Are better instruments easier to play?

March 16, 2012 at 01:38 AM · We expect more expensive instruments to sound better than cheaper ones. But are they easier to play? How has your playing (or your students') been affected by "moving up" to a substantially better instrument? Can you relax your left hand more? Has your intonation improved? How about speed, vibrato, or shifting?

I'm especially interested in violins in the $2,000-$4,000 range.

Replies (77)

March 16, 2012 at 03:20 AM · Easier to play can mean different thing to different people.

Players who have lousy skill, will choose a violin that sound the same no matter how you play, with limited dynamic range (usually with very narrow tone color range as well) so the player can be more careless and the violin will still sound good. It's probably the opposite of VSO - VSO will consistently sound bad no matter how you play it, the better one just give you better sound instantly.

Players who demand a lot from their instrument, will choose a violin that can offer them different shades of colors, large dynamic range, those are the violins that are "easier" for demanding players. A sensitive instrument, will respond to e.g. bow pressure, so player with inconsistent bow arm will not produce good sound out of the violin. A sensitive instrument will only make a bad player project their weaknesses.

"Can you relax your left hand more? Has your intonation improved? How about speed, vibrato, or shifting?"

Regardless of the above mentioned situations, though, better instrument will produce cleaner/purer tone, so the player can hear their intonation clearer thus they can improve a lot when they can finally hear what they're doing. But they most probably will never be able to correct your relaxation, speed(?!), vibrato and shifting.

March 16, 2012 at 08:53 AM · I think a better instrument, for lack of a better analogy, "has more gears."

You've probably noticed that on cheap student instruments, it almost doesn't matter what you do; the tone that it can produce is extremely limited and even with perfect bowing, arm weight, etc. it just doesn't yield any significant results.

Nice instruments can do much more...but they span the range of sounds from powerful and beautiful to just ugly as heck if you don't do all the right things.

It's that way with bows too...some bow strokes like sautille just don't sound right or take way too much effort on cheap bows.

March 16, 2012 at 09:04 AM · Christine - As a general rule, instruments in the $2-4K price range should be easier and more satisfying to play than those in the lower range (as you would expect). The main reason for this is that they are usually better made and better set up, because the luthiers who worked on them were better and could afford to spend more time working on them than on cheaper instruments. Things like having a neck of the right length and set with the correct projection at the bridge, a fingerboard with the right curve, a good bridge and soundpost, pegs that turn etc. will make a big difference in terms of ease of play.

March 16, 2012 at 01:56 PM · I agree with Casey and Marc in that there is more than one way to look at what is meant by "easier to play". Firstly, a violin of any value ought to be set up properly, including neck angle, bridge height and curvature, etc. That will go a long way towards basic playabilty.

There is a sense though in which really fine violins and bows can actually be harder to play in some ways by someone who isn't very advanced and experienced. It takes being on a certain level to get the most potential out of them, and some of them need to be catered to more or differently. People talk of having to adjust one's playing differently to a Strad vs a del Gesu - even though each instrument by each maker has differences.

To go from something very cheap and poorly set up to say, a well-made and properly set-up Chinese violin in the $2-4K category shouldn't take too long to adjust to, though it's always possible that certain bad habits that had been developed to compensate for the previous violin's poor set-up may need re-adjusting. It's like going from a poor old car to a new Toyota Camry. Anything new will need some getting used to, but it shouldn't take long to get the hang of it and be happy with it. But to suddenly go to a Lamborgini...

March 16, 2012 at 02:12 PM · EDIT: nevermind...

March 16, 2012 at 02:24 PM · I personally find more expensive violins miles easier to play, and it's easier to get the sound out too... and definitely I find that a cheaper bow doesn't seem to respond as well as an expensive one. :D

March 16, 2012 at 07:41 PM · I think I would more or less agree with Rafael. Expensive fiddles can be hard to play, but rewarding once you get to know 'em.

March 16, 2012 at 10:20 PM · Casey: I enjoyed your post very much, really clarified some things for me. I've got something around 2.5k with a skill level that's probably not even as good as the fiddle is. I'm sure I'd be hitting telephone poles right out of the gate driving a Lamborghini.

March 17, 2012 at 02:03 AM · One thing about a violin that produces better tone is that you can more easily hear the resonances that tell you whether your intonation is correct.

March 17, 2012 at 02:33 AM · Again, there is more than one sense of "easier to play". One violin may be very responsive. You barely touch it and it seems to respond with ease, clarity and purity. Some Strads are like that. On the other hand, violins like that are transparent like crystal, and the smallest flaw in intonation, bow contact, etc., can easily show up. Such violins often respond best to a lateral sweep of the bow, rather than much vertical pressure, or digging-in. Other violins, often exemplified by certain del Gesus, may have less of a hair-trigger response, but may better suit the player who likes to dig in, and whose gutsiness and darker and more translucent timbre might be just a little more forgiving to very slight imperfections. So in a sense, "easier to play" can mean an instrument that better helps get the results that we desire, without having to work as much for it or swim against the stream.

I have a collection of violins. I wouldn't say that one or another is easier to play, but that for certain kinds of repertoire or passages within repertoire, one or another will more naturally (due to its inherent nature) help get me the kind of character I want.

March 17, 2012 at 04:01 PM · "Is there with some players a conflict in the mind between the actual sound that a violin makes and the one projected in the mind of the player? A player may be aiming at a mellow sound where a harsher tone has been designed into the model used. No amount of tinkering with strings will convert it from one to the other."

Yes, in which case it may be time to look for another violin.

March 18, 2012 at 08:02 AM · What about glissando? What about playing scales including chromatics where you use one finger and slide between notes. What about playing a deliberately sharp leading note? What about having to tune to other people? What about the violin being tuned up and down in the normal course of tuning? What about new strings being tuned up and continually going flat?

Answers on a postcard please ...

March 18, 2012 at 08:13 AM · Casey nailed the main answer in the first reply ;) - but its always fun to see where these topics go! I'm going to start a new topic on one....

