How confident are you about the sound of a violin you choose to buy?

November 18, 2016 at 07:26 PM · More precisely, where should your confidence come from?

Again and again, we hear among the violin buyers that the sound of a violin is the most important factor when comes to choose a violin. Yet, we know that sound is such a highly moveable target – it depends on so many variables, such as, the adaptation of our ears, setup of the instrument, the place you try the instrument, the bow you use, who plays it and how it’s played, etc., let alone we will change our taste as we grow as a player and musician. How can I be sure the sound of a violin I like today will please me years later?

Recently I bought my third violin with an approach changed from primarily sound-focused to expert opinion-focused. While I had pretty good success in my previous sound-based purchases, I believe there is a more objective way of doing it to mitigate the above-mentioned problems. This time, I somewhat followed what I observed from professional violinists how they do when they purchased their instrument:

They consider playability first and power second. As for the sound, well, each instrument has its unique tonal quality and it is up to the player to make the best of it. The professional violinists I know usually don’t have the time or the resource to try a whole lot of violins in a short period of time (although they may have played a lot over the years), but they would quickly narrow down to one or two really good instruments, take the time (weeks or even months) to play it in all sorts of venues, ask their colleagues for feedback and consult with a trusted luthier before finalizing the deal. In other words, a team effort.

If we are to be confident about the sound of a violin we choose, where should it come from?

Replies (27)

November 18, 2016 at 07:57 PM · I am usually quite confident that the sound of the violin will please me for years to come, but then, my violin teacher needs to be satisfied so I get slightly skeptical.

November 18, 2016 at 08:03 PM · I'm more curious about where one's confidence comes from.

November 18, 2016 at 08:35 PM · One's confidence comes from experience.

Experience comes from hours of listening (live performances and good recordings) and trying out tens if not hundreds of violins.

It also comes from years of studying music and violin playing.

Experience also comes from negative choices, which are sometimes costly.

As I mentioned before, the realm of violin timbre descriptors is very complex. It helps to narrow down attributes we are looking for and judge each and every violin by them only.

In other words, in order to avoid comparing apples and oranges, one has to have a limited set of relatively easily perceived attributes as a some sort of common denominator for comparison.

It also helps if other intervening variables (such as the dealer's input, presentation, time limitations, venues... etc) are kept under control.

November 18, 2016 at 09:21 PM · Rocky, very good point! It's the timbre that I am thinking about when I talk about sound/tonal quality. I think it's very subjective and the understanding of which is mostly learned over a long period of time. Don't you agree? Follow from what you said above, is it safe to suggest that those who do not have years of experience studying, playing and trying many violins, they should be skeptical about their confidence in judging the sound of a violin?

November 18, 2016 at 10:04 PM · I agree that playability definitely comes before sound per se, but playability effectively amounts to the violin's ability to make the sound that you are trying to achieve.

That's different for players at different playing levels. For instance, a beginner wants a violin that is pretty forgiving. As you get more advanced, responsiveness starts to take priority.

Then you start getting into the specifics of how a particular player produces sound and how well that matches the way that this particular violin wants to be played. That also goes into whether you want a more soloistic instrument, something better suited for chamber music, or something better suited for orchestra. Ease of response may be very important for players who spend a lot of their day in rehearsals / performances in order to minimize physical strain, too.

That's why choosing a violin is such a personal experience. You can agree that a particular instrument is likely great for someone but whether that someone is you is a whole other matter. (You might have seen Andrew Victor and I discuss a Strad we'd played, for instance. Andy didn't much like it. I liked it more than I can describe. But we have extremely different physical approaches to the instrument.)

November 18, 2016 at 10:19 PM · Lydia wrote: “You can agree that a particular instrument is likely great for someone but whether that someone is you is a whole other matter.”

What if this “you” are keep developing, as one should? Also, most violinists trained as a soloist ended up playing in orchestras or chamber groups (although I consider chamber musicians are soloists). So why not choose a violin that is versatile enough for all purposes? A good violin should be able to do all the above, no?

