Acoustic effect of playing with a mute

November 25, 2011 at 05:36 AM · I have noticed a peculiar effect when I have been practicing for any length of time with a mute, say for half an hour or more. When I remove the mute, the violin sounds not only louder but extremely harsh and gritty, quite unlike its normal tone. It is really quite irritating, but the effect doesn't last very long. I am wondering: could the violin be responding in its own way to being released from the damping effect of the mute, or is it a my own psycho-acoustical response to the increased volume I am hearing? In other words, has the sound of the instrument actually changed temporarily, or is it all in my head? Has anybody else noticed this?

Replies (46)

November 25, 2011 at 07:39 AM · Hi,

The same thing happens with me. I just assumed it was my ears having become adjusted to the mute sound, meaning the mute-free sound is alien to me until my brain catches up. The same thing happens on piano- if William (my 'man'!) is on the phone I practise with the pedal. If I do this for too long, find I 'forget' the true sound. I don't think it's the instrument being temporarily altered. That's the conclusion I came to, anyway.


November 25, 2011 at 01:20 PM · It could just be an audio-illusion ;) It is also possible that your mute reduces enough scritchy stuff that you bow differently w/your mute on, and briefly continue whatever you changed, adjusting again because you don't like the sound you hear initially when you take the mute off. I know lots of folks play w/mutes or practice mutes for practical reasons, but the sound bugs me within a few minutes. Sue

November 25, 2011 at 01:39 PM · I think it's mostly what you become accustomed to, and it takes some time to readjust. Be careful, because this happens when you're trying out new instruments too. You've become accustomed to the sound of whatever you've been playing....

November 25, 2011 at 02:07 PM · Hi. I've experienced this, too. And the heavier the mute, and the longer it's been on, the stronger the effect. So if you use a metal practice mute (which I ocassionally used years ago and don't recommend) that's where the effect is most noticeable.

Like Lila, Sue and David, I had wondered whether this was just psychological - the shock of re-entry. But I made an experiment once - maybe I should repeat it - where I played senza sordine (no mute) for a while, then I put the mute on but did NOT play, and just left it on for a few minutes, then removed it and played again - and I still noticed that after-mute taste. Maybe clamping the bridge really has temporary stifling effect which playing after the mute's removal will free up again? That test I made was years ago; I will experiment a bit more...

November 25, 2011 at 04:02 PM · The mute I use sits on top of the bridge without

squeezing the bridge. No after mute sounds at all plus this mute lets the overtones through.

November 25, 2011 at 06:14 PM · There's a very simple explanation to this phenomenon:

When you play without a mute, the sound is so strong that the self-protecting mechanism of your inner ear switches on and makes you less sensitive to certain frequencies. When you play with a mute this mechanism is not activated.

Sometimes when I evaluate violins I put a mute on for just a moment. When I take it off I hear aspects of the sound I might have missed otherwise.

Alcohol reduces this self-protective response, so if you want to keep hearing that harsh sound even after playing a while you could try drinking a few glasses before you practise. Might ruin both your playing and hearing though.

November 25, 2011 at 06:38 PM · OK - I just made some fresh experiments, with some interesting results. In each experiment I played the same simple note patterns on each string in the 1st position - no fancy concerto experpts to lose myself in. Then I applied the muting mechanism - but did not play with the violin muted. I just left it on for a couple of minutes, took it off and played again. This way I did not have the muted sound in my ears. Playing the same simple notes on my favorite violin again and again, I don't think that the gap of a couple of minutes would make me forget what it sounded like. Between experiments I gave the violin some strong playing to clear any 'cobwebs'.

1. First I used my old standby - a Spektor mute, which I like very much if for no other reason than that when you keep it between the bridge and the tailpiece, it stays put, and it also makes a decent muted sound. Well, to my surprise I heard no discernable difference when I took the mute away from the bridge and again played the same few notes.

2. I tried a different mute - the Heifetz model. This does not stay on the violin. You have to put it on the bridge and then take it off. Here there WAS a very discerable difference - the familiar and unpleasant slight harshness and glassy quality. The Spektor mute just goes over the bridge slightly with a kind of lip, while another part goes up a aginst the bridge. The Heifetz mute goes more deeply around the bridge and has a tight fit.

3. I tried the Ultra rubber practice mute. This looks like the equivilant of about 5 Heifetz mutes, and is corespondingly heavier. Surprizingly, while there was indeed a noticible after effect, it wasn't as strong as the Heifetz mute effect had been. I believe that this is beause the Heifetz mute pinched the bridge more tightly.