March 18, 2012 at 09:11 AM · "We expect more expensive instruments to sound better than cheaper ones. But are they easier to play?"

Sometimes it's the opposite.

I have a ca. 100ys old factory violin (worth 2-3k). I love practising with this instrument, because it sounds lovely and responds very easily. My main violin (ca. 15k) is a bit harder to play. But it offers a greater range of sound, and it projects easily, while the lesser violin gets lost in an ensemble, it just does not have the power.

re lyndon's hypothesis about the connection of resonance and tuning/playing frequency:

- The popular idea of changing an instrument's sound simply by playing (a lot, a certain style, some frequencies etc.) is questioned by many professionals. (see the discussions about "breaking in" violins). Instruments change over time, but the playing plays a minor role, if at all.

- There should be a clearly recognizable effect when checking all the notes, say in 1/8 tone steps. The notes between should be sounding poorer. Never heared that effect or someone demonstrating it.

- An instrument with a wolf tone or a disturbing resonance could be magically cured by tuning and playing a bit higher or lower, at least for some time.

I'm afraid the whole idea is wrong.

Those players who fear others might mess up their resonances are irrational. This is based on emotions and misconceptions, not on facts.

March 18, 2012 at 10:01 AM · Tobias - I have to agree with you on all that.

I've occasionally played on well know musicians fiddles briefly - and they never said it had any effect, good or bad. One to which I did say that I hoped it hadn't had a negative effect he said "Of course it hadn't!"

March 18, 2012 at 03:01 PM · @Lyndon "theoretically at least a violin is going to sound more resonate playing the notes it has consistently played the most..."

Theoretically? Can you provide a reference to an article in a peer-reviewed journal where this "theory" has been promulgated? I think this idea that certain frequencies "get into the wood" is probably not supported by much in the way of scientific evidence.

At the same time it is quite true that while a violin is being made, the luthier will tap certain parts (especially the top, I'm told) to see what frequencies naturally ring from it during the carving process. It would be easier for me to believe that the finished violin, when played, would vibrate more richly near those frequencies. (Theoretically, anyway.)

March 19, 2012 at 03:44 AM · The terms "expensive" and "better" are not necessarily related. Part of my own definition for a better instrument would be an instrument that is easier to play in all areas--general response, trills, and vibrato.

There are many expensive instruments that do not provide this, but may have a great sound. However, I believe that those great instruments with poor playability usually end up on the market eventually. Someone will buy them, hoping to make them work, and then get discouraged by the amount of energy required to play them.

March 19, 2012 at 07:01 AM · "if i have to argue with people who dont believe violins get better the more you play them, whats the point?"

The point is "believe". Everybody believes it, everybody repeats it. It must be true, because they all say it.

Science is a great tool for finding out what's the fact. You collect the facts, you test them, you find a theory, you test it.

With violins getting better the more they are played we have a common belief that can't stand the test. The fact (a common experience) that instruments get better is not a result of playing, but of time. The common explanation is wrong, and a convincing theorie is absent. All the talk of "cell structure changing" etc. is no theory, there is no specific explanation that could stand a scientific test.

But the reason why this wrong idea survives, even among pros, is simple. It seems plausible, and it gives a feeling of being responsible for the improvement. Humans like to feel important.

Ancient tribes sacrificed a daily virgin to make sure the sun rises the next morning. This appeared to be effective, and they felt good (not the virgins, I guess).

But playing one's fiddle like hell to make it sound better ("breaking in") is not in vain. Players tend to get better by practising.

March 19, 2012 at 07:10 AM · But has anyone tried a double blind test? the way to do it would be to use one of those automated violin playing robots (to avoid the improvement of hte player). Record a lot of new violins new then assign them (randomized) to remain idle, an excellent player or a beginner. Then record them on the same machine and same equipmen again. Now give the before-after tapes to experts (again blinded) to rank whether the after recording is better or worse than the before one. Analysis would then reveal if violins played by experts improved more than either (or both) those left idle or played by beginners.

With that sort of protocol you can avoid human issues - if the set is large enough even differences in individual violin setup. Hmmm, sounds like the basis for a research grant...

March 19, 2012 at 07:24 AM · There has been a test with two new and same made fiddles. They compared them before, and then after on had been played two years by a pro and the other one rested in it's case.

Both had changed the same way, there was no difference between them.

(Of course both had to be played a short time and then set up, when they were brand new.)

March 19, 2012 at 09:06 AM · Hi Lyndon,

common opinion is irrelevant. The majority believes also in astrology, the free market and that religious folks are better humans.

My ears are ok. I did not deny the positive change in instruments over time. I only stated that there is a better explanation than the standard belief. And this is not my idea, it's based on many discussions among professionals.

Nothing personal.

You did not answer the suggestions I offered before.

March 19, 2012 at 09:46 AM · Talking about me adds no value to this discussion, so I don't.

Waiting for arguments.

March 19, 2012 at 10:42 AM · Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Maybe the messiah wasn't played because it doesn't sound good?

Why assume that every stradivari is fantastic? And nobody I know claims it takes 300 ys to improve an instrument.

I think, too, that playing a sleeper can improve it's sound. But this is only a short process. After some hours or days it's done, depending on the instrument and setup. Yes, and the new setup it gets is a big factor, too.

The following improvement is because the player gets used to it.

March 19, 2012 at 10:48 AM · Lyndon, IF the Messiah Strad doesn't sound very good, we can only guess at the reason. Perhaps it never sounded good, and that's why it is in such remarkable condition, better than any other Strad. (Edit: I see that Tobias mentioned this while I was writing)

This may be the study that Tobias was talking about, where playing showed little or no improvement:


I'm not claiming that this study is the final word on the topic, but it offers an interesting and uncommonly objective counterpoint to rumors, anecdotes and beliefs.

March 19, 2012 at 01:02 PM · Pardon me if I come across as ignorant but if the Messiah Strad has been virtually untouched for 300 years wouldn't that mean that it also hasn't been "modernized" for a more powerful sound? Why would we expect the Messiah to sound "as good" as say Gil Shaham's Strad if it hasn't been altered? Wouldn't the sound of Strads being performed on regularly today have as much to do with the luthiers that have kept them up and running as well as age?

