sleeping violin

January 28, 2014 at 04:38 PM · Hello everyone,

I always heard that a violin that is not played goes to sleep. What are the indications that a violin is asleep. The reason I am asking this is because I want to preserve an expensive violin, but I don't want it to go to sleep as I want it to be on top form. If violins do indeed go to sleep, what is the minimum amount of playing time that will keep it in good playing order?

Replies (40)

January 28, 2014 at 05:53 PM · Im pretty sure there is no visual way of telling if a violin is asleep. The only way I think is to just play it and hear for yourself if it sounds asleep or not. im also sure if you just fiddled with it once a week or once every two weeks it should be fine. that or you could try blasting it with violin sound/music from speakers although this method is a bit debatable if it really works or not.

January 28, 2014 at 06:44 PM · I've always wondered about this phenomenon-- the luthiers on V.com may have the best input, but I think there are many factors, temperature, humidity, micro-vibrations flexing the wood... and my theory-- that the strings stiffen from lack of use, but become more flexible when played often. This is especially true for pure gut and gut-core varieties. Practice often for best results :-)

January 28, 2014 at 06:49 PM · You can recognize sleeping violin by the amount of snoring coming from the closed violin case.

January 28, 2014 at 06:57 PM · The whole concept is rather nebulous and depends on the individual instrument. Some instruments will stiffen up without being played, and some will just sound pretty much the same.

January 28, 2014 at 09:59 PM · Pavel, you made me laugh out loud!

I think that this is just another of many myths in violin trade world. It gives a reluctant buyer hope that the violin will wake up after being purchased and played. I can't recall a single dealer offering full money back guarantee if this does not happen!

Back to my post "Violin resurrection" (when Kypors gave me an excellent advice); I picked up that wounded violin which has been sitting for 40+ years and it sounded great from the first second, even with totally aged set of Dominants strings.

With some other violins, I could do double stops, scales and hours of playing every day, change strings, get the the bridge and sound post setup, utter secret gipsy prayers, nothing, absolutely nothing helped me to "wake-up" the instrument.

Back to the original question; a good case, moderate humidity and temperature with no spikes in either direction, preferably tuned to 415Hz to release pressure, a piece of cloth underneath the tail piece and fingerboard, just in case. Pick it up once in a while - most of the damage happens when people forget about their violins for months or years.

January 28, 2014 at 10:22 PM · Pavel, what if the violin doesn't HAVE apnoea?

January 28, 2014 at 11:06 PM · Sorry for the OP, I could not resist. John, violins snore because they have stiff necks.

January 28, 2014 at 11:56 PM · Brr! No.

January 29, 2014 at 02:36 AM · Again apologies to the OP.

A snoring violin can sometimes be silenced with a nasal strip below the bridge. Though these might not help a nasal violin.

January 29, 2014 at 06:44 AM · Rocky, when I bought this violin from Hill's in 1990, Andrew Hill told me that they had it in their vaults for 80 years without any strings or soundpost. He suggested to take it home and wake it up. I did. In the beginning it sounded very bad but after a few days of playing the quality started coming back to it and slowly slowly it became a great fiddle. Of-course after some further set-up and adjustment. Since then I lay it up for the summer because of extreme heat in Cyprus. Every October I pick it up again it sounds non responding for a week or so and then things are back to normal.

This is the reason I want other opinions on the subject.

January 29, 2014 at 02:43 PM · What about once a week during the summer putting it in the fridge in a sealed polythene bag and then getting it out and playing it until it's got hot enough (You can tell I'm not a luthier - Interesting to see the language of their rejoinders)?

January 29, 2014 at 06:15 PM · You could try using those ammonia ampules....

January 30, 2014 at 04:50 AM · I have heard that playing a violin that has been in storage will "open it up." Does the violin change, or is it the violinist that is adapting to it, learning how to make it produce better sound? Also what is the proposed physical mechanism of this awakening?

January 30, 2014 at 10:59 AM · "Also what is the proposed physical mechanism of this awakening?"

It is said that vibrating the wood changes the molecular structure. If not played, the molecules become more closely bonded making the instrument less resonant. Vibrations loosen up the molecules making the instrument open up. Of course, if that doesn't work, you could try pouring some coffee on the violin to see if that wakes it up. Sorry OP.

January 30, 2014 at 11:46 AM · So far, there's pretty good measured evidence that violins undergo a change in sound, over time, after the introduction (or reintroduction) of normal string tension. I have not yet seen any good evidence (other than anecdotal) that they change due to vibration alone.

January 30, 2014 at 01:23 PM · I remember Max Jaffa in his autobiography, 'My Life on the Fiddle', said that when he was looking for another instrument, he gave a trial to a 200 year old violin that had been left unused, and found it getting better & bought it & it continued to improve in tone over a year or two. He certainly believed that an instrument could 'sleep' with disuse.

