How can we know that a violin has a lot of overtones?

January 4, 2016 at 05:50 PM · Recently I was wondering if there any possible tests without any high tech Equipment to get at least a clue if an Instrument has a lot of overtones or not.

Replies (13)

January 4, 2016 at 07:02 PM · For the violin, we can talk about two things: overtones and resonances. There is an important difference between the two.

Resonances, sometimes called vibration modes, are the frequencies at which the violin can vibrate most easily. You can do a web search for "violin modes" and get a lot of information on this.

To get an overtone, take the frequency of one of these modes and multiply it by an integer. For example, one violin I have has a mode at 272hz. If I multiply it by 2, I get 544hz. This is an overtone of that mode. Multiply it by 3, I get 816hz, the next overtone.

As a general rule, tests designed to find the resonances tend to find only the first frequency, not the overtones, unless the resonance is very strong.

I think what you are asking is how can you tell if a violin has a lot of resonances. The short answer is all violins have a lot of resonances. The challenge in making a violin is getting them at frequencies and relative strengths that result in a good tone.

I sometimes imagine Stradivari spent a lot of time tapping all over violins that he knew sounded good. So he came to associate certain tap sounds with good tone. For example, he might have recognized a sour tap on the upper treble side of the plate and knew what he had to do to fix it.

Hopefully, some well-known makers will chime in with how they tell if the resonances are right or wrong.

January 4, 2016 at 07:13 PM · there are apps for mobiles, wich can show overtones. Its quite interesting also to compare different instruments. I don't know the actual names of the good app I once saw, but they go under the name "spectrum analyser". The free ones I tested weren't that great though

January 4, 2016 at 07:52 PM · Play "E" on the D string with your first finger. Move your finger around until the E string starts to "ring" in resonance. As I understand it, the E string cannot vibrate at a frequency lower than its own fundamental frequency. Therefore the ringing must be due to resonance between the E string fundamental and an overtone (the first harmonic) of the stopped E on the D string.

Also if you've ever heard a perfect sine wave (single frequency, no overtones) then you know it sounds sort of like a clarinet. The twang of the fiddle comes from the overtones.

January 4, 2016 at 11:53 PM · The question "how many overtones" is not especially useful. Theoretically, all of the strings of all violins produce an infinite series of overtones (though in reality the higher the fundamental the fewer overtones a string can produce due to stiffness).

The real question is the relative strength of the various overtones,especially compared to the fundamental. You don't need an app, just your ear. Every violin lies somewhere on the spectrum between warm and fuzzy to clean and bright. Either the tone please you and carries--or it doesn't.

January 5, 2016 at 11:15 PM · The "overtones" come from sectional vibrations in the strings, and a bright, responsive violin can transmit them to the air (and ear..).

Overtones can sound harsh, bright, or shimmering and silky, depending on their frequencies. A boxy, wining or nasal tone comes from the wood rather than the strings.

Lower tension strongs often produce more overtones, as the wood is less constrained.

January 6, 2016 at 11:46 PM · All violins produce a long string of overtones... or, more accurately, they only convert existing string overtones into sound. If you want to see it, out of curiosity, get a spectrum analyzer app on a cellphone, and play a note.

Judging what's good or not is another issue, and best done by ear. Some overtones sound good and others don't. With years of experience looking at many response curves, you might get a very vague idea of what is horrid and what is perhaps good... but you need the initial judgement by ear of what's good and bad to learn the association. It doesn't go the other way.

January 7, 2016 at 12:10 AM · A pure tone without any harmonics is a sine wave. A tuning fork produces a sinusoidal tone that is fairly close to the theoretical concept of a pure tone. Does an open string or a fingered note on a violin sound like a tuning fork? No, because what you are hearing are the overtones (aka harmonics) as well as the fundamental.

I said "open string or a fingered note" because a harmonic played by very lightly touching the string at certain points with a finger as you bow the string produces a note that has virtually no overtones. Those "certain points" include halfway, a third of the way along the string measured from either the bridge or nut, a quarter, fifth etc.

January 7, 2016 at 10:19 AM · Hi Andreas;

Most instrument have lots of overtones. As Scott Cole has said, sound quality on violins family instruments (and also on a singer's voice) has more to do with the relative strength of the overtones or harmonics, since they will all be in about the same place for a given note. For example, a note sung at a specific pitch will have a specific set of overtones, in the same places, but they will vary in relative strength depending on the vowel sound used. That's pretty much the only difference between different vowel sounds.

If you open the web page below, it shows the harmonic series of a violin bowed open G string. The location of the harmonics will be about the same on any violin, but the relative strengths will differ. As is typical on violins, notice that the fundamental of the open G (at 196 hz) is almost nonexistent, with the first harmonic one octave above being much much stronger. Yet our brain "hears" this 196 pitch, even if that frequency is removed entirely... is completely absent.

http://www.burgessviolins.com/Open G Spectra.jpg

So one reason it's hard to evaluate tone from the spectra is that our brain processing system plays many psycho-acoustic tricks on us.

Don is better and more practiced at estimating violin sound from a graphic spectral display than I am, but like he says, the final arbiter so far is still the impression of the listener.

January 7, 2016 at 05:23 PM · unintended post

January 7, 2016 at 09:44 PM · That's a pretty wimpy-looking open G string plot, David. Maybe you need to use a log vertical scale to see more.

I counted about 50 harmonics on my open G string response plot. That's pretty much all of them up to 10 kHz.

January 8, 2016 at 03:54 AM ·

January 8, 2016 at 04:09 AM · Hi Don;

The scaling and range were chosen to hopefully make things easier to see and interpret, for those who aren't acousticians.

I think it's easier when a partial that's twice as loud, shows a peak that's twice as high (linear or percentage scaling), than when using logarithmic or decibel scaling.

I also chose against taking the range out to 10,000 hz, because the 50-or-so harmonics in that wider range make the plot so busy, that the mathematical relationships between the harmonics are more difficult to notice.

(Fundamental; fundamental times 2; times 3; times 4, etc.)

January 9, 2016 at 12:17 PM · I would sometimes like a plot above 10kHZ for the simple reason that my 67 year-old ears stop around there!

The violin cannot transmit harmonics that are not produced by the string, or which are too weak to excite the wood. My violin has a dullish tone, but was greatl improved by using lower-tension strings, and reducing the angles at the bridge with a saddle on the bottom nut.

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