March 19, 2012 at 01:10 PM · We've gotten off topic here*, but there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind as a professional violinist and collector who has made careful notes on his violins, that playing changes both a violin - and a bow, for that matter.

I did read the link just now, and that article seems to be all over the place. In one place it says that time is very difficult to quantify. In another place it says that the player himself and owner of the violin that had been played more, was able to identify his own violin in 20 out of 24 trials, and that this has a 99% significance. But then it suggests that he might have cheated since he could have identified wear on his own violin. But while this may be true, I'd argue that if this were the case, he should have been right 100% of the time. Finally the article says that when all is said and done, 3 years isn't a long time.

We can never completely separate the two aspects, since time will elapse in both cases. I also don't doubt that seasoning of the fabric of the wood and varnish will have an effect, by itself, as it were. But vibrations, both physical and subtle over time will also have their effect. Ultra sound is used to break up kidney stones very quickly. Is it going too much out on a limb to suppose - with the supposition merely backing up experience - that the sub-ultra sounds of playing, going through the bridge and into the instrument will have an effect over years?

*PS I just found the old thread where this subject came up a while back. It's entitled "Breaking-in a violin" first posted by Scott68, started in 2/7/05 and the last post was 4/19/10. Took me quite a while to find it, even searching among threads just in the "instruments" section. Does anyone know an easier way to navigate and find old threads here?

March 19, 2012 at 04:04 PM · Now we are getting more and more scientific - instead of personal remarks and anecdotes.

Now what I would like to see is a *theory* (in the scientific meaning!).

We have the claim "playing improves instruments"

Now, as long as still no objective proof is there, where's the theory that is examinable?

March 19, 2012 at 05:04 PM · Well Lyndon, I guess any study can be labeled "pseudo-science", and the testers accused of having an agenda, if one doesn't agree with the outcome. ;-)

March 19, 2012 at 05:18 PM · "when every player and dealer in the business for hundreds of years has been saying that playing improves tone...."

People once believed the earth was flat. Perhaps that means that it was, at one time, or maybe not.

There are so many possible interpretations, why hang your hat on just one, while the jury is still out, and information continues to come in?

March 19, 2012 at 11:03 PM · I'm a big fan of science. I'm also a big opponent of scientism, which is another matter. Scientism is an attitude that doesn't believe in either the reality or meaningfulness of something unless or until it can be quantified, measured, put into numbers, formulas, equations, etc. There is obviously a very important place for science in our world. Science will send a satelite to say, Jupiter. Love of Jupiter alone won't get a satelite there, nor the particular kinds of data that a satelite might yeild. By the same token, we don't need science to tell us that love is a good and most meaningful thing, and that it does us good. Yes, science can find corolary physiological data that may accompany feelings of love, but these are merely some footprints of the actual thing. We don't need science to prove to us that caring for a loving animal makes us feel good, though it can be nice to know that they have found that this can lower blood pressure (-unlike some of our posts here!).

Scientism is its own sort of secular orthodoxy. There have been any number of instances where say, folk remedies were scoffed at and those using them were called superstitious fools - not because they had been disproven, but because they hadn't yet been proven. Then when they were finally proven to work, we were "given permission" as it were, to believe in them and use them. Scientism is very prejudiced, and in academia, more open-minded scientists who have wanted to take a serious look at subjects like esp have often been ridiculed and ostricised by their peers. So much for free inquiry.

There is a broad spectrum of reality and conciousness that science has some important bands on, but does not completely own by a long shot.* Not everything meaningful is quantifiable. I mean, what does a sonata prove? Years ago someone critcized Pierre Boulez as the type who, if he would see a beautiful woman, would calculate in centimeters the length of her nose. If anyone has ever witnessed the aurora borialus (as I once did) and can think of it as nothing more than electrical firings in the upper atmosphere, I feel sorry for them. By that token, what is a performance of the Bach Chaconne other than some vibrational disturbances in the air? Right!

Now, I am no enemy of real science abetting aspects of violin making and playing. On the contrary, it can and already has, yielded some interesting findings. There have been many spectral analyses done on violins showing how different ones peak at different places etc. This sort of thing could certainly play into experiments of violins played a lot, and not played, etc. BUT - just because such technology shows something, it doesn't necessarily mean that it always has practical heard value. And just because differences are heard but do not show up on such machines doesn't mean that they don't exist - something that some such experimenters have freely admitted. That is science. Scientism will say that "until it's proven with machines and numbers, I won't believe it, and anyone who does is a fool." Well what if it's proven and you still don't hear it? When it comes to violin tone, how much will that mean to you?

Even valid science works with some unproved assumptions. The verification principle is itself, unverifiable. Various statistical tests decide arbitrarily how many is statistically valid. Finally, let's talk about theories and peer review. I know something about this as an uncle of mine is a distinguished geologist who disproved a long held theory about ancient climates. There was the usual resistance and indeed peer review - and my uncle's new theory eventually was accepted. That's how it works. It's the NEW theory that bears the burden of proof, and is subjected to peer review. So Tobias, with indeed hundreds of years of practical experience going back to the lute, and such people as the Hills, Francais, and the Moenings all making the same - according to you - unsubstantiated claims about violins needing years of almost constant playing to sound their best, the burden of proof to the contrary of conventional wisdom is upon YOU. I'll be glad to be one of your peers reviewing your findings.

And David, you've mentioned that clients of yours have noted major improvement in the already good sound of your violins. Do you feel that they are fooling themselves?

*PS If anyone is interested, I can recommend some good books re the interface of science and non-science, scientism, the spectrum of conciousness, etc.

