String tension and violin playing characterisitcs

March 23, 2013 at 01:13 AM · This came up in the gut string-wolf notes topic where I mentioned changing to softer strings to avoid the howlers. Eugenia asked if I found it harder to play fast. Maybe I don't play fast enough to see this effect but is this documented? Does a softer string make it harder to play fast detache notes?

And what about other playability aspects - do high tension strings make you a better technician (if perhaps less of a colourist...).

Replies (22)

March 23, 2013 at 11:27 AM · Softer strings make it not harder, but on the contrary easier to play the fast detache notes.

There are many factors, which participates on playability and response. Tension is just one of them, the torsion stability of the string is also very important e.g. and there are many other factors as well.

However, as I already mentioned we could maybe say, that the less tension the better response in fast passages. Of course, I need to add, that we are speaking about the reasonable tension range, the rule would be hardly applied on a G string of 2 lbs tension or so…

As for the colors, I it is also not so simple. The best color of the tone is achieved by on the exact ideal tension value (which is slightly different with various formulas, but also with various instruments). The less tension (compared the ideal one) means weaker and thinner sound, the higher tension means loud, but very dull sound without many colors.

March 23, 2013 at 12:13 PM · Anybody else think how fantastic it is that Bohdan posts such great information here?

Thanks for all your informative posts, Bohdan!

I had read elsewhere that playing with as low tension strings as your instrument can handle generally is beneficial in most every aspect besides the fact that you will lose out on top end volume.

Is that a fair statement, or is it that one must find the correct tension for each instrument?

As an example of the effect of lower tension strings it was suggested to detune the G and D strings quite a bit to reduce top plate pressure, and then see how that made your A and E strings sound (after retuning the A and E). Not an exact experiment, but one easily performed at home by anyone. I tried that (on a previous violin, I should try it on my current one as well) and was rather surprised at how indeed it did seem to enrich the resonance. I'm not talented enough to comment on response and such but there definite was a significant change in violin output.

March 23, 2013 at 01:32 PM · I have never found low-tension strings to limit the playability of a violin. If a violin needs it, the lower tension strings will be better.

Some violins just don't work well with higher-tension strings, some do! I got my first violin 74 years ago and my first experiments were with Pirastro Wondertone/Eudoxa/Olive gut-core strings starting about 16 years later. (The Wondertones (yes they used to be gut strings) never worked on the violin I had then, Eudoxa and Olive were great - except for climate interactions - but there was really no choice). Ever since Dominant strings (that were no good on that fiddle either) were introduced more than 40 years ago, I've been trying new synthetic-core strings as they came out (even tried the new Pirastro Passione). My stack of "recycled" violin strings is still about a foot thick, even after years of giving them away to students and friends.

There is no doubt that too much string tension can crush the sound of a violin. It is likely due to too much pressure on the bridge - a smallish, but significant component of the string-tension force.

I keep 4 violins strung with the strings that work best on them and for decades that has been a different setup for each of the violins and a mix of brands on each violin UNTIL NOW! I now have all 4 of those violins strung with a set of Peter Infeld (Thomastik) strings with the platinum-plated E string (that E string makes a tremendous difference). This setup even works for the fiddles that really needed low-tension strings (like Larsen Tzigane).

Just saying!


March 23, 2013 at 03:39 PM · Bravo Andy! Good to see you here. You have always been, and still are one of the most thoughtful and thorough students of violin equipment. I'm remembering some essays you wrote, comparing different strings, and also, I think you had one on how to select a bow. I wonder if you would consider reposting them for the current generation of v.commers.

March 23, 2013 at 07:18 PM · I'm impressed by the knowledgeable comments so far. In brands of strings which come in high,medium and low tensions, I usually have medium tension but I have, successfully enough, bought a set of low tension ones. I don't have high tension strings - I cannot find it in myself to believe that they do the violin any good - though I'm interested in whether there is a case for them and, if so, in what circumstances.

March 23, 2013 at 11:41 PM · Victor, on both my violins I use a Hill-type tuner for the E (Lenzner Goldbrokat), and further on one of them the same type of tuner for the steel ChromeCore A. A characteristic of this kind of tuner is that it raises the ball significantly above the tailpiece and so reduces the angle of the string over the bridge. My vaguely remembered degree physics tells me that the downward pressure of such a string on the bridge will therefore be reduced, presumably enabling the table to vibrate that little bit more freely.

March 24, 2013 at 12:41 AM · Higher tension strings can take more bow pressure before they crack. That might explain the popularity of Evah strings for those that want projection above all else. In general, but not always, lower tension strings tend to yield a warmer sound and are easier on the fingertips

March 24, 2013 at 04:22 AM · I think the softer strings allow for easier displacement. It allows the rosined bow to grab the string and pull it to the side, which then creates the snap back tension.

The flip side being that having less tension to begin with than high tension strings, the snap back portion is not as strong, which I surmise is why low tension strings lack the top end that high tension strings have.

A good introduction to bowed string dynamics:

March 24, 2013 at 08:25 AM · It's interesting that in the Youtube example the D string seems to be slightly vibrating in sympathy with the bowed G string.

March 24, 2013 at 06:33 PM · I started using Warchal Ametyst strings a few years ago because I was looking for lower tension under my fingers. I don't have much natural padding on my fingertips and I always had a hard time getting good finger contact without pressing hard. The lower-tension strings definitely helped with this issue. I'm still not much good at double stops, but they are slightly easier since I don't have to press so hard.

