Will new bows change?

March 21, 2012 at 06:40 PM · I´ve been wondering, since a violin can develop quite a lot with age, if a new bow also will develop or change in character and playability. If a bow is soft when new, will it always stay soft or will the wood stiffen and vice versa? Is what you feel and hear when you try it what you will have in the future as well? I thought it might be good to know before considering any of the cheap and, what it seems, still very price worthy Chinese bows that are starting to show up almost every where.

I hope that you very well informed colleagues can help enlighten me in this matter! Thanx!

Replies (22)

March 25, 2012 at 12:25 PM · I am answering, not because I know the answer, but because I am curious too. Does anybody know if bows change over time? I have mostly old bows in my collection but I do have a modern one from the 1940's...

Cheers Carlo

March 25, 2012 at 03:18 PM · You are totally wrong on that one John. Ebay does not rule - I never use it, and probably never will.

March 25, 2012 at 04:54 PM · My 2 cents:

Bows are not likely to change very much in comparison to the violin as the wood is much much harder and it's structure is much simpler.

Why are some old bows so exceptional? IMHO re exceptionally good archetiers and exceptionally good wood. They were very likely outstanding from the start. To get that very best wood they had is now more difficult ( or impossible?)

March 25, 2012 at 05:59 PM · In my experience with both old and new bows, yes, they can change. Each bow is different, however, one can make some generalizations: bows usually soften over time (they don't get stiffer), and the sound gets more complex. I've played many new bows that have a very clean yet one-dimensional sound. They just sound green. As they age, the sound can acquire more overtones. I have had new bows that developed weakness and/or warpage.

They are like violins in that they may change for the better, change for the worse, or not change. In other words, a crapshoot. One can look at 5 or 10-year old bows by the maker if possible in order to make a prediction, but makers, their wood, and their philosophies can change.

A mass-produced Chinese bow is even more difficult to predict. It's unlikely they use the finest wood or that they wood they use has been aged well. I think a decent well-used $2000 German trade bow is a better bet than a new $1500 Chinese bow.

March 26, 2012 at 03:54 AM · Has anyone ever measured whether different bows have different 'overtones'? I know that people talk all the time about how the resonances of the bow have to be matched to those of the violin somehow, but frankly this is something I find rather difficult to envision.

I've not experienced much change with my bows over time, but my time is measured in decades, not centuries. And maybe I'm just lucky. I use a CF now anyway so it's become a moot point.

March 26, 2012 at 03:58 AM · You don't have to measure it. It's something that can clearly be heard.

March 26, 2012 at 06:24 AM · "In my experience with both old and new bows, yes, they can change. Each bow is different, however, one can make some generalizations: bows usually soften over time (they don't get stiffer), and the sound gets more complex. I've played many new bows that have a very clean yet one-dimensional sound. They just sound green......"

Scott is on the ball as usual. I have 6 bows by the same maker - the 40-year-old one now feels like a friendly old stick whilst the newer ones simply do not, IMHO.

March 26, 2012 at 02:33 PM · Come to think of it Scott you are probably right. My main stick for years was a 100 year old Otto A. Hoyer and to my recollection it didn't change much . I have played on 4 relatively new bows since and the one I started with was out for a while. On returning yes it is probably a bit softer and gets lots of colour and volume out of my present fiddle.

March 26, 2012 at 04:34 PM · @Scott, "You don't have to measure it. It's something that can clearly be heard."

Even so, careful measurement might lend some insight into the physical origins of the phenomenon. And that would be interesting (to me) even if there is no practical utility at the end of the rainbow in terms of using such a measurement to evaluate bows.

March 27, 2012 at 12:07 AM · Paul,

I'm not sure how one would measure how a bow changes the sound of a violin. My guess it that each bow interacts differently with every violin. Case in point: with my last violin, an English bow of mine from 1925 (Leeson) produced a warm, fuzzy tone with much depth. However, with my current instrument, it draws a cleaner, almost glassy tone. I feel that it's not so much that the bow has its sound but that it acts as a filter to what the violin is doing itself. That's pretty complex stuff. I'm going to be trying a couple of more violins soon and it will be interesting to see how the bow interacts with those.

It may be like strings: on some instruments, a given string will be crystal clear and responsive, and on another, murky and balky. I still don't "get" Eva strings--maybe I've just never had a violin that they were appropriate for.

March 27, 2012 at 02:02 PM · Scott,

I don't expect anything I find to change the accepted violin dogma. Nor would I presume to tell you or anyone else that your observations with your own violin and bow are products of your imagination. I believe they are real. The question is WHY they are real, and I find it hard to accept the standard answer, which says that there are sympathetic resonances in the bow stick that must be matched somehow to those of the violin.

