Violin or Bow sound changes when played by others???

March 18, 2005 at 05:32 PM · Here is an interesting topic to discuss: Does loaning a violin or a bow to a friend for a performance or longer somehow alter the sound that the instrument or bow makes upon return? I have an instructor that claims that the bow that she loaned to a student for a performance sounds different to her upon it's return. The student did not rosin it while it was in her possession. An friend of mine who makes violins claims the same - his violin sounds different to him upon return if he loans it to anyone to play.

Replies (44)

March 18, 2005 at 05:54 PM · If a violin has been sitting idle for a period of time, it certainly will change when it's played, usually for the better. For instance, when we get an instrument into the shop that we know hasn't been played, or that needed a new setup, we'll often loan it to a player for a week or two so they can open it up a little before it's shown.

March 18, 2005 at 05:57 PM ·

The violin maker's situation is different from the teacher's. The maker's violins probably aren't played at all, so loaning them out helps break them in, and results in a change.

The teacher's violin is supposedly played in, though. I've had a number of players tell me that when someone else plays their violin--even for an hour--it responds differently when they get it back. I can't explain it, but I've heard it from enough players to believe that it does happen. My best guess is that a difference in bowing style results in the instrument being vibrated and "exercised" in a slightly different way from usual.

March 18, 2005 at 06:07 PM · My son claims that the week he used my violin he opened up the sound more. Of course I protest vehemently, and say it's because my time on his viola gave me a stronger bowing hand - but he probably did .... to a degree ... maybe. More advanced repertoire, fortissimo passages, a violist's hand on a violin, and high harmonics that I don't do yet. Yup, he did.

He also broke off two hairs on my new bow, which I was not pleased about - but the bow sounds the same.

March 18, 2005 at 06:08 PM · I understand one's violin can pick up an acute case of violinitis if exposed to a Type V carrier...

March 18, 2005 at 08:05 PM · Hi,

Yes, it's true. I don't know about the bow. That sounds odd. For violins it's true. The better the instrument, the better it's played, the better it will sound. With new instruments, it's even more apparent.

I will give you an interesting experience I had. A student of mine was trying out a brand new modern instrument. She complained after a day that it didn't sound as good as before. So she came to see me and I played on it for like 10-15 minutes. Then gave it back to her and it did sound better. The difference: pressure and amount of bow. If you play freely with lots of bow you make the instrument resonate more. The more it resonates, the more it will want to resonate and be able to resonate, and the better it will sound. Maybe that was one instrument, but, seemed true. Could just be a fluke personal experience though.


March 18, 2005 at 08:27 PM · Michael Darnton wrote:

"My best guess is that a difference in bowing style results in the instrument being vibrated and "exercised" in a slightly different way from usual."

A physicist I knew (Jack Fry) wanted to do an experiment to see if this could be verified scientifically. His experment showed that vibrating the violin with white noise does indeed make it more responsive. So I asked him: Does playing one specific note make the violin respond with more output on that note? He said that he had tried that, and the experiment verified that it was so...all of which confirms Michael's observation above. I think the violinist's intonation, as well as the bowing style conditions the violin.

March 18, 2005 at 08:57 PM · It shouldn't really affect the bow, but the violin responds to good intonation! The more one plays dead in tune on their violin, the better it sounds... my teacher told me a story about how Szeryng played his violin for a few hours (when he was studying with Szerying in the 80s), and when he got it back it would sound incredible! ...but then it would go back to normal a few hours/days later. The better you play, the better your fiddle sounds!

March 18, 2005 at 09:30 PM · I have heard players comment that a violin that's been played in tune plays almost as if it has frets.

