Was the practice of equal tension stringing in the Baroque era a myth?

December 6, 2014 at 08:34 PM · It seems that for my strings to be equal feel under the fingers I would need a lighter E or heavier G (along with differing mass of the D and A).

Is this not the advice given for stringing a violin throughout historical records?

Maybe Mr. Dlugolecki could kindly chime in?


Replies (26)

December 7, 2014 at 06:18 AM · Hi A.O., can you cite specific sources? Would love to read it.

December 7, 2014 at 07:37 AM · Did they have the technology to construct 4 strings of equal tension? Is it possible? What would be desirable about it, either then or now?

And which would take precedence, equal tensions or the best possible sound?

December 7, 2014 at 05:46 PM · http://violoncellodaspalla.blogspot.ca/2010/10/equal-tension-are-speer-de-colco-and.html

Explains how to use equal tension properly.


and Part 2: http://www.themonteverdiviolins.org/strings_2.html

Apparently this was historical practice

December 7, 2014 at 05:48 PM · I haven't found anything about equal tension stringing on Damian Dlugolecki's website, but Gamut evidently know something about it and give this table of gauges:


Perhaps an email to Gamut might elicit more information about the history and any (dis)advantages of such stringing.

[Edit added: A.O., my post pretty well coincided with yours! Your links seem to give useful information.]

December 7, 2014 at 06:24 PM · Using strings that are equal in tension but do not balance in volume is not historical practice, it is absurdity, half the historical accounts were written by people that didn't really have a clue what they were talking about anyway, so I think you can assume the best historically informed practice is what works using similar materials to those used is the past. No ones going to give a rat's ass how equal your tension is if your e string is way quieter and doesn't balance with your G, so use some common sense in who you believe and listen to. Same goes for the heaviness of your string gauges, use what sounds best on your instrument, not what some "experts" tells you its "supposed to be". Fact is baroque historical practice was all over the place, and there were no agreed upon standards for anything; String gauges, neck length, neck angle, string angle, bridge height etc etc...

December 7, 2014 at 08:44 PM · Both web sites cited have either been removed or are "unavailable."

Why would one need to have equal tension under the fingers? One would assume that any tension differences are simply adjusted to with a little practice.

Many practice from the 18th century seemed logical to them, a great example being homeopathy.

December 7, 2014 at 09:24 PM · All the links work for me Mr. Cole.

Maybe use Mozilla? :)

December 7, 2014 at 09:26 PM · I don't hear a balance of volume on any modern violins.

The E and A end up being too penetrating compared to the D and G on every violin.

If this were not the case I have a feeling that the G-D would have more bass or the A-E would have less treble to it.

December 8, 2014 at 12:56 AM · I've also just checked out all the links so far cited in this discussion, and they all work for me. I use the EPIC browser.

December 8, 2014 at 04:32 AM · The fact that A and E are louder on the violin is due to frequency:

higher frequencies carry more energy than low frequencies.

There is also the simple fact that the violin is small, and not optimized for the lower frequencies. One can analyze the partials for G, for example, and see that very little (if any) fundamental is being produced. The violin, like most other instruments, embodies a set of compromises. Theoretically, the G should be over twice as long as the A string, and the E should be much shorter, like a harp. But of course that wouldn't be practical for a bowed instrument.

I don't see the merit of having four strings of equal tension except as the product of some sort of OCD desire for symmetry.

ps It's "Dr." Cole, not Mr.

December 8, 2014 at 04:48 AM · Yes, Sir! ;)

December 8, 2014 at 11:32 AM · Higher frequencies carry more energy than low ones??? Doesn't their power depend on their amplitude?? That being the case I guess microwaves are just off the scale incredibly more powerful energies compared notes on a violin.

Usually if the e string is louder than the G it has to do with the instruments design or quite likely the soundpost is set to tight. A looser soundpost emphasizes the G over the e.

December 8, 2014 at 01:07 PM · Certainly, the E-string vibrates nearly four times faster than the G, but much less "widely". So the energy output is rather hard to calculate....

From memory, Leopold Mozart advocates equal tensions, while Heron-Allen doesn't.

Edit. Lets remember that Eudoxa strings are available in seven different tensions, for a perfect balance on each instrument. A far cry from soft/medium/hard (when these are offered!)

O.k, o.k, if you count Infeld Blue and Red in 3 grades each, that make 6 possibilties. But not 6 different tensions.

December 8, 2014 at 04:29 PM · I am also with you on the Mozart advocating equal tension. It says it in his book.

I will still stand by what I said. Modern violins have louder E and A strings.

The frequency being higher simply means that heavier D and G strings should make up for the volume difference perceived by the ear.

December 8, 2014 at 05:00 PM · "Higher frequencies carry more energy than low ones??? Doesn't their power depend on their amplitude?? That being the case I guess microwaves are just off the scale incredibly more powerful energies compared notes on a violin."

