violin tone evaluation

April 7, 2014 at 03:38 PM · Assuming workmanship is satisfactory -

1. How should players evaluate a violin?

2. How should listeners evaluate a violin?

Should evaluations be "blind" - without knowledge of maker or price?

Replies (36)

April 7, 2014 at 05:17 PM · A large part of picking a violin is what you want out of it.

When I look for a new violin I like to check for these things;

1. Tone richness, overtones. Does the violin sound nice to my ear or like strings pulled over a cereal box?

2. Power and ability to play different volumes with a clear tone. If you want to play the soloist's part, you better be heard over the orchestra and be able to play to the back of the room.

3. Search for quirks, wolf tones, and resonance.

4. Ease of play, forgiving. Do you need an instrument that isn't too picky about perfect technique or need one that can take some mistakes without pointing them out more? (Less important point IMO )

And finally, have a few violins selected, why not play them all? You're spending the money! Have someone else play them in a large room if possible and listen from a distance while turned away. Scales are important in learning but I find my best judging is when a piece is played. Scales put my ears into intonation mode, not enjoyment mode :). Price is mostly paying a small amount for the quality of the wood but the majority of it is for the name of the maker. There is a certain price where I'd say "real" violins start and anything under it is either buying a cheap ( but maybe good) used old violin or a VSO. I'd guess about 1,500 to 2,000 is the start of student violins. But all prices vary :) my beloved first violin was a KCC for 1,650 and I still love it!

April 7, 2014 at 06:42 PM · Thank you William for your response, especially for player evaluation, but most importantly you have touched on the subject of listenner evaluations. I wonder what kind of response I will get from the violin maker establishment? I got kicked out, by the acting President, of the last violin society of america competition I attended because I wanted to hear myself what the instruments sounded like. I spent about three hours yesterday lisenning to a very competent violinist play on three of my own violins I had selected because I thought they sounded pretty good. The violinist played on selections from Corelli, a sonata and a partita of Bach, and then selections from sonatas she had recently worked on and even some folk tunes. I was amazed to hear that one of the violins had overtones and a rich variety of colors and expressiveness, better than one of the other violins, and clearly better than the other. I could not determine this from my own playing, and I wonder if William or other violinists, much more competent than myself, can really deterimine these important qualities of violin tone. William points out that listenner evaluaions are important. After all, it is the audiences which are influenced by a performance whether poor, mediocre or excellent, and this gets to the emotional and other aspects of human nature, with all its variations, etc. I had heard years ago than Sacconi invited excellent young violinists to play on violins at the Wurlitzer shop. I am sure that many were also good listeners. On the other hand I was amazed at the performance of a well known dealer, who merely plucked on the strings. I wonder how many dealers have someone in their shop to competently play on the string instruments and others competent to listen, and who all have the time for a good listenner evaluation? I also appreciate William pointing out that several instruments should be played, without knowledge of the maker or price. I also think good player and lisenner evaluations of violins are important for students. Charles

April 7, 2014 at 07:14 PM · There is a correlation between price and sound quality, but value is generally is based on other factors such as provenance, condition etc. I always want to know as much as I can about a violin when choosing, as sound and playability are not the only two criteria I look for.

I am also making an investment when buying an instrument and trying blind, so to speak, would be pointless. The best returns historically are on certified Italian fiddles in good condition, and similarly, French bows. They can sound good too...

Cheers Carlo

April 7, 2014 at 08:49 PM · The tone "under the ear" is very different from what others hear. If there is no'one to play the violin to me, I sit down and plat a full 3 to 4 octave scale 'cello-fahion. Ear-plugs also give a different perspective.

April 7, 2014 at 09:37 PM · I'd add response to vibrato to the above things to listen for. Some violins require more input, and some less.

In my experience, one must take the listener's response with a grain of salt. Most people quickly pick the loudest and brightest instrument, which is a bit like always picking the fastest model when shopping for a car. Louder and brighter doesn't always mean musical or flexible, and can even start to irritate the ear of both player and listener after extended playing.

