.  A good instrument is a responsive instrument.  Everything else is frosting on the cake.

Does it change timbre well in response to both bow pressure & speed?

Does it allow for a wide variation in bowing lanes?

Also:  Does it remain open & strong in the higher registers, on all strings?


As far as cutting through an orchestra (or a dense pop recording) I always look for a certain energy in the upper mid-range. You just have to have experienced it (as either a player or a mix engineer) to recognize it.  IMO, GDG types do this better than Strad types, generally speaking.

There is also the arcane issue of directionality, which may or may not be a factor in the "soloist" type of fiddle you seem to be seeking. Some have suggested (well, I have, for one) that the better soloist violins are somehow better at throwing various frequency bundles in alternate directions. This would help the people in the back rows to "lock in" on that instrument. Of course, this could also be a bunch of hooey, but you might have someone else play the fiddle under observation, and walk around it.  Do that with enough fiddles, including ones that are known to be great soloist instruments, and perhaps you'll learn something important.


Then again, some have posited (OK, me again) that the main reason the soloist can be heard above the V-1 section is because the section players are all playing the same notes, slightly out of tune with each other. This causes a chorus & comb-filter nulling effect, especially with the higher frequencies. That means a slightly darker & creamier sound, which then lets the single solo violin stand out more.

So, maybe sheer volume is all that really matters.   I doubt it, but it is a reasonable possibility.

April 28, 2011 at 07:44 AM ·

Thanks for the replies about judging the projection of an instrument.

Obviously someone like me who is not soloist, looking for a fiddle which 'projects' is just for fun. And for someone who is a soloist and whose reputation and income, and the pleaseure the give audiences, is based largely on recordings or broadcasts, the sound under a microphone is surely way more important. The projection which Pagannini appreciated in the Cannone is far less relevant in selecting an instrument now. Still, being heard by the purchasers of cheap tickets at the back of a concert hall must be a bonuse for soloists!

April 28, 2011 at 04:37 PM ·

 "A good instrument is a responsive instrument."

I agree with this. Whether an instrument is "dark" or "bright," it HAS to respond. It may have a nice sound, but either doesn't speak quickly with soft pressure or will bottom out with lots of bow pressure.

Another aspect of response is how the instrument responds to vibrato input, and that can have a great influence on how it projects. For that, a fine instrument has a layer of brilliance on each string, even if it has a very dark sound. When that brilliance is missing, you just get woofiness and a vibrato that makes you work hard without going anywhere.

April 29, 2011 at 07:43 AM ·

 "a fine instrument has a layer of brilliance on each string"

Yes, Scott ! And clear harmonics. Though some fiddles need a stronger left hand grip and more of a biting bow to go full blast, what Scott describes should be discernible even in gentle playing. This, in short, defines the "Old Italian" quality that makers the world over have aimed to reproduce - and it can seem very elusive.

I recall as a young player trying an Ettore Soffritti violin and being struck by the fact that the sound "rang" to the very lowest notes on the "G" string. I should have bought it and retired on the proceeds of the appreciation in value ! But I'd been wrongly advised that only Hill violins of that date were worth the asking price. How wrong that turned out to be !!

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