I haven't seen the discussion about the Strad you and Andrew tried. I'd love to read it. Do you remember the thread, Lyida?

November 18, 2016 at 10:21 PM · I'm admittedly a neophyte. I've literally only been learning for a bit more than 3 weeks. But I recently purchased a $2K+ violin, based on hearing it played and playing what I could myself.

I considered this question quite a lot before I purchased. I think that ultimately, you buy the violin based on the appeal of the sound to your target audience, which likely includes yourself but perhaps others, OR based on the way the sound of the violin compliments what you will be playing. It really helps to have someone there who can play for you, and vice versa, and you can discuss the nature of the sound together, leaving preferences behind and just trying to accurately measure the nature of the sound coming from the violin and each string.

I tempered the weight I gave the purchase decision with the fact that I am the sort of person who will likely 'collect' other violins with very different sounds.

So I would say my confidence comes from having carefully considered these things in advance, trying to be objective about each violin, and looking for something that matches the criteria I had set in advance.

I'll add that it also helps to have your current violin, in my case a cheap Chinese made student violin, with you for comparison.

My new violin really has made playing much more enjoyable and its so much easier to get nice notes from the instrument. Now my actual skill, or lack there of, is more apparent as well. Which gives me better perception of my progress.

November 18, 2016 at 10:45 PM · It seems simple, but it is not. You like your aunt's chocolate cake because during your life you have sampled many many and that enabled you to create a reference table that you use to evaluate chocolate cakes. It happens the same while judging violins, if you don't have this reference table it will be hard to judge by yourself. So, playing many instruments - including the top ones - helps developing your "violin knowledge".

A violin must fit the players technical level, it may be good now but when you start studying pieces with notes in the 7th position of the G string you will notice that the instrument sounds bad in this region and you will have to look for a better violin.

One thing that I consider very important is the dynamic range, when you draw your bow from tne end of the fingerboard towards the bridge adding more weight as you apporach the bridge a good difference in volume and colour must be heard. Withtout that it is very difficult to interpret music.

November 18, 2016 at 11:17 PM · Chocolate tasting is a great example that how preconceived notions and habits can influence our judgement about the quality of something. It depends on what and how you acquired your taste, of course. Recently, I’ve been trying quite a bit of artisan chocolate made by some top winners of international chocolate competitions. The taste of these chocolate is nothing like any of the top-selling chocolate bars you see in the North America markets. I didn’t grow up with those candy bars so I don't have a pre-existing preference. It didn’t take much to convince me which chocolate is of better quality. It would have been a different case had I had a special fondness of Hershey or Mars bar.

The question still remains: if you have the luxury like Lydia and others do who have tried something like a Strad or equivalent, and you are a really good player like Lydia is, then you’ll likely have a good sense what to look for in a really good violin. If you don’t have such opportunity or skill sets, how can you be certain that your personal favorite is in fact a good one?

November 19, 2016 at 01:30 AM · Hi Yizi,

You write, "If we are to be confident about the sound of a violin we choose, where should it come from?" and then follow up that statement by "It's the timbre that I am thinking about when I talk about sound/tonal quality. I think it's very subjective and the understanding of which is mostly learned over a long period of time."

It seems like what you're really asking is how can you be certain that the particular tonal qualities or timbre of the violin is 'good' and if taste in them (ie bright, dark, warm, brilliant) can be developed over time. First of all, under the ear sound will differ sometimes greatly from what the audience hears, so listening to the violin at a distance should be the baseline for determining tonal characteristics.

Secondly, while preferences in timber might change as players advance (many seem to shy away from overly dark instruments as those might come off as muffled), the biggest factor in my opinion in developing an ideal sound in your mind is to listen to great violins and attend live events that involve top soloists, then making the sound of their violins the reference point to which you judge future violins. If your violin when played by someone else sounds exactly like a Strad from 10-500 feet away, then who am I to tell your violin is not a 'good' one? This is of course given that it has been vetted by experienced players for playability and range of colors. That would in my opinion give you the most confidence given a lack of experience in trying violins and limited playing ability.