April 7, 2014 at 10:45 PM · Excellent responses on this topic. Carlo, who evaluates the violins used or purchased by your students?

Adrian, can you elaborate "The tone "under the ear" is very different from what others hear" ?

Scott, are there no players in your orchestra who are also good listeners? Best regards, Charles

April 7, 2014 at 11:08 PM · there's another blind test of Old vs. New Violins out- they had them tested this time so it was harder for the players to tell what they were playing, but it looks like they relied on players input more than listeners.,0,4801344.story

Good players can make very good listeners, but non-trained listeners may be more likely to go for the louder instruments. A couple players alternating in a hall or large room can get a pretty good idea of how an instrument works. Bows can also bring out different sets of overtones. Getting kicked out of a show may not be a good demonstration of social skills....or best way to learn about sound qualities. It's much easier to learn if you can take advantage of others experience in real life, not just online. just sayin'

April 8, 2014 at 12:05 AM · Charles, I evaluate the tone of instruments bought by my students, and whilst I have some knowledge of provenance, I rely on the expert documentation provided with the instrument.

Cheers Carlo

April 8, 2014 at 01:02 AM · Tom. The violin society of america had discontinued the ability of members to listen to players evaluate the violins, violas and cellos at competitions. I had heard that a Canadian violin maker had told the VSA that he was more skillful evaluating violin tone than the judges. This was many years ago. I did not agree with this policy and tested the waters by going to where the players were evaluation the instruments - about 5 playing away in the same room. I wasn't "kicked out of the show", just prevented from listenning. Perhaps a director or someone repesenting the VSA could clarify the reasons for the change? Regards, Charles

April 8, 2014 at 03:53 AM · "I got kicked out, by the acting President, of the last violin society of america competition I attended..." quote from OP

My point has nothing to do with what the VSA does, just sayin' that, in general, it's hard to get "kicked out" of a public event without certain types of behavior, and those types of behavior generally impede the friendly discourse that can lead to the knowledge. If people put on a show, it is their show to run as they see fit. Others take what benefit they can from it, and either come back or don't, but no reason to disrupt it. Its tots ok to put on your own show and do whatever you want at it!

April 8, 2014 at 10:24 AM · Charles, I don't represent the VSA, but I've been a judge in a number of competitions, and most of the major competitions these days try to minimize situations where competitors could unfairly influence the outcome of the judging. That's the way it should be, don't you think?

To that end, competitors (and the general public) are usually not allowed to be present while the judging (either tone or workmanship) is taking place. There have been situations where competitors or their collaborators tried to send signals to the judges, etc.

So if you "tested the waters" by waltzing on into a room where you weren't supposed to be, where judging was taking place, naturally you got booted.

If you wish to evaluate the instruments at a VSA Competition, there is time set aside for that after the judging is completed. Not all the competitions allow the general public to handle and play the instruments and bows (you can imagine the risks involved), but the VSA still does.

If you wish to have first-hand access to the judging process, one can do so by volunteering as an assistant.

April 8, 2014 at 04:19 PM · Tom, as a pianist evaluations are much easier - maker and length, condition and recent tuning. The main focus in this thread is on player and listenner evaluations for violins. Charles

April 8, 2014 at 04:25 PM · David: Thanks for your response. Yes, it does make sense to make sure that players who do the evaluations of violins (and violas, cellos) are not influenced - by anyone. Yet, on the other hand I believe listenner evaluations have been ignored by the VSA? From my own perusal of the literature, although not intense, I do not recall any articles or publications which address listenner evaluations adequately. After all it is the audience who pays for the tickets. Best regards, Charles