4. There is another way to achieve some muting: cover the entire top of the violin with 2 cloths - one north of the bridge and one south. The f-holes are thus blocked, and perhaps the belly plate is stiffled just a bit. Not surprizingly, there was no discerable difference when I removed the cloths and resumed playing. Everything was loose and the bridge was not involved.

But considering experiments 2 and 3, it seems that it's not just our imaginations!

November 25, 2011 at 07:19 PM · I found it to be the ears not the violin in my test. I use a wire slidable mute ,you may get a different response with a heavy practice mute. What I did was record the violin first with mute off(1) ,then with mute on(2) ,and then with mute off again(3). All on the same take. I didn't play anything fancy just 2 octave D scales.

I first listened to 1 and 3 back to back and didn't notice much difference. I then played back the muted sound then listened to 1 , and 1 was off, it sounded bright. It's an ear thing in my test

November 25, 2011 at 07:32 PM · This Myth is Busted

November 25, 2011 at 07:36 PM · Raphael: I'll give it a go as well, and let you know.


November 25, 2011 at 08:03 PM · Raphael, covering up the f-holes can be a dangerous thing to mention on this forum ;)

However, I've heard more than one experienced player say that when the mute is on it slightly flattens the pitch. I haven't heard of any tests on this, and I haven't noticed it myself (that's probably my cloth ears*), but I wonder if it is a psychological effect due to attenuation of the upper frequencies by the mute.

* "cloth ears" in my case is age-related upper frequency loss (anything above about 10KHz).

November 25, 2011 at 08:59 PM · I think it affects the resonance of the violin if you play too much with a heavy mute. It is not just about sound but also about responsiveness. The violin responds totally different with a mute to contact point etc. So if you apply the same contact point, pressure and bow speed you use with a mute without a mute, you will get this harsh sound anyway.

I think practicing with a mute changes your sound too much. I prefer practicing with earplugs. There you have an similar effect but the same response from the violin while your ears are muted or not muted. I recorded myself with earplugs and without and it sounds nearly the same, but with earplugs you dig deeper because you feel the vibration more instead of listening just. With a heavy mute you cannot feel any vibration, wich is a bad thing and you get accoustomed to play over the strings with a totally different response.

November 25, 2011 at 09:12 PM · It would be very difficult to convince me that it's my ears and not the harsh gritty after mute effect. I'm wondering if there is any medical proof for "the inner ear protective mechanism" or if that is not a myth. I've been aware of what I consider to be a very significant difference between before and after mute for many years, and I find it difficult to believe that my body could fool me like that.

As per some previous posts, I think it's a simple matter of the mute deadening vibrations, starting from the bridge and progressing in varying degrees throughout the whole violin, and once the mute is off it takes a while for everything to start vibrating normally again. and to take it a step further, I've sometimes wondered if excessive mute playing could permanently effect/change/damage a fiddle.

November 25, 2011 at 10:56 PM · Yes, apart from the main issue of this thread, I don't like practicing with a practice mute or even a regular mute unless the music indicates con sordino. Even back stage etc. I'd sooner play senza sord but very sotto voce, controlling the soft sound with my bow.

That said, Menhuin used to like to practice with a heavy metal practice mute. He said it saved his ears and made the contrast to playing full out in a hall that much more satisfying, plus he clipped a tissue to the practice mute to prevent rosin from landing on his violin. Not for me. As to rosin, I'm preparing a whole blog just about that.

November 25, 2011 at 11:04 PM · The tensor tympani and stapedius tensor muscles in the middle ear contract reflexly in response to loud sounds. Both muscles increase the stiffness of the ossicular chain when they contract and thus reduce sound transmission by up to 15 dB, depending on frequency. In humans the stapedius tensor is much more effective than the tensor tympani. The reflexes are generally thought to be primarily a protective mechanism to shield the inner ear from damage due to intense sound but, because the latency of contraction is at least 10 milliseconds, they cannot protect against impulsive sounds such as a pistol shot.

November 26, 2011 at 08:30 AM · Has anyone tried practising with a mute for about 5 minutes and then taking a 10-15 minute break before taking the mute off and playing.

I think my experience has been that the instrument sounds normal straight away as one has forgotten the muted sound.

November 26, 2011 at 01:49 PM · Peter - I haven't tried that. But in my experiments there was no muted sound to remember. I did not play on it when the mute was on. It was a few notes w.o. mute, put the mute on for a couple of minutes w.o. playing, take it off and play again. This way there is no experiennce of the muted sound which may make it seem like when you take it off it sounds different than befire you put it on. And in 2 of my experiments it still sounded significantly different.