In my own experience, I bought an Arcadia that had been lying in the warehouse for six months & was a little disappointed with the D-string at first, though pleased with the overall tone. My luthier told me that I would wake it up by playing it and now, eighteen months later, the whole range of notes sound so silvery and gorgeous. I play my starter fiddle at least once a week if possible, and sometimes, if I haven't, it does sound a bit 'stiff' at first, though it seems to do better in a warm room - unless it's just that I do! :)

January 30, 2014 at 03:03 PM · Try as they might, scientists have never been able to prove that violins don't improve by the vibrations of being played.

January 30, 2014 at 03:38 PM · "So far, there's pretty good measured evidence that violins undergo a change in sound, over time, after the introduction (or reintroduction) of normal string tension. I have not yet seen any good evidence (other than anecdotal) that they change due to vibration alone."

I think that is really the point! The normal string tension when tuned is the factor on wich a violin can settle. I always experience a very inferior resonance from my instrument, when a string dropped in the case and I have to get it back to normal tension. To me it makes sense, that the instrument reacts strongly on the balance of pressure on the bridge. I think that vibrations can also be a matter, but to a much less extend.

Regarding tuning: i use to tune my violin even after practice, so that it will not be out of tune a long time in the case, it's a good habit wich may also affect the resonance in a positive way. Also tuning to the same Hertz is important and one of my teachers adviced me to always tune to the same A, not changing too much between 440 and 443 and so on.

January 30, 2014 at 04:18 PM · "Try as they might, scientists have never been able to prove that violins don't improve by the vibrations of being played."

That proof is inherently impossible, similar to proving that Bigfoot doesn't exist. No amount of non-evidence with convince those who believe otherwise.

There IS proof of tonal change over time when wood subjected to a change in stress, such as tuning up a violin for the first time, or after it has been without strings. The lack of such proof for play-in is suspiciously absent... again not proving it doesn't exist, but at least proving it's not as big of a deal as just tightening up the strings.

January 30, 2014 at 05:13 PM · The majority of people I've heard from seem to have stories of violins improving from being played in, the non believers would have us believe these respected musicians and dealers are all delusional, I find it easier to believe the non believers have less developed hearing, based on other statements they make about sound as well.

January 30, 2014 at 05:57 PM · That's possible, but it's also quite possible that players learn (or become reacquainted with) how a particular violin needs to be played to get the best sound out of it, as opposed to the violin itself changing. That was the favorite theory of a neurosurgeon/violinist I knew.

It's pretty well tested and proven that humans learn, adapt and accommodate. Evidence is less plentiful that violins do. ;-)

I am neither a believer or a non-believer. I am simply someone who tries to digest the evidence accumulated so far, without a pre-conceived agenda or conclusion. If one or the other outcome is someday proven beyond doubt, either will be fine with me.

January 30, 2014 at 06:38 PM · it starts again... lets get ready to rumbleeeee!!!!!!

January 31, 2014 at 01:13 AM · Kato Havas said that she could play a student's violin and know what had been going wrong the previous week. Who knows? For every test that says that picking that information up is pure chance, one could imagine another test that says the ability to detect it is randomly distributed over the population.

January 31, 2014 at 02:30 AM · molecular structure of wood changes? molecules become more loosely bonded? sounds like baloney to me. evidence?

January 31, 2014 at 03:02 AM · Paul,

Next time you are in the Washington DC area, I invite you to my home where I have an electron microscope and a particle accelerator in my basement and I can show you some simple experiments that substantiate the claims.

January 31, 2014 at 05:39 AM · I purchased a violin from an individual that had not been played in decades. It sounded good, but subdued. Over time, with regular playing, it truly opened up. It took about 2 years to do so. We're still playing together!

January 31, 2014 at 04:46 PM · In 1986 in inherited and old violĂ­n that belonged to my uncle and that had not been played for nearly two decades. After a couple of months of regular playing it simply was another violin.

January 31, 2014 at 08:05 PM · There are all kinds of material that become more flexible the more they are flexed, there is no reason to believe wood is not one of them.....

February 1, 2014 at 01:16 AM · And there are also materials which become stiffer or more brittle the more they are flexed. This is sometimes referred to as "work hardening" or "strain hardening".

February 1, 2014 at 02:25 AM · If more flexibility is good, maybe a rubber violin would be fantastic.

February 1, 2014 at 07:28 AM · Do you guys ever just listen to violins, or do you have a "scientific" explanation for everything????

February 1, 2014 at 08:54 AM · For David Burgess.

Does this stiffening apply to old violins that have been overplayed and stopped responding?

February 1, 2014 at 10:20 AM · I don't think we can mention the kind of stiffening David was refering to on a family forum!!!

February 1, 2014 at 11:55 AM · Haha, you guys are great! :D

February 1, 2014 at 01:16 PM · "For David Burgess.

Does this stiffening apply to old violins that have been overplayed and stopped responding?"