April 9, 2014 at 12:05 AM · Hello David: I will post here some of my own suggestions on how to carry out listenner evaluations, which would follow the VSA workmanship and player evaluations. The first step would be to select violins which have acceptable workmanship. The VSA and other have great experience with workmanship evaluations. Judgements could be made and a line drawn. Perhaps about ten violins scored highest on player evaluations could then be further evaluated by listenner evaluations. The selection of good listenners may be difficult. The best listenners may come from those who select soloists for performances, or others who have had good experience as listenners. This will take more time of course, but consider all the time the makers have put into the instruments entered, and all the expenses of attending the VSA competitions, etc. The most valid study would keep workmanship, player, and listener evaluations separate, and without cross-influence. This would involve entering all violins with acceptable workmanship into listenner evaluations. This will take more time, but I think modern makers deserve every consideration. I would be greatly pleased if any of these suggestions would be seriously considered. Best regards, Charles

April 9, 2014 at 06:54 PM · Correction - For those with good playability, the next step would be listenner evaluations. (This would be better than ten violins or all violins with good workmanshiop)

Also I might add - Several rooms could be used for listenner evaluations, and the best or final three should be played in a decent hall.

This could be repeated with an audience. Charles

April 11, 2014 at 03:53 PM · Hello David: I hope that you and others at the VSA will consider some experimentation on listener evaluations. What is the problem? The VSA will never recall previous gold or other winners from past VSA competitions to take new listener evaluations. What are the reasons against listener evaluations? It is true that more expense and time would be required to hire new players, competent listeners, and the use of say three rooms and a hall. Perhaps one of the VSA sponsors would support such a project? Rather than virtuoso show pieces, start with early composers at the time when all this started - the Amatis, Stradivari and del Gesu - sonatas by Corelli op 5, Vivaldi, Bach and Handel and then Mozart and Beethoven. Then maybe a concerto in a good hall, with or without orchestra. Another question. Do players really think that their own evaluation of violins is sufficient for a major decision? How many ask others to listen, before making up their minds about a particular violin? I much appreciate those who have responded to the topic violin tone evaluation, especially part 2, listener evaluations. Best regards, Charles

April 11, 2014 at 04:48 PM · I just wanted to add real quick, that when you try out a new violin, make sure you use your personal bow, not the shop's tester bow. :) if this's still relevant.

April 12, 2014 at 03:36 PM · When I'm selling stuff, I always recommend that players test any instrument they're considering in a real world situation. That isn't an empty hall, alone, unless you want to play to empty halls, alone. Usually it means in a concert, if possible.

When that happens, things pop up that wouldn't normally. I have perhaps too often mentioned the CM who was looking at buying a del Gesu, but rejected it because he couldn't hear himself in the orchestra AND everyone around him was telling him to play quieter. Likewise, often instruments which are loud under the ear become enveloped and disappear among others. These are the types of things you really need to know, and there's only one way to find out.

Other than that, it's necessary for an instrument to be comfortable for a player, in the longer term. That not only refers to the physical, but the musical. Again, you can't figure that out in 10 minutes, which is why players want and get a week or two trial period when considering an instrument.

The better players I deal with are less concerned about the specific tonal quality beyond a certain minimum, because they make that, themselves, though for beginners or intermediates the allure of a violin that makes them sound good is probably irresistible. However, what I've heard from owners is that an instrument that makes you stretch your skill and learn control in order to access more tonal options makes you a better musician. A violin that plays itself and always sounds the same no matter how it's played is enticing to someone who is just struggling to sound good and doesn't yet worry about sounding variably artistic, but it isn't going to help you advance beyond that. That's why I think a teacher's input is important--the teacher doesn't just consider the present, but also the future.