March 18, 2005 at 09:40 PM · That explains why my cheapo fiddle sounds like a cremona lol

March 19, 2005 at 01:58 PM · Isn't this what Suzuki worked toward with his 'tonalization' exercises? (Not that the violin would sound better, but that the PLAYER would PLAY better, thus making the instrument 'ring'? That is why my son's Sz. teacher stresses, and it has made a diff. in MY playing,now that I am back into this stuff. Harmonics on vibratory bodies definitely enhance overall sound, that is a given from Vocal Ped. (I'm a singer) So why not the same with a violin? Thanks goodness, all of the posts at least indicate that the tone can only get better, and not worse! But hey, playing in tune is the goal for all of us, right? Cheers

March 19, 2005 at 05:13 PM · John, you are right that the way a musician plays a violin will effect the quality of sound coming out of the instrument. There is another intriguing idea being discussed here though -- whether the instrument itself, when it has been played by a different musician, will be affected so that it will continue having a different sound even when the first musician plays it again. It is related to the idea of violins "opening up". I don't understand the process completely, but it is something along the lines that the wood has little micropores that expand into little air pockets which then create different types of resonances (somebody fix this explanation, please!).

The idea seems to hold water. I loaned my violin to my son for a week. I have played less long and am in a lower grade, and so I do not play as high up on the fingerboard and don't do the harmonics he does, which would cause the instrument to vibrate differently. As well he is a violist with a very strong sound and was playing rapid fortissimo passages for hours in an orchestral setting. The end effect of this trade-off is that the instrument has a richer tone that it did not have before. It has "opened up" more. At the same time there is the "tonality" effect of my own playing that you are writing about, because while I had nothing but a viola to practise on, I developed a stronger bowing tone and style which would also affect how my instrument sounded. However the change in the instrument's sound was noted by my son after he played it for a week, myself, and my teacher when he tuned it - thus leading to the conclusion that the instrument itself had changed in sound quality.

A question to the forum: would the amount that an instrument opens up and changes its character according to how it has been played depend on its quality? I.e. would a cheap factory-made instrument show less change?

March 19, 2005 at 05:55 PM · Let me ask my cheap factory-made violin...He says yes (or it says yes; I'm not sure if I'm allowed to ascribe gender to my instrument).


March 20, 2005 at 12:43 AM · My teacher has a brand new violin that he says sounds better when people play in tune. When he let me play it, I found certain notes to be wolfishly brittle and he said that was because I was out of tune slightly. If I would move my finger around a little, it would be less brittle. Seems like other violins are more forgiving, and sound nice even when out of tune. I wonder if it's better for students to have the wolfish ones or the forgiving ones. He also said that older violins are more forgiving, I wonder if that's what is meant as open [joke](minded violins?)[/joke]. Are Strads such that you must be exactly in tune or it sounds dead, or are they forgiving? (Not having been in the same room as one, I'm curious what those of you who have played great violins find).

March 21, 2005 at 09:42 AM · Hi,

that a violin sounds better if it's played in tune may also be due to the fact that the unused strings will vibrate when they are activated by the overtones (partial tones) of the note being played. This is even more important and obvious when you play double stops (combination tone, Tartini tone).

Also, if you stand next to somebody else playing an instrument, you can feel how your violin will come alive and resonate with the other instrument on certain tones.

E.g., if you play a correct d' on the G-string, you can see and hear how the open D-string will resonate, thus making the sound much smoother and fuller.

The same goes for the open G-string: put your finger on the g' on the D-string and watch (or rather, listen) to the change this will cause in the richness of the open string's sound (though the D-string is not touched by the bow!).

That's part of the magic of playing the violin.

Bye, Juergen

March 21, 2005 at 04:31 PM · Maybe we should all play Hardanger fiddle (with its sympathetic strings).

March 21, 2005 at 09:26 PM · Juergen wrote:

"That a violin sounds better if it's played in tune may also be due to the fact that the unused strings will vibrate when they are activated by the overtones (partial tones) of the note being played."

Very true,and that explains an important relationship between intonation and tone quality, but it doesn't explain why the violin will play better after having been played by a particular individual. I think we can presume some sort of conditioning of the instrument is occuring by its being played in tune.