March 20, 2012 at 01:52 AM · It could be certain things can't be definitively proven. Perhaps violinists perceive improvements in sound over time that has nothing to do with the age of the violin or how often it has been played by others. When a violinist acquires a new violin or first acquires and older violin he has to get used to his new partner in music making. Over time the violinist learns the idiosyncrasies of the new instrument, what it can and can not do. He has it set up until it meets his expectations. The violinist might think the violin has become more responsive when in fact he has just learned how to set it up and play on it to best realize it's full potential. Older violins that are passed on from one pro to another over generations might have not improved with age but could just be superior instruments appreciated for their superior attributes. These violins also have been worked on by the best luthiers over the centuries for optimal performance.

March 20, 2012 at 02:48 AM · "People once believed the earth was flat. Perhaps that means that it was, at one time, or maybe not."

Yes, but that does not disprove any other currently held beliefs. And besides, there's no reason to think the earth was ever flat. There's no maybe here.

I'm also a fan of science and tend to be among the more skeptical. However, people who have spent years in a particular profession often have intuitions and experience that, while not scientific per se, can still be of value. I'm with Raphael and Lyndon. I do believe that playing an instrument makes it better, and this is not that difficult to see. Frankly, I wonder why anyone would dispute it. Is it just to be contrary? Maybe they are a maker and have an interest in promoting the idea that new instruments are just as good as old.

New instruments are so obviously stiff--just pick up one and play the percussive chords on the second page of the Brahms concerto, or the B section of Paganini #9. You can immediately feel the stiffness. Play high on the G string and compare it to an 18th century violin. And those who insist that it's only the player that changes? I give that idea a tiny bit of credit. But not much.

If players today had no expectations that their new $20,000 instruments were what they were and would never get better with playing, then trust me, no one would buy them.

March 20, 2012 at 03:05 AM · Rafael I agree with a lot of what you said. Scientists sometimes forget the presuppositions on which the scientific method is based (measurability, reproducability, exclusion of non-natural causes). By definition it is not applicable outside the limitations of that scientific framework. So for example a statement "Science has shown there is no God" is an oxymoron.

The scientific method works very well for chemistry and physics. Reasonably well in medicine, but the more subjective the subject of study the harder it is to do studies based on strict scientific principles. And how well a violin sounds or how playable it is is pretty subjective isn't it.

Personally I believe a brand new violin changes noticeably in the first 3 - 4 hours of being played. I am quite sure of that from repeated experience. If instead the fiddle had stayed in the case during that time there would not have been that same change.

What happens in the following weeks and months is a little harder to figure out; getting used to the instrument comes more into play. Nevertheless it makes sense that the instrument changes by being played. Why would a violin change in the first few hours by being played and not after?

March 20, 2012 at 06:12 AM · Recently, my wife's grandchildren were shown pictures of their Daddy as a child. They recognised him at once. Although his physical apperance has changed enormously over time his "character" was already there. In a similar way, and backed by New Zealand research that David Burgess knows about, it would seem that the character of a violin is pretty much there from day 1.

Confusion arises because when players talk of "the sound" they are speaking of the combination of the timbre and effort of production, and it has to be confessed that their judgements can be skewed by marketing hype.

It would seem that it's less a matter of the "sound" improving as of the violin getting to "work better". So often do experienced players speak of "opening out" that an improvement in user-friendliness cannot be an illusion.

March 20, 2012 at 07:18 AM · Do not forget that the biggest differences in sound come from different players. A fiddle will sound one way with a certain player, and completely different when another player picks it up.

Strads and del Gesu's sound awful when a poor player picks one up, and damned good in the hands of a great player.

Personally I believe that instruments may improve with a bit of use and waking up, and possibly a bit too through ageing, as do some humans ...

Science can do a lot for us too, but one should always be a little sceptical, and also with blind faith.

March 20, 2012 at 09:06 AM · I would also add that there is a common phenomenon by which a musician picks up an instrument he's never played before, finds it difficult to play at first but after 15 minutes feels the violin has opened up and sounds better. What's actually happened is that in the 15 minutes the player has learned to play the instrument and get a good sound out of it, but their impression is that it is the instrument that has changed. Perception is reality...

March 20, 2012 at 01:48 PM · From Scott: "I'm with Raphael and Lyndon. I do believe that playing an instrument makes it better, and this is not that difficult to see. Frankly, I wonder why anyone would dispute it. Is it just to be contrary?"

Indeed, as far as I'm concerned this is like challenging the first moon landing. Anyone has the right to do so, but the burden of proof is on them.

From Peter: "Do not forget that the biggest differences in sound come from different players. A fiddle will sound one way with a certain player, and completely different when another player picks it up.

Strads and del Gesu's sound awful when a poor player picks one up, and damned good in the hands of a great player."

Now we're back to the original topic!

March 20, 2012 at 02:58 PM · I'm the original poster. This discussion has gotten turned upside-down, from my question of "How do different instruments affect playing?" to "How does playing affect instruments?"!

I'm still interested in responses to the question I originally asked: "How has your playing (or your students') been affected by "moving up" to a substantially better instrument?"

Specifically, I'm planning to move up from an $800 violin to one in the $2,000-4,000 range. I'm wondering what can I expect about the new instrument's playability. I'd especially appreciate personal experiences rather than abstract speculation.

March 20, 2012 at 03:37 PM · Christine - you are really asking a difficult question.

Going from a cheapish instrument to a more expensive one - if the monetary value you are quoting is accurate, may make little or no difference. On the other hand it could make a difference.

For example, I went from a cheapish fiddle to one about 14 times the value. There is of course a difference, the new fiddle has a bigger sound and potentially more colours. However, the cheap fiddle was pretty good, and probaby had a sound more equal to a better fiddle at about three times its price.

The plusses for the new fiddle is that it has a bigger sound - but on the minus side it is harder to play and may be slightly more temperamental. It also sounds better in a big room and even better in a big hall or church.

So when I play it in a normal sized (small) room it is a bit of a loose cannon and overpowering.

On the other hand an (allegedly) £2 million fiddle I tried recently had a nice sound but seemed not so loud. But then it might have come into its own in a better accoustic.