November 19, 2016 at 02:06 AM · Yixi,

yes, I think that a beginner or even intermediate level player is not experienced enough to chose a violin on their own.

Regarding the violin timbre descriptors, developing one's taste is not different than process of vine or tea tasting. Coffee tasters are also very skilled in telling minute differences.

Play-ability is one of very peculiar terms... it surely helps if violin is highly responsive and with great clarity and resonance...yet it may have nothing to do with timbre. From my limited experience, these 2 factors correlate to some extent, but some violins may sound very nice and also be difficult to play. Hard to explain.

November 19, 2016 at 02:15 AM · "If you don’t have such opportunity or skill sets, how can you be certain that your personal favorite is in fact a good one?"

Personally, I think there's misconception in the idea of 'a good one'. That in itself is so subjective. To some degree one person's good is another person's bad. Some things require a refined taste, and some people have a refined taste. But that doesn't really make them good or bad in an absolute sense. Everything is relative.

Its amazing what comparisons can do to make your perception of something change as well. Also, your memory of what a particular violin sounds like can change with time. I see the same thing with computer performance, which is my area of expertise. People think their work PC is reasonably fast until they buy a new one at home. Then they complain that their work PC has suddenly become very slow.

November 19, 2016 at 02:44 AM · You have to accept the possibility that you'll switch instruments during your playing lifetime.

When I changed the way that I produced sound (from using a lot of bow with relatively light pressure, to a deeper-into-the-string approach with slower bow), I really benefited from both a different violin and a different bow that was better suited to that new style.

At some point in time, in 20+ years, I might very well want a violin that has an effortless sound production and greater forgiveness for imprecision, as I expect age will take its toll.

You can choose a violin that's versatile enough for any situation, but you could also choose to optimize for the situations that are most important to you. If you never play concertos with orchestras, you do not really need a violin with soloistic projection, for instance, and your need for it might also be limited by the size of the halls you play in. Conversely, if you are purely an orchestral player, you might not want a violin whose default is a soloistic sound; you want to blend with your section without much effort.

November 19, 2016 at 04:13 AM · And I'm guessing that some people own several violins for various purposes or sounds, just as they might own several bows for a given violin. No?

November 19, 2016 at 04:53 AM · Lydia,I'm hoping to perform solo with orchestra some day, but right now I do some chamber music while trying to tuck a few solo pieces (Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Bach Solo) under my belt. I'm told that with a soloistic violin I can always play quietly if needed but a small sounding violin is more limited. My new Topa has great projection in a decent size hall. I hope it'll last me more than 20 years.

Leif, I have several bows but I only wish to keep one violin, as many professional violinists I know do. One can't play more than one violin at a time and a violin needs to be played to keep the sound right.

You wrote "Personally, I think there's misconception in the idea of 'a good one'. That in itself is so subjective... Everything is relative." Oh, far from it! Tonal quality of a violin maybe subjective to some extent, but as we grow as a better violinist and a better musician,we hear more and we need more colours and a larger pallet that student violins usually can't deliver. It is beyond doubt that workmanship of an instrument can be judged quite objectively. I went to Cremona luthier competition in 2008 and other international violin / string quartet competitions where very fine violins were displayed and being played. They are clearly belong to a different league comparing to most violins I see in a violin shop.

November 19, 2016 at 11:18 AM · One other thing to consider is new violins : the sound can change drastically after a few months of playing. I know my Chinese violin went from mediocre to 'sounds bloody great' after a few months. I was quite astonished at the transformation. I have not experienced this level of change in a new violin before.