April 12, 2014 at 07:21 PM · Michael Darnton. Thank you for your excellent response, which makes a lot of sense to me. I don't understand everything in your third paragraph, but violin tone evaluation is difficult. Perhaps this is due to the fact that people are complicated, including makers, players and listeners, with a great variety of emotions, feelings, abilities, responsivenes, etc. I wonder how many makers, sellers, and dealers have close at hand good players, of violin (and presumably viola) and cello (i.e. Stephan and Julian Hersch)- as well as good listeners who can all assist in the tonal evaluation process? I think this would be very helpful to contemporary makers of instruments. Best regards, Charles

April 12, 2014 at 11:11 PM · Part of what I'm talking about in the third paragraph is that often amateurs and less skilled players tend to think in terms of sounding like Kreisler all the time, and not a whole lot else, which is a relatively easy job for a violin. Better players need that, but they also need to sometimes sound like a meat grinder, or dust blowing in a fog. In those cases, a violin which only does Kreisler is useless.

I learned a really great test for that from a cellist in the Cleveland orchestra: take an open string, and start bowing way up over the end of the board. Continue playing while sliding down the string, adjusting pressure and speed to get a note. Some instruments will sound just the same all the way down, where some can go from dust to grinder through that range. The extent to which they'll do that is an indication of the range they're capable of. I have played violins that do not change at all with that test! That's not really something that's very useful as a tool.

For a player who doesn't control the bow too well, and doesn't need much range, the first is OK. Given the other type of instrument, they'll think it's unstable, hard to draw a good sound, and often doesn't sound their definition of "good" because they don't have enough control to continue to draw the "good" sound, which is there, but requires precision. They will define that as a "bad" instrument.

Someone who has the easy type can't easily make the transition to the type needing control, and will probably reject that instrument on their own, but if they do get one (or are pushed by a teacher to do so), they will find they have a lot new to learn, and greater tonal opportunities await them once they learn how to drive the instrument with precision.

About adjusting with a player: having a good player or two in-house certainly helps, but there are lots of different types. I can come closer working with my partners rather than relying on myself, but it's better if I know as much as possible about the player who'll be using the instrument. Also, I many other talented people who will come in just to help me adjust, from the Orchestra, or visitors who stop in a lot. We have them sort of cataloged, different testers for different customer types, so we can get an instrument in range if it's worth doing in advance.

Not that we haven't had some really interesting successes in adjusting with my partners--I did a major job for a cello owned by a major orchestra, and the person who was playing didn't want us to have someone passing by deliver the cello--he wanted to come spend a day adjusting. I told him he should save the trip for a month or so later, and that we'd hit it pretty close by already knowing what he needed for that orchestra, but he insisted on coming. He showed up at 10AM Monday morning, planning to spend the whole day adjusting, and left to drive back home 15 minutes later, saying the cello had NEVER sounded that good, and needed nothing. That's because Julian and I had already spent a couple of days working on it together. I also have a couple of people who will come in, tell me what's wrong, I do a quick adjustment, and they don't even take their coats off or try the instrument. Bizarre, I know, but true. These are pro players I see often, and I know them and their instruments inside-out at this point.

An interesting additional tidbit: the Kreisler-only type of instrument is not only very stable for the player, but also for the adjuster. It doesn't respond to the adjuster in exactly the same way it doesn't respond to the player. It's not a fun thing to work with, because it is what it is, and can't be changed radically. The type that has the potential to do a lot can be very touchy in adjusting, too, sometimes insanely so, but the players who own those instruments are easier to work with because they're used to making their instrument behave for them, and can rely less on the adjuster. It's an evil paradox that the violins that need the most for the players who need the most are the most inflexible, and that's their asset and liability too. That's why above a certain level of player you no longer hear about "searching for my voice"--you hear "searching for something I can work with", which implies that the player will make the voice, not the violin. That's a very different type of instrument.

April 13, 2014 at 03:01 AM · In the current thread "Strad vs Modern" I expressed some personal direct experience as a professional violinist trying out violins and bows under less than ideal (yet still fun) conditions and making sense of my preliminary findings. My experiences in this regard have been as recent as Mondomusica on Wednesday and at a gig earlier today. More in this regard may be found in my blogs, "An Auction Adventure" and "A Tale of Two Fiddles". I also have violin and bow comparison tests on my website - under "writings". They are not the last word - nothing can be - but they can help articulate and organize impressions.