March 21, 2005 at 11:55 PM · A violin will sound better when the 4 parts of the equation are "in tune", these are: the violin, the bow, the player, and the piece being played. A great violin won't sound as good with a poor quality bow, or with a less competant player. Also certain players, certain bows, and even certain violins are more suited for certain types of music pieces.

The best bows are made from pernambuco wood-PERIOD. Every great bowmaker from Tourte to the present uses pernambuco and ONLY pernambuco. This wood has proven to be the best at getting the best sound out of an instrument. Any other claims are nothing more than cheap marketing gimmicks. Whether the bow is an antique French Bow (Bazin, J.J. Martin, etc), a top quality U.S. makers stick (Espy, Morrow, beckley, etc.), or a good quality inexpensive factory made stick (Arcos Brasil, Water Violet, Marco Raposo, etc.) the wood is ONLY pernambuco.


June 3, 2015 at 02:09 AM · I have a question to add onto this:

If you play with a mute for an extended period of time, but are still in tune, would that affect the tone of the instrument?

I do happen to notice some sort of a diffenrence when playing with one and then taking it off, but I thought it was only me.

June 3, 2015 at 11:18 AM · With regard to the bows, I can envision a situation where the borrower puts greater tension on the bow than the lender does, and the hair has stretched a bit. I suppose this might have the effect of slightly changing the quality of the bow hair, and hence the sound, something that would happen to the lender anyway over time.

As to the mute changing the sound, I have to say I've noticed this too. I thought it was just how my ear became attuned to the sound with the mute on, so when removed it seemed to sound different. It could also be that with the mute on, I bow somewhat differently to get the most out of the sound available, and when the mute is removed, I'm I continue to bow the way I did the last time I picked up the instrument, until I make the adjustments for no mute.

I'll leave it up to the science geeks to tell me if there any actual change to the vibrational qualities of the bridge or not. My money's on the bowing.

June 3, 2015 at 12:42 PM · Wesley, I agree -- I think it's only you.

June 3, 2015 at 04:53 PM · Hi Wesley, welcome to the site! It certainly is not just you the sound is different to me too after removing a mute I think the fiddle is just getting used to vibrating normally after being "stifled". I also find that the initial unmuted sound is different after removing an orchestral vs. a practice mute. In my experience the effect does not last very long.


June 3, 2015 at 05:53 PM · After Heifetz borrowed my fiddle for a few weeks i found that it would not play any slower than crotchet (I think that's a quarter note in American slang!) = 199

It also made me wizz all over the fingerboard so much that the tips of my fingers caught fire. Con fuoco indeed! (English spellingggggg ...)

June 6, 2015 at 04:40 PM · I just wanted to put in a science insight to this one.

I work in a physics lab and I do have access to some advance equipment. I heard my current violin "open-up", so I got very curious about this topic myself and I attached a digital pickup to an oscilloscope designed for low frequency.

It seems that the violin at least, when played in tune, first thing that happens is that the amplitude of oscillation increases, surprisingly not very gradually but very quickly. It causes the instrument itself to be arranged to oscillate in that frequency.

However as soon as the instrument plays in tune on another note, the "arrangement" changes to accommodate for the new frequency, but it still partially keeps the old arrangement. I'm sure there's a limitation and characteristic frequencies that the instrument will respond to always. I'm sure that it differs from instrument to instrument, and I am amazed how handmade violins would do it because often it's VERY accurate to given frequency.

The analogy I like to use is that similar to ferromagnetic properties of iron. For ferromagnets, (i.e. iron) arranged in Magnetic field arranges crystal structure of the ferromagnet to orient themselves to have the same polarity of the introduced field. So even when the piece of iron is taken out of the magnetic field, it still holds arrangement, until you strike the iron to a hard surface causing total re-arrangement of the orientation in crystal structure.

Now, you can imagine that in a given "sonic field", or frequency that the instrument is exposed in rearranges orientation of the compounds in wood and varnish to correspond better to the given frequency.

It is also possible if you Always play off tune constantly you might actually "open up" the violin to be arranged to play out of tune.