November 19, 2016 at 07:28 PM · Austin, I completely agree every thing you said. And it is my intention to start this dicussion that we can get more experienced violinists and luthiers to shed some light on the matter of choosing a violin chiefly based on its sound. I think all too often we bought a violin too quickly because we "fall in love" with it without properly having it vetted through by better players such as one's teacher and if possible also their professional colleagues. I did that in my past more than once. And who is to argue with me if I told them that I fell in love with this or that instrument! There are so many ways we can talk ourselves into loving a violin. It's almost inevitable. This is why I feel the need to ask ourselves where the confidence of our decision of buying one or the other comes from. Love at first sight may work in a relationship because human beings learn and adapt with each other the way that violins won't.

It's also important to have at least two weeks trial period (I asked for a month this time) to have the chance to try the violin in different places, played by different people and compared with different violins, not just one's own old violins to get a better sense what improvement the new one will give you with the amount you are paying.

November 19, 2016 at 11:49 PM · For some reason I previously thought you were an intermediate-level student, Yixi. But you're clearly not given your repertoire. At your advanced playing level, you should be more than capable of choosing your own instrument. You already should have a mature sound, with a broad palette of tonal colors at your command, and consequently you should have a solid idea of what plays well and what doesn't for your personal physical approach to the instrument.

Now, without having played enough instruments, you might not know what refinements to listen for, and what specifically to test for, but you should be able to hear and feel for yourself. (Some players never seem to really get a refined sense of sound or have a good feel for what matters in a violin and a bow, and are just content to play whatever, without much of a sense of differences. I don't know what causes that. I suppose it's much like not having a gourmand's sense of food.)

A lot of instruments with soloistic qualities don't blend well. They can be a pain to play in orchestra (especially community orchestras, or even more challengingly, community orchestras with chamber-orchestra-size string sections), and might be difficult in chamber music depending on the sound produced by your fellow players. (Note that an instrument can project well and still blend well.)

You don't want a violin with a small closed-off sound, but for most players, an instrument that suits soloists playing with orchestras in big halls is not what they need. That's why power is secondary to playability for just about everyone, and why the obsession that many players have with pure loudness (especially loudness under the ear) leads them astray.

Even if you play concertos with orchestra, the once-on-a-rare-occasion use is probably not worth optimizing for, purchase-wise -- almost everyone is better off purchasing for their routine use.

November 20, 2016 at 12:15 AM · Lydia, thank you for your confidence in me :) Yes, I know what I want in a violin and what I don't want. I also know that I get emotional and I can talk myself into something easily when choosing a violin. Dealers can be pushy and prices don't necessarily reflect quality. All these considerations made violin purchase super stressful for me. Yes, I have enough skills and experience to decide it on my own but then, lawyers hire other lawyers to defend their case and doctors (such as my husband) don't treat themselves or their family members, for somewhat similar reason.

November 20, 2016 at 07:16 AM · Yixi, I believe you misunderstood me. I'm not suggesting that all violins are created equal. I'm saying that whether you are a student looking for a violin on a $2000 budget, or a professional looking for the best violin for you on a $20000 budget, you can apply the same sorts or principles and have the same confidence in your choice. That's what I mean by 'everything is relative'. What you prefer in terms of tonal qualities is completely subjective, but there are other factors as well of course, including how you plan to use it.

You could offer someone the best dark chocolate in the world, but if they don't like dark chocolate...

I gave myself a budget of $2500 for a student or intermediate violin. Even though I heard much nicer violins at higher price points I have confidence in my choice of violin as a student within my budget. I'm positive I chose what was right for me.

November 20, 2016 at 05:44 PM · Leif, I read your blog. Good for you for finding the violin you are happy with!

Making a purchase for ourselves is a personal choice and it's obvious and trivial to say that one has to choose what's best for one's need. Dealers usually encourage buyers with words like "whatever suits you best", "it's a personal choice". What's wrong with that?