Well, microwaves are electromagnetic energy, which is different than sound. In that case, energy and frequency are related, which is why gamma or xrays are more damaging than infrared light.

If you Google the subject (sound, not EM waves), something like "sound frequency vs energy" you get some differing opinions, most with amplitude and not frequency as the determiner of energy (I was thinking in terms of EM waves myself). However, you can also find the suggestion that the psychoacoustics of sound are somewhat different; given the same amplitude, the human ear will perceive the higher frequencies to be louder.

So in other words, in order for the D and G to sound the same volume to us, their amplitude has to be greater than that of the upper strings.

So the interesting question is: in a concert hall, how much more amplitude would the lower strings of a violin have to have for them to be perceived as having the same level of sound to our ears? At exactly the same bow pressure, of course. I'm guessing that in terms of human perception, it's probably orders of magnitude.

December 8, 2014 at 05:07 PM · Hooke's Law appeared before JSB was born, so I would guess that at least the later baroques would have understood about tension.

December 8, 2014 at 07:56 PM · @Scott: Which is probably why equal tension makes perfect sense for a more balanced instrument! :)

December 8, 2014 at 10:13 PM · But there is more to our perception of sound levels: the overtones being produced by the string vary between instruments. So a violin with G that produces lots of certain overtones may sound warm and fuzzy and project less than one that produces a cleaner sound, even if sound pressure levels are the same (I think).

Won't bow technique swamp the effects of playing with string tensions? And wouldn't a large enough increase in tension of the lower strings make instrument harder to play, especially softly?

December 9, 2014 at 12:05 AM · Equal tension only makes perfect sense if the four strings sound well balanced when using it, if not, and for instance the bass strings are overly dominant, it makes no sense at all, like I said theories aren't worth anything if they don't have practical applications.

December 9, 2014 at 02:28 AM · The theory is very practical according montiverdiviolins.com :)

December 9, 2014 at 08:24 AM · They probably compensate by setting their soundposts too tight to boost the treble and cut the overly loud bass, which can lead to soundpost cracks.....

December 9, 2014 at 11:39 AM · I neither see much sense for equaling the string tensions. If there have been historical records about it, there is a question, whether they measured the string tension by a precise dynamometer or just by hand (plucking it or so).

I admit they were skilled enough to build a dynamometer. They could also measure it simply by weight units. The only question is its precision and why would they spend such effort with balancing the strings in fact, if they were making their instruments asymmetric intentionally.

We could try to equal and balance many other things on our instruments, if the symmetry would become our priority. We could put two soudposts or two bars instead of one of each, or we could balance our bows to the middle by making heavier tip and lighter frog…

December 12, 2014 at 08:12 AM · For what it's worth Wornum was making pianos in 1820 with equal tension. All strings are the same length and .8mm thick. The tenor and bass strings are wound with an .8mm core. The bridge divides each string to give the pitch.

December 12, 2014 at 09:16 PM · As far as I have come across, equal tension (while mathematically satisfying) is rarely the answer, both from a practical and historical standpoint.

From a historical standpoint, there are many examples used to support equal tension that could just as easily support equal feel, or they occur in a context where it could easily be more about the principal of the idea, rather than the application of it in every-day life. Not to mention that the world was hardly uniform in stringing, it certainly wasn't.

From a practical standpoint, using equal tension on a "normally" set up violin is silly, and results in a wacky experience for the instrument. Proper equal tension works best with a flat bridge, and the more curved the bridge, the more different the "feel" becomes. Of course, if someone (like our friends at Monteverdi Violins) wants to use equal tension, they have to have instruments which are set up to accommodate that. And I think they have quite a corner on that market. But for the majority of people (and for makers who are making new baroque violins and setting up old instruments), the setup does not support equal tension.

Equal feel, however, is very possible, but more difficult because it's not very practical to figure it out mathematically (although it possible, of course). Each violin would be different, depending on the curvature of the bridge, tailpiece, and nut, the height of the bridge, and the breaking angles over the bridge. But even this doesn't always yield automatically the best results. After speaking with my friends at Guy Coquoz' shop in Paris, they shared with me that while many "baroque violinists" usually start stringing their with heavy G strings, but after experimentation, often end up using thinner G strings which allow instruments to ring better. This isn't true of all instruments (I see most often old Italian instruments thrive with heavier setups), but especially for many "new" baroque violins, this can be the case.

December 12, 2014 at 10:18 PM · "For what it's worth Wornum was making pianos in 1820 with equal tension. "

During the history of the piano there have been many "great ideas," but if they were actually any good, they'd still be using them today.

A quick search will tell anyone interested why it wasn't a good idea.

But anyway, the violin doesn't have to option of longer strings like keyboard instrument.

December 13, 2014 at 03:10 AM · I can understand the emotional appeal of symmetrical tension (or symmetrical anything), but functionally, there is very little about the sound-producing properties of a violin which is symmetrical.

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