To my knowledge, I doubt the violins are crafted to match these frequencies, because that means we'll get wolftone for key notes.

I believe that the reason when a professional plays the instrument, it rings better because they play so accurately to each frequency, so they orient the structure better.

A curious experiment that Someone could run is to have accurate tuning forks and constantly use it on the violin(I mean MANY times) and see if that opens up the violin as well. In theory, they should.

As for the bow, Since the bow does not make the sound, I think it's just matter of bowing techniques wearing down the hair structure to a good playing technique.

June 6, 2015 at 11:33 PM · Steven, it gets problematic to assign improvements in violin tone to playing in tune, since much of the time, even the best violinists play out of tune (due to vibrato).

June 7, 2015 at 02:40 AM · Hello David,

I cannot tell you how they are assigned in the first place because I only had 4 violins in my life, and the first three were considered beginner's violin.

I am suggesting that in combination of how luthier had made the violin, varnish and people practicing intonation over long period of time must have assigned the improvement and as the violin is put away for a long time, they return to random/uniform assignment until the right tones have been played at the right frequency.

As we make sound, phonons(sound particles) travel throughout the violin, and if the many hits and/or travels to the right spots, the instrument gets the signature shape to produce that sound better.

Similar to how we break in shoes, skates and etc. If we don't wear them for a long time they get stiff, but if it's the right foot, it starts feeling comfortable.

June 7, 2015 at 12:14 PM · "Steven, it gets problematic to assign improvements in violin tone to playing in tune, since much of the time, even the best violinists play out of tune (due to vibrato)."

Spot on David. Not only vibrato! I think this discussion is probably a load of B.S. because if I play on a fiddle that someone with bad intonation owns, it seems to sound totally different, and even possiby a bit better! So if a really great player (as apposed to a rubbish orchestral player like me) plays a vioin it will sound immensly better. End of story!!!!!!

June 8, 2015 at 02:48 AM · Steve,

Phonon is a term that arises from the science of arrays of identical atom structures, like crystals, that vibrate in specific energy bands, called quantum states. There is no actual particle called a phonon that travels through material.

Also, I always wondered why there was so little violin music in F sharp Major. That key with no G, D A or E in its diatonic scale, must ruin the wood! I wonder if composers slip in a chromatic A or two just to keep the violin happy?

June 8, 2015 at 03:27 AM · Hello Carmen,

I agree that there is no actual "phonon" particle, it's a hypothetical particle to explain the compression force traveling through a given medium(traditionally for lattice structures). It is not entirely confined to crystal structures, it does apply to non-lattice structures.I was just referring the compressive force traveling as the phonons. The point is that as we can vibrate a piece of metal to makes a specific note many times, then it'll ring everytime the same note is played near it, violin can and actually does it as well, just not as quickly nor intensely. Now I'm curious about hollow metal violin.

As for phonons, the energy bands and quantum states(of the atoms) do not contribute at all to phonon interactions due to low energy nature of phonons. However we do quantize the energy levels of the compressive force/energy(Fermi-Dirac) which isn't exactly corresponding to the band gap structure of matter. When the phonon energy coincides with the same wavelength of a photon, a "photon creation" happens. I remember having my mind blown when I was realizing what actually happens when we heat up metals. There's also a phenomena called sonoluminescence which I jumped out of my seat actually seeing it first hand.

Enough off tangent. We shall share notes if you'd like to talk about physics all day, which is my field and my only passion to shadow violins. Violins, I'm very amateur at.

June 8, 2015 at 10:05 AM · "The point is that as we can vibrate a piece of metal to makes a specific note many times, then it'll ring everytime the same note is played near it, violin can and actually does it as well, just not as quickly nor intensely."


Steven, I believe there is currently a lot more evidence against this, than for it, at least at vibration amplitudes that are in the range of what a violin normally experiences with playing. People have been experimenting for many years with artificially vibrating violins and wood samples, looking for this phenomenon (myself included, and also some pretty good physicists, engineers and vibration specialists), and overall, it doesn't seem to be happening.