November 26, 2011 at 02:51 PM · another component that is not "controlled" necessarily is the key of sound making: bowing.

it is not easy to control how one bows with or without the mute: consciously at a level that is experimental standard (repeatable, reliable, etc), much less unconsciously, for instance, when with a mute on, it is tempting to dig in deeper to find a more focused sound.

some may bow "harder" with the mute on and continue to do so when the mute is first taken off, and then gravitate toward more "normal" bowing, when confronted with harsher sound from heavier bow pressure.

raphael, i don't understand your experiment or possibly the way you have described it. are you saying that the simple act of putting on and taking off certain mutes actually causes a temporary sound change?

ulf's description of the inner ear mechanism is interesting. reminds me of those optical illusion effects...

November 26, 2011 at 03:30 PM · Raphael, do you have an explanation why attaching the mute without playing, then removing might alter the sound of the instrument? I can't think of one....

November 26, 2011 at 05:02 PM · yes, I would think the fiddle would have to be played with the mute on in order for the vibration dampening process to kick in.

still seems logical to me that the mute hinders normal vibration and must be "played out"

I once had a nightmare about this (no kidding) I took the mute off and the harsh gritty sound would not go away. It continued throughout eternity... or until I woke up.

November 26, 2011 at 05:08 PM · Hello David,

You asked how simply placing the mute in position might affect the subsequent sound of a fiddle.

I can suggest one reason as explained in this link (which I know you have already seen):

The fact that what we see affects what we (think we) hear has ready application to many of our experiences, but, it seems to apply particularly well in the fiddle world...

All the best,


November 26, 2011 at 06:41 PM · Here's an analogy. When bright light enters the eye the iris closes to protect it, and will open (pupil will dilate) when light is normal or less intensive. When the mute is on the violin our hearing is open wide to hear the soft high frequencies. When the mute is removed the high frequencies are exposed to the "open" ear until the ear has time to close (Metaphorically speaking).

November 26, 2011 at 09:40 PM · The "after-mute effect." Wow.

Like David Burgess, I'm trying (and failing) to envision a physical mechanism that might cause such a thing.

November 27, 2011 at 08:30 PM · Quote Parker Duchemin: I have noticed a peculiar effect<

Well Parker, what do you think? Is it the mute causing this by deadening vibrations and then taking some time for the fiddle to get back to normal? Or is it our ears adjusting to the different frequencies? You asked the question, you've heard both sides, what say you?

I believe David Burgess was commenting on Raphael's experiment of putting the mute on and off without playing the instrument, in which case it would be a "moot" point imo and I would agree with Burgess.

November 28, 2011 at 02:27 AM · Al Ku has given the most sensible answer in this thread, donno what Rapheal is talking about.

Now I never hear the 'harsh and gritty' sounds when I remove the mute.

November 28, 2011 at 10:03 AM · Henry, it must be all that ear wax!! (Wink)

November 29, 2011 at 02:27 PM · When I posted the initial question about mutes, I felt certain that the phenomenon was due to mechanical effect of the mute on the vibration of the violin, in some way that I couldn't explain. I worried about the effect on my violin of using a mute for any length of time, and I haven't even dared, yet, to try a mute on my magnificent new Guy Harrison instrument before it has been fully played in. The amazing discussion that followed has made me think that it's much more complicated, and that there must be a combination of factors involving both the protective response of our ears and the mute's effect on the instrument. Raphael's experiments have convinced me that there is a real mechanical after-effect, but I now believe that it works in conjunction with other neuro-acoustic factors. There's still an element of mystery, and I'd feel sorry if there were simple answers. Thanks everyone for such a thoughtful discussion.

November 29, 2011 at 02:30 PM ·

November 29, 2011 at 02:50 PM · "I worried about the effect on my violin of using a mute for any length of time, and I haven't even dared, yet, to try a mute on my magnificent new Guy Harrison instrument before it has been fully played in."

I'm sorry but this is plain rubbish. Putting a mute on has no detremental effect on an instrument. I have an instrument on trial and I'm playing it in, although its 16 years old, and I've put a mute on a couple of times.

November 29, 2011 at 03:01 PM · I should have said, "for any long period of time".

November 29, 2011 at 03:11 PM · look at it another way:

assume you cut 2 bridges that fit your violin, one lighter one and another one that is twice the mass.

you put the lighter bridge on the violin and check its sound. then you put on the heavier bridge and most likely the sound quality will change.

in a way, the heavier bridge functions like the lighter bridge with an invisible mute on.

so you mean to tell me that the heavier bridge will somehow damage or adversely affect the violin?

don't we live in a world where there is action and reaction of corresponding proportion?

how big an effect does placebo play according to some studies?

a whopping 30%,,,,believe and therefore it is.