Yes, I feel that quintessentially, my sound lies within me. But it can be better, or more appositely articulated, amplified, colored and enriched by this violin or that bow.

I find that scales - indeed chromatic scales - can help test for evenness, and ferret out weak or pinched notes and wolf-tones. But scales alone will miss the forest for the trees. When testing a violin, I like to play characteristic passages from the repertoire and listen for the quality, quantity, colors etc. that such passages can help reveal. I like to begin with passages that go across all the strings, such as the openings to the concertos of Beethoven, Bruch (#1) and Tchaikovsky. Then characteristic passages on each string. There are many to choose from for the G, but I can think of none that test the G's limits more than the passage in the Sibelius 1st mvt. right after the 2nd cadenza. For the D, the opening of the Bruch 2nd mvt. For the A, the opening of the Scottish fantasy, or Mendelssohn 2nd mvt. For the E. Mendelsshon 1st mvt. opening, or 2nd theme when it returns in E major, or concertmaster solos from the Brahms 1st, or Puccini's la Boheme. Chords are very important to test resonance and solidity. Passages from the Bach Chaconne, Brahms concerto, etc. are great.

From such passages I learn a lot initially about quantity (under my ear) quality, colors and different character traits, as well as response and articulation. For projection, it is indeed vital to have at least one pair of trusted ears listening at a distance, and it's great to be able to take it onto various real-life situations.

April 13, 2014 at 06:22 PM · For violin tone evaluation - a good player and a trusted listener? See Raphael Klayman's web site, under writings - "At first I usually do my testing alone. When I've seriously narrowed the field to two or three instruments, I try to play for a trusted colleague to test projection in general, as well as how and if various traits that I hear under my ear are coming across at a distance. It's important, if possible to try a violin in a hall, in orchestra and other gigs, etc." Charles

April 13, 2014 at 10:24 PM · Raphael - thanks for that list its incredibly useful. All I have to do is learn the Beethoven, Sibelius, Bruch, Brahms, Mendelssohn concertos and I'll be all set to buy my first real violin!

heheh. Please excuse my satire... It really is useful, at least the principle. Maybe we could find some passages that would be useful for if not the starting violinist (who probably has little need for a fine instrument anyway) but the intermediate one who has reached the limit of their beginner violin.

April 13, 2014 at 11:04 PM · I'm always surprised by the people who show up to look at instruments, and don't bring any music to play--either in their head or on paper, and end up playing a few tentative scales. That just doesn't give a fair idea of how a violin is going to work with real music. Really, you at least need to bring what you're currently working on, for a start. If it's Suzuki Book I, well, that's what that violin is going to be used for in the near future, so running through a few pages of that is certainly better than nothing, right?

April 13, 2014 at 11:19 PM · Use an oscilloscope to tune an instrument before evaluating the tone. I discovered that using the linear tool provided by the Violin MT tuner app makes a huge difference in the sound quality of my Violin. I was wondering why my favorite rock guitarist used an oscilloscope before going onstage. I doubt that many people have an ear that good.

The other thing is cleaning the strings next to the bridge every time you take a break or finish for the day. Be careful not to touch the varnish. Luthiers use xylene on all but a few types of violins to clean them up. It is a hazardous chemical though and should not be handled by amateurs. It is a potent carcinogen if handled improperly. So use the little alcohol wipes that nurses use before giving injections. I would be willing to bet that too much rosin, and inaccurate tuning will make a $250,000 violin sound lousy. Beginners will really benefit from the "'violin multi-tuner available in the Apple App Store. an incredible tool and I have no business interest in the developer.

April 13, 2014 at 11:21 PM ·

April 14, 2014 at 12:42 AM · Elise - I'll be expecting all that repertoire by next week, so get cracking! :-D

Scott - don't underestimate annoyance value! But seriously, I gave my reasons for the pros and limitations of scales as well as my choices for repertoire. It's not random or just to show off. Of course different things work for different people.