Therefore it will be interesting to attach identical piezoelectric pickups to my violin and to the stick of my bow and then play a few things while my laptop is recording the output of the pickups. The pickups and clamps will have to be extremely lightweight. If the vibrations experienced by the bow are a miniscule fraction of those experienced by the violin in their intensity, then I think the idea of bow stick vibrations being somehow complementary to violin vibrations would be called into question. And that is what I believe I will find. That is my hypothesis.

I surmise that the differences in "sound" realized by different bows (assuming they are haired exactly the same, which is already a big assumption) boils down to their playability, which arises from the distributions of weight and flexibility along the stick. This view accommodates the oft-cited observation that bows must be matched to specific violins. For example one violin might need the player to exert slightly more downward pressure (oops -- I was supposed to say "weight" there) or play slightly closer to the bridge which will place different playability demands upon the bow.

With strings and violins I believe the situation is different, in that both are obviously vibrating quite strongly and they are in direct physical contact quite near the origin of the vibrations, whereas vibrations that go into the bow stick have to find their way there through the bow hair, or through the violinist's hand, or through the air between the violin and the bow, and all those media are strongly diffusive of sound vibrations.

So ... let's see!

March 27, 2012 at 07:51 PM · Paul,

I'd just maintain that the wood varies immensely from stick to stick, just like in a violin. I think that is where the difference in tone will lie, and not weight distribution or playability.


March 28, 2012 at 07:06 PM · I'd agree with Scott. If one is talking about the core sound, it seems that the wood is the differentiator. But that said, playability and balance point on a bow are of huge importance. I have a bow which I'm really happy with respect to the sound, but still tinkering with in terms of playability with cambering, hair, etc.

March 31, 2012 at 08:50 AM · I think there's more to matching violin and bow than playability. I once heard a great match between violin and bow. One of three bows made by the same maker suited this violin really well. You could hear the difference doing a simple long bow stroke. No fancy technique. Just put the bow on the strings and pull. The difference in sound was just unbelievable.

April 2, 2012 at 03:43 AM · @Ray, thanks for an expert opinion! I don't dispute what you've heard and felt while you were playing these violin/bow combinations, but I still think it is a reasonable question to ask "why," and to be skeptical of "accepted reasons."

April 4, 2012 at 06:41 AM · The issue of matching the bow and violin has been discussed before. If you are an audiophile, you would probably appreciate that the preamp of a Hi-Fi system must also match the amplifier in order to produce a good sound.

In the violin realm, the violinist, the bow hair, and the strings are equivalent to a CD being played on a CD player. The bow wood acts like the preamp, and the violin body the amplifier. Other parts such as the bridge and the soundpost are the interconnects.

The audio signal produced by rubbing the bow hair on the strings will contain high frequency overtones that is irritable to the human ear, especially on prolonged hearing. Try rubbing the edges of two pieces of broken glass together and watch how the house pets response.

It is believed by some, including me, that the function of the bow wood is to filter off the unpleasant high frequency overtones to produce a more pleasant euphonic tone that is characteristic of a good bow. In the Hi-Fi realm, the preamp functions both as an audio-filter as well as a frequency modulator to produce a linear frequency response curve on the part of the amplifier to which it is connected.

An electronic engineer may design a preamp that is tailored for a particular amplifier, or class of amplifiers. Not so with bow and violin. It is still very much a trial-and-error thing. You try a dozen or so bows on your violin and hope to find a good match.

It is still a mystery as to how the bow wood acts as audio-filter, and why certain type of wood is especially good at it. If we knew, we could tailor-make a bow that could match a particular violin through 3-D printing.

April 4, 2012 at 02:48 PM · Tong, that all makes good sense to me but significant audio filtering by the wood stick of the bow implies that a lot of vibrational intensity is being transmitted to the stick. It might be .. but that's what I'd like to actually measure.

April 6, 2012 at 02:29 AM · Recently there was a lot of activity on a thread about whether a better violin is easier to play. On the same thread the subject came up re whether playing a violin over time changes it. I posted quite a bit on that thread, so here I'm only going to post this once.

Yes, playing a bow has a discernable effect on it in terms of such aspects as responsiveness and increased complexity. And yes, it makes a difference as to what bow is matched with which violin. The better the violin, bow and player, the more difference it makes.