November 29, 2011 at 03:45 PM · I didn't expect to be taken so literally. And I was not talking about bridges (who would put a bridge of twice the mass on their violin anyway, especially one that is being played in?). The question is whether prolonged use of a mute could have an effect on the sound of an instrument, IF the theory is true that there is an after-effect of using a mute. I personally doubt that it could have an effect on the violin, but hey, I'm not going to take a chance with a valuable new instrument. As for use of heavy practice mutes, I don't think they are a good idea (and there is always a risk of physical damage to the top plate if a metal mute were to slip from the hand or get knocked off). That said, I do occasionally use one on my cheaper violin, with reluctance, when necessity requires.

November 29, 2011 at 03:49 PM · interesting response, parker.

November 29, 2011 at 04:10 PM · I'm sorry if I missunderstood you PD.

Even so, I would not think that even playing for 2 hours with a mute on would do any harm. But in most situations its a lot less - maybe a couple of movements or so.

I think we get too worried about these things.

November 29, 2011 at 05:43 PM · Thanks very much, Peter and Al. I do agree with you that it's actually unlikely to cause harm. Sorry for taking Al's words out of context. I overstated my case, but I believe in exercising caution, however, because of the above-mentioned mute effect, and I think a new violin has to to be given the best chance to open up. Damping it down with a mute may delay this process, in my view. I dare say there are plenty of others who believe that on the contrary it would be a very good thing, since a variety of different ways of vibrating might benefit the instrument, and using a mute from time to time could very well enhance its response. My old fiddle had a major repair, with soundpost patch, and I noticed afterwards that playing with a mute, sometimes for an hour or so at a time, didn't seem to prevent it from regaining its full voice. On the other hand if . . . It's not about worry, really, but curiosity.

November 29, 2011 at 07:33 PM · No way is a mute coming anywhere near the bridge of my acoustic. I'll slap a mute on my barcus berry if I have to, or worst case scenario, buy another solid body electric and put it thru head phones. I can't practice in the room I live in, but I can play unfettered in the basement of the building I'm in or after hours at work. As far as performing, well, that's at the Light Rail Transit Station or the occasional Old Folks Home so muting not an issue. Can't stand the sound of my violin crying out to me after I take the mute off "why did you do this to me"

November 29, 2011 at 08:31 PM · Yeah, I agree, it's kind of like putting a mute on your favorite cat. She'd be sure to let you know what she thought of it -- and you --when you finally took it off. And think of the long-term damage to your relationship.

November 29, 2011 at 08:53 PM · Is not an open mind better than ignorance?

November 29, 2011 at 09:00 PM · to consider putting a mute on a cat, do we clip it on the ear, or the tiny pinky nose?

November 29, 2011 at 10:08 PM · I would imagine the bridge of the nose, as it would more effectively silence her, though it is a more tender part. On the ear, I think, would tend to make her louder. Perhaps we need to experiment.

November 29, 2011 at 11:44 PM · I'm getting a sense, rightly or wrongly, that most posters on this thread are talking about using a mute for practice purposes. But keep in mind that the composer sometimes calls for the use of a mute - traditionally expressed as "con sordino" I originally misunderstood and put a sardine on my bridge - what a mess!;-D But seriously, the mute doesn't just make the violin softer, but changes the timbre, giving it a veiled effect. My experiments give me another reason to recommend the "Spektor" mute.

I'm very busy now and will take a break. Happy Holidays!

November 30, 2011 at 12:08 AM · Some performers mute their amplified acoustic violins.

November 30, 2011 at 12:15 AM · One possible response to using a practice mute is not in the instrument or in the player's ears, but but in his/her fingers. In order to get the best sound out of a fiddle while it's muted, you do have to be more careful about bowing, or at least, bow differently. Try that on an unmuted instrument after you're in the groove, and it might indeed sound different (or even better!).

November 30, 2011 at 02:35 AM · Raphael, I've never tried a Spektor mute for con sordino playing, but you've convinced me to get one. My handy new on-the-string orchestral mute, which is made of rubber, does not create that beautiful silvery timbre nearly as effectively as the older ebony three-pronged model, however. Unfortunately, you have to keep the ebony model in a shirt pocket, it's a lot slower to install -- and the sardine is likely to mess up your shirt as well as your bridge.

November 30, 2011 at 03:56 AM · Also consider the leather mutes put out by Paul Wiessmeyer. They aren't as easy to hold between the A and D when not in use as some of the rubber mutes, but they do sound very nice.

December 1, 2011 at 05:24 AM · If you play your violin for a month with different strings and then go back to your regular strings, is your violin changed? If someone else plays your violin for an hour and gives it back to you, is your violin changed? If you play with a different bow for a while and then go back to your old bow, is the violin changed?

No, I didn't think so.

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