April 14, 2014 at 02:03 AM · I'm with Michael Darnton on excerpt of pieces when it comes to testing instruments, though no harm if you opt to play scales alongside...

Playing pieces you can test things like:

- How the notes pop when you play fast slurred passages

- How the instrument able to give you the range of tone colors you need for different music

- Rapid string crossing, big shift, different combinations of double stops, harmonics...

Very often I find instruments failed to do the note popping test. Some instruments, even it's made by top makers, can be so stubborn to get the notes pop even with more effort to force them out, even if they sound fantastic by playing lyrical passages.

April 14, 2014 at 03:56 AM · Robert, often the first "adjustment" I make for people is to clean their strings. You're right: caked rosin destroys the sound!

April 15, 2014 at 03:23 AM · Reading Raphael Klayman's "An Auction Adventure" is very interesting. Selecting an excellent violin can be very difficult. What a conrast to "Strads vs Moderns Test"! Charles

April 15, 2014 at 11:07 AM · "Hello David: I hope that you and others at the VSA will consider some experimentation on listener evaluations. What is the problem?"


There is no problem. I think there's always some experimentation taking place. However, the VSA Competitions have been around for about 40 years now, so many approaches have already been tried during that time. Many more have been discussed. Some don't make it past the discussion stage, because it quickly emerges that the downsides are much greater than the potential advantages. So I just want you to be prepared, if you go to them with an idea, that there will be a high probability that it's already been considered or tried.

Currently, the judges (both workmanship and tone) are given greater freedom regarding how to make their evaluations than at certain times in the past, the idea being to take full advantage of the experience THEY bring, and the methods they have found to work best for THEM, as opposed to the Competition trying to tell them exactly how to do their job.

Hope that helps. :-)

April 15, 2014 at 03:42 PM · Thank you David.

"Currently, the judges (both workmanship and tone) are given greater freedom

regarding how to make their evaluations than at certain times in the past, etc."

But who are the judges who evaluate tone and how do they evaluate tone? Or do they?

I saw about 5 players playing away in the same hall at the same time the last time

I went to a VSA competition. Just wondering myself how things are done.

Best regards, Charles.

April 16, 2014 at 03:17 PM · David. Can you give us an idea of how three players evaluate more than 100 violins, and determine acceptance or rejection?

1. For the first step?

2. For the intermediary step? about how many?

3. For the final step? about how many? Then the three medals?

Maybe you could focus on how this was done ten years ago (in Portland)

and at the last VSA competition you attended?

Best regards, Charles

April 18, 2014 at 11:24 PM · Elise.

If you have some doubts about your playing, get a good player and be a careful listener. I play well enough for initial evaluations of my own violins, and then make recordings of what I play (scales across strings and up each string plus an early sonata - by Handel, etc.) on a Zoom H-2. You can then compare what you are hearing both ways; helpful, but not nearly as good as having a good player available. Best regards, Charles

April 19, 2014 at 01:01 AM · "Thank you David.

"But who are the judges who evaluate tone and how do they evaluate tone? Or do they?"


Charles, all the judges are usually listed in the convention program.

I have little first-hand experience with how the tone judges evaluate tone, because I have never been a tone judge in a VSA Competition. If it's anything like the workmanship judging, the tone judges will be bending over backwards to do the best job they know how to do.

In some other competitions, (China and Cremona for example), workmanship judges have minor inclusion in the tone judging results.

As I suggested earlier in this thread, one of the best ways to evaluate how the judges operate at any one VSA competition (the judges change from year-to-year) would be to volunteer as a judge-assistant at that particular competition.

April 19, 2014 at 02:40 AM · "3. For the final step? about how many? Then the three medals?"

Not sure what you mean by "the three medals". The VSA competition isn't one where first, second and third places need to be awarded. For many years now, there has been no maximum nor minimum of medals awarded. Some years, several violins won Gold Medals. Other year(s), there were none. Kinda depended on what showed up.

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