About all we've been able to find is that EXTREME bending (like the example you gave of breaking in a leather shoe) will increase the flexibility of wood, lowering the resonant frequency. But that's quite different from the notion of "imprinting" specific frequencies by playing.

June 8, 2015 at 01:39 PM · Didn't read all the replies. But one theory that I read is that after listening to someone else (who is better) plays, one begins to imitate that person's playing, thus resulting in a change of the violin tone. For example, listening to Perlman playing on your instrument might inspire you to play in a similar way.

I remember that there was a study on a pair of violins made by the same maker to test this playing-in phenomenon and the conclusion was that there is no such thing as playing in. You could as well just leave the violin strung up for a few months (or years).

June 8, 2015 at 02:02 PM · I would venture to say that listening to Perlman play on his violin, would change the way you play on your own. I've noticed this phenomenon in my own playing.

June 8, 2015 at 02:02 PM · @Steve Lee "hollow metal violin"

I believe Heifetz played an aluminum violin in public in his youth - but didn't make a career out of it :)

Something more up-to-date and interesting are glass violins. They have been around for a while and there are recordings of them on YouTube.

Then of course there are the carbon fiber violins and cellos which can have advantages in some performing circumstances, and moreover can successfully survive prolonged immersion in flood water, as a CF cello famously once did. However, I get the impression that there is still work to be done on developing and improving the tonal qualities of these instrument, particularly the violins. It may be that CF violins are now at the stage that CF bows were 10 or 15 years ago - and look at how good those bows are now.

June 8, 2015 at 03:28 PM · The point I was trying to get at was sonic imprintment on the violin.

Aluminum violin, I'm quite interested, is there a record/video of Heifetz playing? I just saw this:

Glass violins?! I'd be afraid to touch those things. What if you get wolftone while playing?

I'm also very interested how Carbon Fiber instruments turn out. I have seen the bows, I can see the bow having advantages for endurance and resilience(Although when I was trying out the bows, for reasons unknown I was very drawn to handmade pernambuco bow simply by sound), but full CF instruments. I have used Carbon Fiber parts on r/c helicopters and I know their resilience to vibrations and weather is much better than aluminum counterparts but as for acoustic. I'm yet to see a professional playing it in person.

June 8, 2015 at 03:47 PM · From what I have read, sonic imprint is a myth.

CF violins still sound bad. CF violas are a bit more tolerable. CF cellos can sound quite good. Haven't heard a CF bass yet but there are many practical reasons to play a CF bass given its durability.

June 9, 2015 at 03:00 PM · Steven,

A. Your physics lessons are getting to be pretentious. And your are not correct about the bow not making sound. The bow has a very noticeable effect because it is in fact part of the vibrating system. Bows can indeed sound bright or dark or clean or fuzzy. And they carry these traits across violins, which is why they maintain a consistent value from player to player and through time


We play in F# quite often. However, it's usually notated with 6 flats. Most musicians would prefer to read 6 flats than 6 sharps. Ever played any Puccini?

June 9, 2015 at 04:26 PM · Scott, "The bow has a very noticeable effect because it is in fact part of the vibrating system"

I couldn't agree more. Anyone who uses more than one bow (as I do) will be aware of the tonal differences between them, and if more than one violin is involved the violinist will be equally aware that at least one bow will be more suited to one violin than the other.

With a decent bow the player will feel the sound vibrations coming through the stick. Run this concept in reverse and you have the situation where a tight grip on the bow will dampen the bow vibrations and affect the tone of the violin; which is one reason (among others) why a good player with a relaxed bow hold produces a better sound from a student instrument than the student can.

June 9, 2015 at 08:56 PM · Steven wrote:

"The point I was trying to get at was sonic imprintment on the violin."

Steven, I can see advantages to that notion, particularly when it comes to marketing a violin once owned by some famous soloist. And there are plenty of informal anecdotes supporting the notion.