I'm holding in my hands an old VSA (Violin Society of America) journal going back to minutes of a conference in the fall of 1981. There was a talk given by Wm. Watson about the Hill bows, where he gave a surprizing dissenting opinion. At one point V. Nigogosian, the noted violin restoration expert asked him 'if you have 2 bows and 1 has been played for 35 years and the other has not, will there be a difference in their playing qualities?" Watson: "Not in my experience or estimation, although there might be wear on a stick that had been used constantly" (p.103)

But in the same journal issue (p.186) in the course of a talk given by Bernard Millant on the great bows of France, "Nigo" posed almost the identical question: "I would like to ask you a question you are qualified to answer since you are both a violin and a bow maker. We know that the sound of a violin changes if it has been played more or less continuously over a period of years. does the same thing happen with a bow?" Millant: "It is true that if you take a violin from a safe where it has lain fallow for a month or so, when you play on it, it will not sound like an instrument that has been played on continuously. But after a week or so of playing, that instrument will improve in tone. A violin is made of pine and maple. If these woods are affected in this way I should think that the same thing should happen to pernambuco. After all, a bow is a type of a spring, and the more rerspnsive this spring is, the better the bow will be. I'm not good enough a violinist to judge, but logically, I would think that this should be so." Right then a Mr. Kieveman (I believe, a student of Dounis) spoke up: "As a player I can support your opinion. Some time ago I purchased 2 bows from you but I never really used either of them. For the longest time a friend begged me to sell him one, and finally I consented. He used his bow constantly; I used mine only infrequently. His Millant bow became much more resiliant and its playing qualities improved whereas the characteristics of mine did not change."

The renowned bow expert, Wm. Salchow published a booklet about bows. Regarding playing in a bow he said: "Bows do improve and mellow with age and use and the sound they produce improves considerably...the sound produced by a bow seems to be a function of the celluar structure of the wood...a bow with a great sound will develop its full potential rather quickly if played regularly, probably within 10 years or less."

BTW, there is a device called a Lucchi meter which measures the velocity of the vibrations travelling from one end of a bow to the other. But certain simple tappings can give you a pretty good idea of the same thing.

I think that the organic material of wood is susceptable to vibrations in its celluar and even mollecular structure. I won't go into more subtle vibrations of ki or ch'i here but I agree with the Samurai about their swords. What about a carbon fiber bow? Well, that too, is a spring and so, its response might be affected by use. But what about subtlties and complexities? I'd tend to doubt it.

April 6, 2012 at 02:47 AM · Raphael,

Thanks so much, I'm enjoying this discussion tremendously. I'm not a dissenter -- again I don't dispute the observations of professionals like yourself or Ray Chen (see above), but merely curious (okay -- call me skeptical) about the nature and intensity of vibrations that are transmitted to the bow stick.

I can envision how vibrations, over time, could cause subtle changes in the internal structure of the wood of the bow stick. The thermal and mechanical history of a polymeric material will, in general, influence its physical responsiveness.

Thanks for the hint about measurement equipment. I'm just too busy right now to rig up a pickup, but my idea is to clip one Realist pickup on my bow with some kind of very lightweight metal clip, and one on my violin, and play some slow scales, while logging the output into a computer that can do the necessary Fourier analysis to obtain the frequency spectrum for each channel.

Lately while I've been playing my slow scales (which I do every time I practice of course) I've been more attuned to vibrations that I feel in my right hand, so I'm becoming even more curious as it appears that my initial hypothesis may be wrong! As a scientist that really motivates me to want to learn more about this.

April 6, 2012 at 05:54 PM · There's a fairly short summary of it here. But be warned that understanding FA really needs a degree level understanding of maths.

April 7, 2012 at 12:23 AM · This may be just personal to me and I probably haven't experienced enough octagonal sticks to be certain but I've never played a bow with an octaganal stick that I have liked. I once owned a beautiful looking gold mounted octagonal stick and I rarely used it, but when I sold it at auction it was snatched up and got a good price. On the other hand a silver mounted round stick by the same bow maker was a beautiful bow the use, and was grabbed by a professional player when I sold it.

Anyone else had this experience? It may mean nothing, but I have this tendency to prefer round sticks. Apart from anything else they are usually cheaper too!

April 7, 2012 at 12:43 AM · @Peter, might be coincidence but all the bows I have ever really liked playing had round sticks too.

@John, Fourier analysis is a mathematical procedure for taking a complex sound wave (or any wavelike motion where amplitude is a regular function of time) and breaking it down into its individual frequency components. I learned the basic math years ago and there are certain parts of my present-day research where it plays a role. But I don't do the actual math -- it is done by computer.

The clarinet is an instrument that produces a sound that is more dominated by a single frequency when played softly at low register. The waveform of the violin sound is much more complex and will have lots of contributing frequencies (overtones, etc.)

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