The big surprise for me was the change to my bowing. I don't have to press as hard to get a good tone, so my right arm feels more relaxed and I get a smoother sound. I don't have to tighten my bow as much since I don't have to dig into the strings like before. I think this makes off-the-string bowing a little easier. I have not noticed a difference in fast detache playing.

March 24, 2013 at 07:00 PM · Peter, in that slo-mo video the bridge would have been vibrating (although that's not obvious), so transferring energy to the other strings and making them vibrate. The D is low tension enough for this effect to be seen with the naked eye, but not the A and E. However, the vibrations of the other strings could be picked up by a good mic and their waveforms distinguished from the vibrations of the G by mathematical analysis.

The D is also picking up acoustic vibrations from the G, some of which will be harmonics also natural to the D.

There is also the possibility that the wildly vibrating G may have touched the D, thereby starting it off. I know that on the cello I can make the C rattle against the G without overdoing it.

March 25, 2013 at 01:53 AM · From Andrew Victor

"...UNTIL NOW! I now have all 4 of those violins strung with a set of Peter Infeld (Thomastik) strings with the platinum-plated E string...

Hi Andrew. Thanks for this info.

I prefer soft low tension strings myself.

I currently am using:


G 15.75

D 16.25

A 13.25

E Hill

Could you tell me how your preferred strings above (Thomastik) would compare to what I'm using?


March 25, 2013 at 02:58 AM · In the slow motion video, the guy said he lowered the tension way down. He didn't specify exactly how much, but it isn't tuned to G3 as per usual.

March 25, 2013 at 07:35 AM · seems like umpteen votes for low tension strings - they do everything better except (perhaps) volume.

Has anyone actually tested the volume output of low vs high? I'm wondering if this is just a player sensation because the high tension strings are ALWAYs loud whereas teh low ones exhibit more dynamic range - or maybe I should say an easier to achieve dynamic range.

Is this the Big Secret of violining?

March 25, 2013 at 08:48 AM · It is not any secret. Just a few days ago I measured 30 years old Eudoxa G, it was 3.7 kp /325mm/440Hz.

However, things changed since than, mainly the taste of stringmakers changed a lot. Nowadays some bestsellers G strings are even over 5 kp although players complain bad playability and dull sound quite often.

We always aimed to keep the tension as low as possible, maybe except of Brilliant (regular Brilliant, not Vintage). When we started, we openly proclaimed "low tension strategy" of synthetic strings. Nowadays there are more brands which are turning this way.

March 25, 2013 at 01:16 PM · When the opportunity presented itself, I decided to give the Evah Pirazzi's a try. They sounded so good on my violin - while they were new. It is very true they don't last long. But anyway, they do have high tension and it was difficult to play in the upper positions and get a clear tone. But after I had my bridge lowered, it was much easier. I would say that the high tension gives you clearer notes - crisp and distinct. When I tried out another violin that had lower tension, I was amazed at how "full" it sounded. I played it for a while before going back to my violin with the high tension strings. And once again I found the notes much crisper.

When playing a faster part, I liked how clear it was on the Evahs, but it was much harder to keep the whole passage clean sounding. If I bumped another string, it would stand out. With the lower tension, the same passage sounded smooth and full. Maybe the two could be compared to a rock with defined points verses a smooth stone. IMO, the lower tension is easier to play in a fast passage, but the high tension sounds better.

March 25, 2013 at 03:20 PM · Is the main difference between the Brilliant and the Brilliant Vintage the intended tension? i.e., is the assumption that older instruments will do better with lower-tension strings? And where is the expected boundary between "older" and "newer" instruments?

March 25, 2013 at 10:47 PM · Lydia,

you are right, there is no any strict boundary between old and new instruments. However, in the past (until the first decades of 20th century) violins were expected to be equipped with low tension gut strings only, since there was no other alternative. Violinmakers simply built the instruments such way.

There was a significant tension increase with the metal core string formula invention. Metal strings would never work witch such a low tension. I am quite sure most of the makers simply accommodated to this trend. Everyone needs more power at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century, performances moved from small aristocracy rooms to large music halls, the size of the orchestras has enlarged a lot…

Many makers believed that they need to increase the power of the instruments and they believed the ideology of gradual (and never ending) string tensions increase benefit. Even the pitch (A) has increased steadily.

This is why there is mostly a difference in the “tension demand” of the older violins (say 100+) and the newer ones. However, there are many exceptions as usual of course. Some of the old violin are able to cope with higher tension quite well. On the other hand, high end contemporary violins work excellently with low tension strings too. Although the product was intended mainly for older violin owners, we got a lot of extremely positive feedback from many customers playing new violins with Brilliant Vintage too.

We have learned, that Vintage works well with all violins, which “don’t need to be forced to play”. As for the difference, the tension is not the only difference. For example, there is another D string formula. Vintage D has quite unique hybrid winding combining silver with hydronalium.

March 26, 2013 at 02:45 AM · Bohdan,

I have had recent good success with your Ametyst strings on one of my violins. I really like the sound and playability I'm getting.

Could you please compare and contrast the difference the Karneol set would have compared to the Ametysts?

Sound? Playability?

I believe the Karneols are described as being warmer sounding than the Amytysts?

March 26, 2013 at 07:48 AM · Exactly.

Just now we are finishing the development of very warm set of high end quality. So far Karneol is our warmest set.

March 27, 2013 at 07:36 PM · Do I need to replace these?

March 28, 2013 at 12:33 AM · the carpet? no I think its fine for a few more years....

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