March 20, 2012 at 04:09 PM · I's hard to say. If these are factory instruments you're comparing, from the same company, then you'd expect the $4000 instrument to be obviously better than the $800 one.

If it's older instruments...who knows? The pricing is sometimes rather random.

Don't forget that the bow makes a huge difference. I just bought a new bow (better, stiffer) and my tonal quality has improved tremendously. Who knew it could be that obvious?

March 20, 2012 at 04:52 PM · Better instruments are easier to play.

March 20, 2012 at 04:59 PM · How is it that people own some del gesus and Strads that are generally acknowledged to be more difficult to play? Or at least they take quite a long time to get used to?

March 20, 2012 at 06:26 PM · I heard two conservatory students play. One owned played a well known old Italian and the other owned and played a well known contemporary violin. They both played beautifully and had similar abilities. For fun they traded violins and in both cases their sound went down more than a couple of notches. I am not sure you can scientifically prove that a violin improves with playing and age. There are too many variables to be tested. To address the original question I think a better violin will have more color, a more even tone on all strings, should be able to project better, and be more responsive. In other words it would be easier to play. I am not sure you can assume a more expensive instrument will better. There many variables that go into determining the price of a violin and ease of playing and sound isn't always one of them. If you are auditioning violins try to do so without knowing the cost. The less expensive one might suit you the best.

March 20, 2012 at 06:35 PM · "Indeed, as far as I'm concerned this is like challenging the first moon landing. Anyone has the right to do so, but the burden of proof is on them."


this is really funny. I'm a sceptic (in the philosophical sense) and a Critical Rationalist (in the sense of Karl Popper), that's the exact opposite of those conspiracy theory believers.

Questioning the moon landing or the ball shape of the earth is nonsense. But questioning a centuries old idea makes sense:

- There are better explanations for the phenomenon that violins get better over time.

- There is no theory at all how playing could change the instrument, only claims and vague ideas.

- The personal experience of a great number of people is of no value at all - not the phenomenon that we all experience is in question, but the explanation.

(It's like homeopathy and astrology - millons and millions believe in it, but the effects, if there are any, are fully explained psychologically, and the claimed mechanism is clearly disproved by 200 years of biology, physics and medicine.)

So I don't say one's fiddle don't improve, I say it's not because he plays it.

As being a sceptic means that clear evidence together with a testable theory could convince me.

March 20, 2012 at 06:54 PM · Christine,

my first comment, and some others, offered you personal experience, and even explanations.

It depends on your needs. Is a goldsmith's hammer harder to use than a blacksmith's? Depends on what for. With fiddles, the difference is not so big, so there is no clear answer.

When I reflect your question, I offer this advice:

Yes, a violin in the price range you mentioned offers a good change to improve your playing, provided the playing's on a certain level.

The better instrument lets you do things better, not always easier, but in any case better.

Only that a 2k fiddle is not 2x better than a 1k, that's sad, but sometimes it only makes sense to go from 1k to, say, 5k. You will have to try out, if possible with a good teacher.

Good luck!

March 20, 2012 at 08:14 PM · quote Casey Jeffersen:VSO will consistently sound bad no matter how you play it, the better one just give you better sound instantly.

I still think Casey nailed it a couple of posts from the top, as Elise also said. and if I may presume to add... you can have an $800.00 fiddle, it may be fairly easy to play (or it may not for that matter) but it prolly won't sound that great, likely either boxy or screechy or any of the other shortcomings that $800 can buy you. and it still will be a "one trick pony fiddle".

Whereas a 2 - 4K may still be more of a one trick pony(like Casey says) compared to a Lamborghini but it should be a pretty good sounding pony and play fairly well.

in my experience (and I've had plenty with cheaper me) there's quite a difference between say 1.5k & 2.5k, and 2.5k would be about the starting place.

I'm basically paraphrasing what Casey said, but again, imo, his was a very good and direct answer to the OP's question.

I also agree with Tobias... it might make sense to go from 1k to 5k, if you can afford it. You may find a 2.5k just as good as a 5k, or a 2.5 that suites YOU just as well as 5k. and at this point we could continue to go round in circles.

March 20, 2012 at 09:44 PM · As I have said many times in the past, I encourage people to try fiddles in all price ranges (including those which they can't afford), and decide for themselves where the point of diminishing returns is.

The caveat is that this point of diminishing returns may change with changes in skill and technique, so there is no perfect solution, other than taking the recommendations of an infallibly trustworthy high-level professional, who can predict exactly where you will end up.

Attempting to do that has it's own hazards though, since some money can change hands in exchange for recommendations, sales and referrals.

I realize that what I've said doesn't present a clean and foolproof path, but maybe you'll be better prepared to navigate it, having a little more information.

March 20, 2012 at 10:06 PM · I think that it was I who first introduced the Lamborghini analogy - but who is counting? The point is that early on some of us did address this issue in some detail.

Again, if we're talking about going from a vso to a decent, well set-up violin in the several thousand dollar range, after some getting used to it and possibly undoing some old compensatory habits, the better violin should be easier to play.

When it comes to higher-end instruments, bows and players, it becomes a more complex and nuanced issue, which is where the Lamborghini image arose. It takes skill to get the most out of such instruments, and some lend themselves more to responding better to certain types of playing. Ruggiero Ricci said that if you're going to attack a Strad, you're barking up the wrong tree, and if you're going to be a milktoast with a del Gesu, you might as well soap up your bow.

I have some high-level contemporary violins in my collection and I've tried about 5 Strads, 2 del Gesus, a few Guadagninis, Amatis, Vuilliaumes, Poggis, etc. - and they are all different. Same for fine bows. Years ago at the Library of Congress in Washigton DC, I tried the famous Kreisler del Gesu. It was brilliant, exciting - but not easy to play. Most notes needed a bit of an accent to get them going, recalling what Ricci said, as well as the Hills ( in their book on Guarneri) speaking of a "biting bow." I said as much to the gentleman working there who allowed me to try that and an Amati. He said "You're doing very well. Isaac Stern came in to try it recently, and he couldn't play it at all!" Yet, Stern owned 2 del Gesus. They're all different, even from the same maker. The Amati was much more responsive, and broader on the G string, but I had to take care not to crush it on the upper strings - especially coming off the Kreisler del Gesu.