I don't think so. I haven't found evidence of wood stiffening with vibration or flexing yet. It will however get weaker with flexing, up to a point (in my testing), but the degree of flexing required to do this is vastly beyond anything a violin encounters when being played. By this I mean that the wood needed to be repeatedly bent to the extent that there were concerns about breaking it.

Maybe Don Noon has done some experiments which would shed some light on this too.

Lyndon, sure, we listen to the sound, but what is heard isn't very useful to a maker unless we can also understand WHY an instrument sounds a particular way. That's where some of the "scientific" stuff can have value.

February 1, 2014 at 03:59 PM · I am not aware of any material that gets stiffer due to flexing. The "work hardening" phenomenon is raising the yield stress by repeated plastic deformation... but does not change the modulus (i.e. stiffness) of the material.

Most materials undergo degradation with flexing, and will eventually break... unless (like steel) there is an "endurance limit", where life is essentially infinite as long as the stresses of vibration are low enough. But I don't believe stiffness changes throughout life (edit: upon further thought, I do believe that stiffness would be reduced due to cellulose fiber partial breakage IF the vibration stresses are high enough. Given that makers use high-stiffness spruce and go to extra effort to find the stiffest stuff, it would seem that any reduced stiffness would be undesirable) .

We have ample clues in the measured body modes and tap tones of free plates of many of the old instruments... basically the same frequencies as you can get with new wood, thereby proving that the wood hasn't become unusually stiff or extra flexible.

If you want to argue a physical mechanism for play-in, damping is the most obvious one. I have tried a few times to find a change in damping due to vibration, and haven't had success (although I DID measure some changes due to temperature). It's tricky to measure, and many other things are known to affect damping, such as temperature, humidity, application of static stress, and wood chemistry due to aging. I believe any of these can be mistakenly thought to be a result of playing. Again, this doesn't disprove the play-in effect, which is an impossible task. A single, successful, well-controlled test would be sufficient to prove play-in... but that has not happened yet, not for the lack of trying.

February 4, 2014 at 09:37 AM · Wood is made up of about 50% cellulose. Celluloses are linear long-chained polymers made up of about 300-1700 units of D-glucose molecules. The multiple hydroxyl groups on the glucose of one chain will form hydrogen-bonds with the hydroxyl groups of glucose of another chain, thus holding the chains firmly together side-by-side, resulting in high tensile strength for the wood.

I often wonder if the long-chained polymeric celluloses in a violin behave like synthetic strings which are also polymers. So when a string is played at a certain frequency, would the polymeric celluloses of the correct chain length also resonate at the same frequency?

Is the quality of a tone wood determined by its correct mixture of polymeric celluloses of different chain length that can response to the full range of sound frequency?

Do water molecules absorbed by a violin in summer interfere with the hydrogen bonding between its chains of cellulose molecules?

Is there a difference between the hydrogen bonding of celluloses in a sleeping violin and the one which is fully awakened?

I do not know.

February 4, 2014 at 11:20 AM · Tong, I haven't made the structure of wood a matter of personal study, but I looked up wikipedia on the subject in response to your post. There are all sorts of other significant things in wood besides cellulose, the 30% lignin, for instance. The whole thing's far too complicated to work anything out from first principles, our best computers and software notwithstanding, so violin making, certainly from wood, will remain an art, probably for the rest of time.

As regards the bonding, I would think in strings there would be as much hydrophobic bonding (I once wrote a piece for clarinet and piano, dedicated to my school physics master, clarinettist in the Royal Amateur Orchestra, called "Dance of the Molecules", the speed marking being, of course, "Tempo di Waals". He had to reject it, because I didn't give him rests in which to breathe. It is, however, performable on the viola) as hydrogen bonding (obviously there would be no hydrogen bonding at all in steel strings).

One statement of yours I would take issue with, however. Is it in SUMMER that wood absorbs water? My instinct would suggest winter.

There have been suggestions (e.g., in the New Scientist) that aqueous leaching out of some of the pectins from the wood prior to violin construction improves quality, particularly when humidity is not low.

February 4, 2014 at 02:33 PM · John, I loved "tempo di Waals."

Just because one can't model a material at a molecular level from first principles doesn't mean there are no means of studying bulk physical properties such as dynamic mechanical response as a function of a material's history.

And just because research is hard doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

February 4, 2014 at 02:54 PM · Yes surely that's right, we do note that maple is denser than spruce, etc., but we will take advantage of certain observed properties even if we can't account for them, e.g., that there is an optimum range for the pitches and pitch differences in front and back plates, that boxwood and one other wood (I can't remember which one it was - maybe violin-making student Charles Herbaut, now a university physicist in South Africa, whom I assisted in the experiment can remember, or the London College of Furniture still has the records?) are the best woods to use for bridges, etc.

I could perhaps make "Tempo di Waals" available, if anyone's interested in second-rate Brahms imitations (I may be flattering myself in saying it's not third-rate, or even fourth-rate).

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