I believe sometimes we can be wrong about what we think what's best for us. I'm speaking for myself here. Two of the three violins I bought within last 10 years valued between $2000-5000. One is a German factory made in early 20 century and other was a Chinese master benchmade I bought from his shop in Shanghai. As an advanced player I thought each time I made pretty good choice and many people affirmed that. But as time goes on, I've realised that I wasted my money on these two because each has the limitations that constantly frustrate my learning and in performance. What's more, used violins under $5k is very hard to sale without losing a lot of money. Had I consulted with experts with a longer trial period, I would probably have bought a violin that I might still be playing. For the third purchase I recently made, I took a different approach. It really got me thinking about a lot of things-- how we decide? what factors influence our choice? how rational are we? I find these are super interesting questions. So now you know what's the underpinning of starting this dicussion.

November 20, 2016 at 09:42 PM · In that $2-5k range, I think you would have had difficulty retaining whatever you'd bought. That's a student price range for a reason. In that price range, you pretty much only have compromises. You might not have been explicitly aware of the compromises at the time, and given better advice you might have chosen a set of compromises that you could more readily live with over the long term, but the compromises would still have been there.

November 20, 2016 at 09:46 PM · Lydia, you are probably right these days student violins are under $5k but still quality vary greatly depending on where you buy. 8-10 years ago, a $5K violin can be found among professional violinists in Canada. Chinese benchmade violins were sold much less a few years ago. Now as an advanced student, we are looking at $10-15K.

Speaking of professional violins, I've seen not very good violinists in community orchestras playing really expensive violins whereas their professional teachers have to settle for much cheaper ones. I would be embarrassed as a student should this ever happen to me.

November 20, 2016 at 11:16 PM · Our hearing changes as we age, almost without exception for the worse. Audio acuity usually fades most at the higher frequencies so the apparent sound quality of violins changes accordingly.

When our hearing gets bad enough we get hearing aids and that changes everything again. But this time it changes instantly not gradually over the years.

I think it is a good idea to assemble a committee when you want to judge a violin's sound, probably a committee that spans a wide age range.

November 21, 2016 at 06:07 AM · Yixi, thank you! When I purchased, I did so with the understanding that I may never be able to afford anything more expensive. It's true I could outgrow it, but I think that would take some time, and even then I may just have to be content with it. I'm beginning old, so in 15 short years I'll be living on a modest pension and probably just enjoying what I have. But then again, many people I know just have their -$500 instrument they purchased at the local music store and they are content with playing that.

So my strategy was simply to buy what made me happy within my budget. If I'm ever afforded a chance to buy another better violin it will likely be through an alternative strategy than simply laying out a lot more money. Once I build more experience and skill my strategy is to pursue an older violin through private sales. I suspect that knowing more, having more experience, being a better player, I'll be able to find an older violin with better potential, perhaps in need of repair or simply being sold by someone who doesn't see it as a gold mine. If such an opportunity never arises, I'll enjoy the hunt.

November 21, 2016 at 01:35 PM · I agree with Rocky that confidence should come most naturally from experience. To that I would add knowledge of what makes a well-made violin. I don't have a lot of either, which is why I ask for help from professionals I trust -- especially my teacher -- for their input. Of course, it's my money, so I have ultimate "veto power" but I do value their advice. A local pro that I know and trust picked out a viola for me whilst on a trip to buy cellos for his music school, and I bought the viola sight-unseen. That was a really good move, as I know really nothing about the viola, I just wanted a decent one to play in a local chamber orchestra that is always short violas. It's a really nice-sounding viola. (But what do I know?)

I noted Andrew's suggestion of assembling a committee, but I will never forget the advice of a senior colleague many years ago -- the best committee is two people who basically agree on most things. Of course the ultimate example of such a committee is -- hopefully -- one's marriage.

November 22, 2016 at 05:13 PM · I really like the committee idea. I'm fortunate enough to have a very good committee, which consists of my husband, one of Canada's finest string quartets (I serve as a board member for that quartet), a couple of their colleagues in Victoria Symphony Orchestra here, and an award-winning luthier.

Paul, the committee of two people sounds interesting, but since the wife is always right as they say, the committee is going to be pretty lean. No?

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