So what do we mean by "easy"? For me an "easy" violin to play is one that most readily gives me the results I want in reaction to my approach to playing certain repertoire, without either of us "fighting" each other - which, for me is not necessarily the most responsive violin.

March 20, 2012 at 10:20 PM · So some of us are juggling two rather different issues here.

Anyway, Tobias - I'm not sure I said that fiddles always improve with use. In fact they can get worse with mis-use, depending how they are played. But playing will indeed affect a fiddle. This is not something I need to prove to you. The burden of proof is on YOU to scientifically debunk hundreds of years of professional empirical experience. And again, I'll be glad to be among the first peer to review your findings.

March 20, 2012 at 11:08 PM · I have a newly made violin. It will be 2 years old in june. From the day I played on it first time, it doubled, if not tripled the volume.

My theory is that a good instrument sounds better than a bad instrument because of two reasons: 1. The actual sound of the violin is good. 2. The feedback that you have instantly when you play makes you play better because you are more inspired.

So, a violin sounds firstly good to the player, then to the listener.

I don`t want to quantify, but i`m afraid that the 2nd reason is as much as important, if not a bit more important than the 1st.

March 21, 2012 at 12:05 AM · I made the experience that a new good violin changes and helps your playing alot. especially if your old instrument was a beast to play a good instrument will do what you demand from it after you get to know it of course.

To me a good instrument has a direct response to everything while having a tone with character and carrying power if necessary. Those kind of instruments are good for everyone! But they dont excuse bad playing they will more likely bring weaknesses out. Thats why tehy are good for students too, not only for accomplished players.

in the price range of 2-4 k you can find some ok violins with luck. But I think the real deal starts around 8-10k $ unless the seller is deaf or you get lucky

March 21, 2012 at 01:54 AM · Christine -My daughter has just upgraded in a similar price range to the one you are looking at. And gone up from a 3/4 to a full size.

How much is the bow and how much the violin I'm not sure, but she says she has gone from fighting her old instrument trying to get dynamics and variation in tone out of it, to being able to do what she wants (and what her teacher is asking of her) much more easily.

March 21, 2012 at 06:24 AM · Raphael,

the logic of science says you cannot prove the nonexistence of things.

The burden of proof lies with the one who makes a claim. It only works this way. You cannot say "prove to me the nonexistence of the yeti" ;-)

March 21, 2012 at 07:21 AM · Lyndon,

you're aiming at the person again instead of offering arguments.

Let's get back to discussing facts or leave it.

March 21, 2012 at 12:28 PM · Tobias - true, but you CAN try to prove the veracity of a different theory, IF you can. The burden of proof is still on someone with the new idea. You want to just say you don't believe the obvious? Fine. It's a free internet, and no hair off my bow. But a number of counter-intuitive ideas that have been bendided about here certainly don't prove anything, and are in violiation of Ockam's Razor, which isn't very scientific.

Now if you'll all excuse me for a few days, I have gigs to play, bills to pay - and instruments that need to be kept vibrating!

March 21, 2012 at 02:50 PM · Christine, first in answer to your question: imho a 2 to 4000 dollar violin will almost certainly be easier to play than an 800 dollar one. In the 2-4000 price range you can buy some higher quality Chinese, Japanese , Romanian or Polish (mostly) workshop fiddles that are very good quality for your money. You can also buy a German/Tsjech workshop violin for example from Markneukirchen area that is a 100 years old and some of these sound excellent but they are personally not my favourite, and some are harder to play.My 2 cents.

Now to get off topic again: Raphael, I agree that playing versus just time changes violins. It is widely accepted but you cannnot state that therefore the burden of proof is with the person questioning this. Tobias is right, the null-hypothesis would be the one to prove: that violins change more in sound by playing than just by time. Can't see what Ockam's razor has to do with it.

Presently i'm again in the process of playing in a violin and over the last year it has become possible to play gradually higher up on the strings with more volume than at the beginning. Lots of other changes have occurred as well. I just don't buy it that time would have done the same thing, or that I've become more adapt at playing this particular fiddle. I've been playing for 50 years now, played lots of different violins and am not getting more adapt at anything. It's downhill from here for me. Adapting to the violin does occur, but that doesn't take more than a few hours.

March 21, 2012 at 03:39 PM · I think the factor confounding this discussion is the sensor: who is listening to the change? If its an external audience then I have to agree with Tobias - it should be possible to prove the change in tone by impartial and blinded observers. Thats exactly where science functions best - yes, no or no discernable (read significant, proveable) change. However, if its the player then Lyndon is right. No about of scientific probing is going to extract whether there is a real, adaptive or fantasized change in the violin. Esthetics rules.

March 21, 2012 at 06:55 PM · "New makers have complained that when a violin leaves the shop they lose the feedback which would be so valuable."

John - this is probably entirely the fault of the makers. I've complained about new instruments being badly set up, but the information never gets used or seems to have any effect.

I would go as far as to say that in many dealers shops about 90% of the instruments are badly set up.

Maybe all makers or at least the ones that are responsible for bad set ups, should attend a course with an expert who can give them some idea.

I'm sure those that do not play very well will have little idea.

March 22, 2012 at 01:25 PM · "So Peter if we all lived in fear of changing a spark plug and there were not many trained mechanics there would be many dud cars littering the motorways. That`s a fair comparison."

Not really. Any monkey can change a spark plug with the right tool.

But setting up an instrument is much harder and you need expertise. You also need to know what a violin should sound like, which many people have no idea about, even some players.

March 22, 2012 at 04:33 PM ·

March 26, 2012 at 02:20 PM · Hi, I'm back! OK, Hendrik said:

"Now to get off topic again: Raphael, I agree that playing versus just time changes violins. It is widely accepted but you cannnot state that therefore the burden of proof is with the person questioning this. Tobias is right, the null-hypothesis would be the one to prove: that violins change more in sound by playing than just by time. Can't see what Ockam's razor has to do with it."