What we're really lacking are rigorous studies supporting the notion. Not that there haven't been studies, but so far, they seem to be pointing in the direction of no affect, or no benefit.

June 9, 2015 at 09:55 PM · Considering how much the violin needs to be played (I would say a professional violinist's lifetime) in order to have the improvements to set in the first place. In essence, I do believe that many instruments are simply made superior and some inferior, if accompanied by a great musician for a long period of time, it will sound better than when it was first owned.

I am doubtful that someone can really make a valid study and support for this it unless they built a machine to hold violin and built a bowing machine to play certain note on that violin for several years and compared the intensity of sound before and after the effect(not to mention the restringing, rosin for the bow, maintenance essentially. I find from most scientific articles, it doesn't seem like many scientist find this worth their time).

What I can however offer is that the violins do open up rather quickly once the improvements have been set, and left untouched a long time, and some notes are played just right.

A neighbour of mine who is a professional violinist taught me some things and explained why the G string on my violin doesn't sound as powerful as his instrument.

Regarding bows, I meant that the bow is not the instrument which vibrates to makes the sound(It does vibrate from making contact with the strings), I cannot say I know why it matters but I do agree with you on the fact that bows do make a great difference, which actually surprised me when I was shopping for bows.

June 10, 2015 at 07:30 AM · As David pointed out earlier, the use of vibrato by most violinists means that there is no such thing as perfect intonation on each note, and depending on the width of the vibrato the pitch continually varies even up to as much as a quarter of a tone.

Singers wobble as much as a semitone plus, so there is little chance that the micro bits of their bodies will retain an imprint. Often the non-micro bits of their bodies can be seen to wobble along with their excessive vibrato ... need I say more ...?

If you are a singer please do not respond to this statement as I might then have to leave the country (to whom I don't know) and I might also have to start wearing a disguise. (wink, wobble, wink).

June 10, 2015 at 10:25 AM · Here is a link to the "playing in" study Kevin may have been referring to. Interesting reading.

A quote from the abstract of the study:

"ABSTRACT. This is a report on the first three years of a long-term experiment designed to measure how two very similar violins change with time. After being constructed ‘in parallel,’ one is stored under controlled conditions in a museum and is played infrequently, while the other is played regularly by a professional musician. Vibro-acoustic measurements were performed on the instruments and parts thereof during and after construction. Playing and listening

tests by a panel of experienced violinists were conducted at completion, after three years with no adjustment, and then after minor adjustments were made to the played violin only. Panels of players and listeners rated the two violins at all stages, and all results are consistent with the null hypothesis: at present there

is no significant preference for either instrument over a range of categories."

June 10, 2015 at 01:56 PM · An important point has not been mentioned: make sure that the violin/bow returned is the same as the violin/bow you lent out:)

June 10, 2015 at 02:53 PM · Peter,

I don't quite agree with your assessment of vibrato. Vibrato, in my opinion, actually shouldn't sound like a change in pitch. If it does, it isn't a fine vibrato. It should sound like that which it really attempts to emulate: a change in intensity. The top should be perfectly tuned without going over.

June 10, 2015 at 03:24 PM · Scott

I think we are at one, because what I meant concerning vibrato, is that the pitch may seem constant and in tune, but obviously there is some deviation either side (or rather below) the note, so the business of an imprint on the violin of each note being absolute is a bit of a myth.

P S I have just read your blog about Stephen Staryk and found it fascinating. A fantastic player, and I think he also led an orchestra here in London for a while.

June 11, 2015 at 04:42 AM · Thank you David,

I enjoyed reading that article(80 years seasoned wood?!).

I agree that the study suggests that if there were any change, it's negligibly small. The abstract does mention that they were comparing one regularly played by a professional to one rarely touched.

However, I don't think 3 years is enough time to say that there is no effect whatsoever(as mentioned in the article "Three years is not considered a long time for an instrument

of which there are examples still being played after hundreds

of years. ").

I would hope that they would continue this study, I would even hope to be part of someday, except my field will not lead me to that direction.

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