When something is widely accepted, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's true, and in a free society anyone may believe or question what he likes. But the burden of proof is indeed on someone questionting it to prove otherwise, if they want their own beliefs or theories to be accepted in a scientific or scholarly way. I had already mentioned that an uncle of mine who is a gelologist eventually overturned a long-accepted theory regarding ancient climates by arduous proof, and it was eventually accepted by the scientific community. Some people question whether Shakespeare wrote all or any of the plays and sonnets attributed to him. But most scholars agree that the burden of proof lies with the one questioning the traditional Shakespeare attribution. Interestingly, I worked as a consultant to a scientist off and on for a long time (-his specialty was optics, and he has since died-) who was also a collector and then dealer in violins. He hadn't the slightest doubt that my playing opened up his violins, and would always try to have me over to give selected ones a workout as close as possible to a prospective customer seeing them.

Some people here have bandied about this or that notion of why a violin might change without usage playing much of a role, if any. Willfully going to the contrary of the obvious - which, yes, in theory might still be wrong, but needs to be so proven - and to prefer a more counter-intuitive and convoluted idea, is what is in violiation of the principle of Ockam's Razor, which states that when there are competing theories or notions regarding something, in absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, start with the most obvious. Or to put it in a more modern way, "keep it simple, stupid!" (That last word wasn't directed at anybody here; it's just how that expression goes.)

I think that Elise put it well that certain aspects are and are not more or less amenable to scientific experiments. And as I also had mentioned that the absence of scientific proof would not invalidate someone's subtle personal experience with an instrument. This is so obvious in my years of experience that I don't personally feel any need for scientific proof, and if there were, I wouldn't feel especially validated. Nevertheless, since we are on the subject, I would propose this experiment, if it is important enough for some people and there are enough willing makers: a number of makers make a pair of violins. They endeavor their utmost to make them as identical as possible, using the same wood, modeling, graduations, plate tunings, varnishing, etc. A professional player and the maker agree that they sound extremely similar. The player records something basic - maybe a 2-octave chromatic scale up each string, and this is submitted to a spectrographic anaysis, which shows how the violins peak in different places, etc. Despite their extreme similarity, if one of the violins seems a bit more responsive, let THAT violin be put away and kept in a case or hanging on a hook. Let the other violin out to a different violinist for say a year, who will give it a lot of playing. Then let it be returned to the maker and let the original violinist (-this way, we eliminate the factor of being used to one or another violin-) play them again to the same analysis. Both violins should have no more than the least possible adjustment, just to keep the bridge and s.p. in basic allignment I can already see some problems, myself, with details of this experiment in terms of control factors, etc, and my idea could certainly be fine-tuned. But if the spectrogram does not show greater differences after a year than originally, I'll eat my hat! (Mind you, my hat is made out of a taco shell!)

This discussion could go on forever, so for myself, I'm drawing the line at this post, and will not respond anymore here. I still feel that I am belaboring the obvious, and this seems especially obvious to experienced professional players and most makers and dealers. I've already cited the Hills, Moening and Francais. I have violins by Ed Maday and Vittorio Villa - and they both have noted how my playing on their violins has improved them. Our own David Burgess here has expressed doubt. Yet he has cited how his customers have reported marked improvement playing in his instruments. I reminded myself that I had an old brochure of his and recently dug it out. It's called "when compromise is out of the question". There are various sections including one called "playing in". I quote "Those that have been playing Burgess instruments for several years tell us that they undergo a radical improvement in sound and playabilty in the first six months...understand that if you buy a Burgess instrument because you like it, that there is more to come." No more to come here from me - but I see that a similar discussion re the bow has opened up on another thread. Hmmm....

March 26, 2012 at 03:01 PM · Raphael, you are a fine violinist and I totally agree with you on the effect that playing has on a violin.

That was my Canadian answer to your post. The Dutch answer would take too much time.

March 26, 2012 at 03:36 PM · Off topic - Rafael - I tried a Marcello Villa fiddle the other day, and was very impressed!!

March 26, 2012 at 06:34 PM · Decent violins get better over time.

I don't know anybody who denies this.

So the discussion makes no sense, because we all seem to agree in this.

If, in the other way, someone can offer a proof that the cause of the improvement isn't the time but the playing, or a theory that explains in detail how this works, I will be happy to learn.

But until this happens I'll stick to my ole friend Occam who says:

"let's take it as a fact that your fiddles get better over time.

theory 1:

they improve when they get older

theory 2:

they improve when they get played for some time (= they get older)

Remember, thou shalt not make unnecessary assumptions.

Now where's my razor?"

PS: For anybody who may be bored with this discussion I suggest to check the claim made by lyndon that the sound of a violin adjusts even to *the pitch where it's usually tuned to*.

Now this is heavy stuff, and there has not even been a trace of evidence.

March 26, 2012 at 08:38 PM · Tobias, theory three:

Wood properties change with humidity cycling. That's fairly well accepted by the wood technology people. Put that fiddle under your chin, and exhale near the ff holes while playing, and compare that environment with the humidity during storage conditions.

Not saying that's the answer, but I think Tobias is fair to question the notion that changes are due exclusively to vibration.

We may all be pretty much in agreement that violins can change over time. If some musicians assume that it's from vibration, and possibly something even more romantically attractive about vibration, like infusing one's energy and personality into the instrument through playing, is that necessarily the correct answer?

May 21, 2015 at 07:20 AM · Just for fun, I'll inform you lot that the Strad Messiah has a modern setup..........

Unless the photos have altered themselves with time?

May 21, 2015 at 08:16 AM · Louis Pasteur could see bacteria through his microscope. The medical wourld took much convincing, though. He had to deduce the existence of the rabies virus by repeatable experiments. Only now we can see viruses with an electronic microscope.

I would not qualify Pasteur as a flat-earther.

Regarding the OP's question, I have found my better instrument easier to play physically for both hands, but it demands more work on my bowing technique!

May 21, 2015 at 02:25 PM · Absolutely not. You can prove that just by giving your cheap violin to your teacher or anyone who plays good; and you will see how easily he plays your violin.

Comfort in playing in violin depends on how soft are strings. Meaning if u have high string height it will be hard. If u have lowest height it will be so smooth easy to play. Depends on your bridge height. You can take chances and cleave your bridge acc to your needs or do it by luthier if it needs to be shortened. You can try this with cheap violin, cheap bridge. Also the the size of nut; both ascertain height of strings. I have done it myself on my cheap violin. I am referring to very cheap violins like 100$ range which have big nut and unusual bridge. Student level violins will be good that are around 300. - The price of your violins should only depend on your pocket. I really doubt there is ease in playing.

This comfort level can be found in any cheap violin.

May 21, 2015 at 02:33 PM · Adrian,

what do you mean by Strands have modern setup? what is modern setup? do you mean the neck being not attached to the body? how many strads are like this and does it make difference in comfort in playing?

May 21, 2015 at 02:47 PM · Thanks Micheal! In all this philosophising we had missed this basic point: set-up. I have sometimes lowered bridges, or even deepened the nicks to lower the D a little. Luthiers don't necessrily play themselves. But too low a bridge will affect intonation too, as the fingered string wll not rise soon enough from the fingerboard.

A harsh violin will tire the ear, but a dull one will make poor intonation and bowing less flagrant (to the player!)

A responsive violin will permit subtle legato and détaché, and sparkling staccato and saltellato.

PS The Messiah's original neck was lengthened and tilted back in the 19th century and a modern ebony fingerboard fitted. The original bass-bar (diplayed next to the violin) was replaced by a longer, thicker one.

I doubt if any Strads exist with their original "baroque" set-up. It is worth noting that Stainer's violins were as popular as Stradivari's at the time, but they sound less good once "modernised", unlike Stradivari's.

May 21, 2015 at 09:46 PM · Joe, thanks for this additional information.

My own comes from David Boyden's detailed catalogue of the Hill collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

(Which also contains a 1655 Lyra-Viola by Gasparo, which inspired my new viola by Bernard Sabatier, Paris).

(Which is easier to play, and fuller-toned, than my JTL.)

May 22, 2015 at 12:46 AM · To respond to the OP's original question: I recently bought a few-year-old partially factory made viola from Bulgaria for $2200 (retails for somewhat more but less than $3000). I have a much older violin of unknown provenance (about 100 years old, from somewhere in Europe) that I paid $2200 for a few years ago. I recently had a new bridge cut for the violin and had a luthier check that it was properly set up. The viola is still easier to play. Hard to say which instrument is worth more but if you go by quality of sound, I'd say the viola.

So--can't say based on price which of two stringed instruments is better, but if you go by by apparent quality, this is evidence for the idea that a better instrument is easier to play.

May 22, 2015 at 06:42 AM · Michael James:

"You can prove that just by giving your cheap violin to your teacher or anyone who plays good; and you will see how easily he plays your violin."

Spot on. If there is a time where I feel there is a problem with my violin, I remember the time my teacher has played it.

My violin was $500 when I bought it, and I have been playing for a few years. My teacher has an Adrian Struder violin (professional kit worth around $20,000) and she has been playing for a lot of years.

When she plays something like Monti's "Czardas" on my violin, it sounds amazing. The same piece played the same way on her violin sounds amazing too. Doubtless she can hear differences in the two instruments and would never trade hers for mine, but to me they both sound great.

I guess what I am trying to say is that even a violin like mine has so much to offer when played by a professional.



May 22, 2015 at 09:10 AM · Chris, when our teachers play on our instruments, we are also enthralled by the playing, and quickly ignore differences in tone (unless we have a real VSO!) When I play on a student's violin, the parents immediately notice a) it sounds better than when the child plays it, b) it doen't sound anything like mine.

Joe, Mr.Sabatier is much appreciated for his original and enquiring mind, and is very patient with my knowledge of acoustics....

However, many luthiers here in Paris are very snobbish upholders of traditional half-truths. Sometimes they are even right but for he wrong reasons, and discussion is impossible.

May 23, 2015 at 03:31 PM · I started out with a VSO. It was harder for me to play in the sense that it was very heavy (caused a lot of discomfort), shifting was much harder (not as smooth) and it was a lot more difficult for me to produce a good tone. Even when it was played by good violinists, it still did not sound fantastic. This was a very cheap violin though and it was also a very large full size whereas I am better suited to a 7/8. I think the reason I find my new violin easier to play is because it is a better size for me and its very light so I'm not always in pain when I play. The setup on my cheapie was not good either, but I didn't know that at the time. I also had rubbish strings on the cheapie; again, because I didn't know better. A better instrument, coupled with investing in a very good teacher has improved my playing vastly but i don't know how much is attributed to the change in instrument and how much to my teacher.

May 24, 2015 at 12:46 PM · I'll second (triple!) the teacher player after the student. I had the chance to hear a Master class with Shlomo Mintz and four different students between age 13 and 18ish. They were really good students (the youngest playing Ysaÿe 3rd Sonata, the oldest the Poulenc sonata).

In all four times, Shlomo Mintz played their instrument and bow. Every time, he sounded twice as loud as they were (and it sound good too!)

By that standard, I reckon you can play at least twice as loud on your existing instrument :)

May 24, 2015 at 05:47 PM · I think the differences that you'll feel with a trade-up to a better instrument will really depend on your own strengths and weaknesses, and the two instruments in question.

Better, clearer feedback makes it much easier to improve. So does predictable and precise response.

If you already know what to do, the fact that something might be difficult to execute on a particular instrument isn't really much of a problem. If you don't already know what to do, figuring out what you should be doing without the necessary feedback is really, really hard.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

2023 Authenticate LA: Los Angeles Violin Shop
2023 Authenticate LA Shopping Guide Shopping Guide


Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine