How To Determine When Strings Are False?

November 27, 2005 at 06:23 AM · I know that there have been other threads on this topic but it's still not clear to me. I only realize my strings were false when I change them and hear the difference in sound.

Replies (54)

November 27, 2005 at 07:29 AM · Best test is to very carefully tune your violin then play double stopped fifths on the various strings in various positions. If you have to make adjustments to make the fifths perfectly in tune, then its a good sign you need to change the strings.

November 27, 2005 at 10:06 PM · How often should I change my strings if I practice about 4 hours a day?

November 27, 2005 at 11:00 PM · My luthier's rule of thumb is every 120 hours, so every month for you, Enosh.

November 27, 2005 at 11:22 PM · This sounds like a set up for a great Joke:

How Can You Tell When Strings Are False?.........When it takes two or three fingers to play a perfect fifth!!! LOL :)

November 28, 2005 at 12:32 AM · sounds like I need to change my strings...

November 28, 2005 at 02:32 AM · Every month?!?!?! I'm a musician, not a's not like I have a spare $30-$40 just hanging around.

November 28, 2005 at 10:54 AM · Mine barely make three weeks, and I would love to know if its the Dominant brand, or if it's just me. I wonder which strings last the longest.

I determine falseness by listening to the pitch. It will begin to sound fuzzy, and it's unclear whether it's sharp or flat when tuning. It sounds like it's both at the same time, because it actually is.

November 28, 2005 at 11:42 AM · Emily, I recently realised something that might help you out. When I lived in Ohio, I only needed to change my strings every 4 months or so (depending on how much teaching versus playing I did) but since moving significantly north to England, I need to change them every two months because they go false a whole lot faster. I wonder if climate has anything to do with how fast the strings die??? And you live in maybe that does something to make the strings wear out? Just a thought.

November 28, 2005 at 11:27 PM · atmosphere has a lot to do with it, in particular the humidity

November 29, 2005 at 03:02 AM · Well, that's something to think about, Sarah. At least they are no longer unraveling, ever since I started working on lighter fingers. That's how I used to tell if they were going false. If your string unravels, it is false.

November 29, 2005 at 03:22 AM · If the true test of whether a string is false or not is if you can play 5ths in tune, then what is that story I heard about using a pencil to test the strings to see if they are false?

I heard that somewhere.

November 29, 2005 at 05:39 AM · Greetings,

no, a bow always works better.



November 29, 2005 at 09:37 AM · No one has ever explained the pencil theory to my satisfaction.

What the heck is it?

November 29, 2005 at 05:10 PM · no idea what the pencil theory is, but I can usually tell by the fact that the coils are frayed. Usually I'll be playing, and I'll notice a little lump on the string where my finger strikes, and it's hard to play that way. Or if I see it's frayed when I open the case. Usually I can catch it in time before it pops (which would be very soon after the fraying) I'm getting a lot better at detecting frayed coils on the strings. I'm sure that doesn't even help you, but yeah...I usually don't change a string until it frays, because why waste a string that still has a good coil on it yet?

November 29, 2005 at 05:28 PM · I swear, I've heard the pencil theory.

How/what do you say when a parent asks what a 'false' string is?

Part of me isn't sure myself.

November 29, 2005 at 05:47 PM · The pencil test is to use a pencil to play double stopped fifths on a violin. If the pencil isn't exactly parallel to the nut, then the strings are false.

November 29, 2005 at 05:53 PM · I think strings usually go false before they fray. The fraying I think is just when they get too messed up.

November 29, 2005 at 06:00 PM · Thanks, Kenneth. So that's the pencil test...

November 29, 2005 at 05:57 PM · Try 5ths in harmonics, too (1st position, 4th finger).

Also, try comparing the harmonic (1st position, 4th finger) with the adjacent open string (doesn't work for the E, unless the A is not false). If one of the strings is false, you'll never get it in unison.

OK, here's another one: How can you tell if a string is false?

Answer: If it lies on a job application.

Answer: If everything you play sounds like Schoenberg.

Answer: If it takes you 2-1/2 hours to tune up.

Answer: If it's wearing a fake nose, moustache, and glasses.

November 29, 2005 at 08:05 PM · No, that still doesn't clarify.

Do you mean, bow with the pencil, or finger with the pencil?

Plus, if the strings are false and you're using a pencil to finger fifths and it's not parallel, it could be that you didn't tune right in the first place. Or, it could be the pencil needs sharpened. And how can you really tune false strings, anyway? And if you can, then your fifths would automatically also be in tune, wouldn't they? And then, they must not be false after all, so you don't need to change them. I'm running in circles with sharpened pencils now.

November 29, 2005 at 08:24 PM · This pencil thing sounds like a joke--and a red herring (or red halibut for you, Emily).

If a string is "false" it means that it no longer has a linear relationship between pitch and string length. If the string has deteriorated in such a way that either:

1. mass is not constant along its length

2. stiffness is not constant along its length

Then it will be "false". The harmonics will get messed up in the process. The locations will be moved.

A simple experiment to demonstrate this phenomenon is to take some removable tape, make a small piece, and stick it to the string somewhere. This is equivakent to a non-uniform mass distribution.

Now bow it. What happens? By doing this, you will get a sense of how things can go wrong.

BTW heavy rosin buildup can do this, too.

November 29, 2005 at 10:56 PM · I think I understand the principle behind the pencil test.

Waves vibrate with crests and valleys. There are points along the wave called nodes which do not vibrate. Two waves (strings) at the same frequency and wavelength will have nodes which line up, so long as the waves are in phase. In theory, placing a pencil on the nodes of two strings which line up means that when the strings are played, the pencil does not experience the vibration and remains perpendicular to the two strings it is lying on.

There's a problem with all of this. Strings on a violin vibrate in a half wave length fashion with the nodes at the bridge and the finger, or top of the fingerboard. There are no nodes where one can place a pencil to conduct this test.

Additionally, the lentghs of the strings are different, creating the same freqency with different wavelengths by the mass of the strings themsleves.

I may be missing the point altogether, but from the brief description, this is the best explanation I can come up with.

The pencil test is sound in physical principles or waves, but cannot be applied to a violin due to the vibration patterns of violin strings.

If I'm out to lunch on this, please let me know, but I can't think of another way that the pencil test would work.

As for what are false strings... Well, again as best as I understand it...

When you tune a violin string, you are putting it under tension. Like anything you place under tension, eventually (an especially if you're constantly vibrating it), it will stretch and the tension be released. This requires more tension to "re-tune" the string. False strings happen when the material along the length of the string stretches, but no longer stretches evenly. So, you end up with one part of the string getting "more stretched" than others. This imperfection then affects how the string vibrates (storing and releasing energy). So, your string can be tuned when open, but then depending on where the imperfections lie, will change the frequency at different finger positions. This phenomenon can be a function of tensile strength where a string has moved beyond elasticity and into plasticity (where it will no longer regain it's shape), or due to material imperfections (which can be at the molecular level). There's no way to avoid it. It's going to happen eventually to every string. Strings "age" and get "tired" like everything else.

November 29, 2005 at 10:30 PM · When they are not true, they are false. One must answer the question "What is truth?"

November 29, 2005 at 11:15 PM · Jim,

which brings us back to................(the truth about false strings) when it takes two or three fingers to play a perfect fifth!!! LOL :)

November 30, 2005 at 12:10 AM · Hi Bruno,

you said: "If I'm out to lunch on this, please let me know, but I can't think of another way that the pencil test would work."

Yes, you are out to lunch :-)

You can easily create nodes on a violin string: make harmonics. If you played paired 5ths at the 4th finger position of 1st position, you would get such a node.

What you said about tensile strentgh and plasticity is merely what I said about uneven mass distribution.

But I like Jim's description best.

November 30, 2005 at 12:21 AM · A string is false when it gives you the wrong vibes! :)

But seriously, it's sometimes very hard to tell because imperfections are not always noticeable to the unassisted eye. A very small dent on the underside for instance (as well as all the other things already mentioned) will cause the string to vibrate in a combined fashion, which will be the combination of the string's natural harmonics together with the harmonics of both the string's length from bridge to the defect (and yes even too much rosin creates a defect point) and the remaining length from the defect to the finger or nut stopping it. In essence a complex harmonic modulus is created where there are the vibrations of the harmonics of 3 strings instead of one.

We probably all have heard that a number of professional players change their strings every week. I don't think this should be necessary for most violinists.

Look at them carefully, examine both the ends and the stopped length for mechanical imperfections, check for flattening by giving the string a very small turn (don't overdo this nor should you bend a string with your finger to tune it...though must of us do this every now and then), keep them totally clean, use a little almond oil on gut strings to help keep them from drying out (this will also work on strings wound on gut or synthetic gut but to a lesser degree), use various fingered (depressed) fifths and harmonic fifths (the latter will be more useful) when tuning, and listen very carefully to the sound of the single string. This should help you keep your strings at reatively peak performance and tell you when they need changing.

November 30, 2005 at 02:23 AM · Bill,

Thanks for the feedback. I do have a question though. If you are playing paired 5ths at the 4th finger position of 1st position, would the individual strings vibrate in any other fashion than a half wave? If not, the only nodes (parts of the wave not moving) are at each end.

You said:"What you said about tensile strentgh and plasticity is merely what I said about uneven mass distribution" - Yeah, I know, I just wanted to add an explanation as to why this happens - it sounded like the someone needed an explanation for their parents as to why they needed new strings.

I like Jim's description as well ;)

November 30, 2005 at 03:13 AM · Actually, I've heard of the pencil test before. Maybe it's useful, I don't know, but you press the strings with the pencil on a pair of strings at random places and see if the 5ths are still right. Holding the violin not in normal playing position. When people say "false" they mean the 5ths.

Eventually you won't be able to tune them right. They'll sound wierd. The harmonics and the stopped notes won't be in the same place. Harmonic double stops will be out of tune. Eventually they'll return to dust. It's a matter of when you personally choose to get new ones. The physics of it might be interesting but it's pretty irrelevant.

November 30, 2005 at 03:15 AM · The pencil just lets you SEE what is's hard to SEE when you are in playing position. right?

November 30, 2005 at 04:09 AM · I'm also trying to determine whether or not my strings are false. I think it's a gut feeling thing. When the clarity of your playing (for example, trills) deteriorates really fast all of a sudden, that may be an indicator, especially if your trills were always good to start with. Exerting yourself too much over simple passages that just won't "come out" the way you want it to on the violin may also be an indicator.

November 30, 2005 at 06:48 AM · I assume the violin is on a table or floor when one does the pencil test. It can't be done in playing position. It is just easier to play double stopped fifths normally. If they are out of tune when the violin is in tune (providing that you know for a fact that you can play fifths in tune), then the strings need replacing. Strings should be replaced once a year anyway. Why wait for them to go bad?

November 30, 2005 at 07:08 AM · I have found the best way to tell if my strings are suspect (other than their reluctance to tune and if their pitch bends upwards or downwards after letting single strings resonate) is to try and play the Bartok Romanian dance No.3 with all the harmonics. If it takes extrordinary effort to get the harmonics to sound, the strings are false. It is easy to play with new strings.

The best person to ask 'why' strings go false would be a metalurgist (sp?). They could probably best explain about metal fatigue over time.

November 30, 2005 at 05:09 PM · I also have always had the dilemma whether to replace one string or the whole set. When you manage to find out which string is false, there is no reason to replace all four strings. However the problem lies in that we cannot completely rely on our fingers. They always make towards the neck at an angle. Therefore, when going from the lower strings to the upper strings, we tend to shift them a bit downwards without being aware of it.

Thus my recommendation is to use a kind of dummy fret. We can use, for example, a wooden pencil or a wooden match - but NEVER a hard or metal object. We place the pencil, pressing it by our fingers, in places where the problem seems to manifest e.g. tones D, A, E, B natural, and we play particular fifths with a bow. By changing the angle between the pencil and the string we will tune the fifths. If the angle between the pencil and the string is 90 degreees, the pair of strings we are checking is usually in order. When the angle is different from 90, at least one of the strings is false. By gradual checking all three quints, we have quite good chance to find the false string. When the places of pencil's contact on the strings G, D, E are the same and on A string we have to choose the place of contact higher, it is more or less certain that A string is the false string. Where G, D, and A strings, are in tune and for the quint E B natural [A and E strings] we have to place the pencil at an angle, it is probably E string which is false. In any case such a wooden fret will give us a more precise picture of the situation of our strings than our fingers do.

In the event we find out that a string is bad, I recommend replacing it immediately. By practising on a false string, we destroy our orientation on the fingerboard. After replacing such a string, I recommend repeating the check of the quints by a pencil. [Please be careful don't press.] Then we will be able to see whether our diagnosis was correct, and whether we had better to replace the whole set or not.

Bohdan Warchal

November 30, 2005 at 05:21 PM · The scientific method has had a more profound effect on civilisation in a shorter period of time than perhaps any other paradigm.

Bohdan has shown how to apply the scientific method to string judgement.

Very nice analysis.

November 30, 2005 at 05:20 PM · If you move your left elbow as you play from low strings to high strings, there is no need to adjust fingers to compensate. Maybe I misunderstood what you meant.

I don't recommend just changing one string and leaving the rest...this just confuses the tonality of your violin and makes it really easy to forget that the E has been on 6 months when the D has been there 2 and the A there for 9...

November 30, 2005 at 05:24 PM · Now the pencil test makes sense!!!!

Thank you Bohdan Warchal.

November 30, 2005 at 05:49 PM · ".this just confuses the tonality of your violin and makes it really easy to forget that the E has been on 6 months when the D has been there 2 and the A there for 9..."

Violins don't have brains. They do not get confused.

The time a string has been on is totally irrelevant. It is whether it works or not that matters.

If a person develops a sense of awareness about tone, sound etc then why shouldn't he change strings singly? The only definite benefit to changing strings all at once is the improved bottom line of the string seller.

One develops a sense of tone and sound through experience. I daresay you learn a lot *more* by changing strings one at a time--it gives you the chance to compare directly.


December 1, 2005 at 07:16 AM · to each their own....

but seriously, a brand spankin' new A string is a lot brighter and more resounding than a well-worn in D. The sound difference would be obvious that every time you played on the A it would resonate differently. And this resonance has to do with the fact strings do not all of a sudden go is a process of metal fatigue/ wear over time. A process of decay if you will. New strings do not sound equal to old strings...even if the old ones are not quite false yet.

Some people spend a lot of money finding specific strings to balance the tone of their violins out...some violins naturally have brighter high registers and a darker low register. Finding the right strings to even this tone across the registers can make an average violin sound better. Ignoring factors like string age kind of negate this whole idea.

December 1, 2005 at 04:41 PM · If the sound difference between teh new string and the neighboring existing strings is obvious and objectionable, then there is nothing preventing one from changing the others, too.

The point is that rather than blindly following some sort of "schedule" isn't it better to merely use one's ears?

December 1, 2005 at 04:51 PM · Hi everybody,

You should read Leopold Auer,Graded course of violin playing Book 1

I gave two methods of testing a string

1°) before fastening it:Hold the string at both end,pull it tight then pluck it,the vibration will form an two-lined oval if pure else the string disclose a three lined. However this applies to gut

2°) playing adjacent fifths as already mentionned

December 1, 2005 at 08:15 PM · You are right in that all the strings should be replaced at a time especially because of the sound. Nevertheless, the quality of used material, in particular that of synthetic fibers, has been continuously improved. It is the development of new materials where our company, for example, invest most resources in efforts to improve both, the sound and the durability of the strings. You may have noticed that the latest strings from renowned producers last, in terms of tones, much longer than strings made of perlon which was used ten years ago or so. However, the string resistance to becoming false cannot be increased that much. In that respect, the durability is given by the durability of metal materials, such as aluminium and silver. In addition, metals are worn down also by mechanical, as well as chemical influences (aggressivness of sweat). Thus the speed of which strings of various players get worn is very much individual. I believe, that most critical about this is the fact that the problem starts to appear only very slowly and gradually. Some less experienced violinists may not remark it immediately, and instead thay adjust their fingers to the existing situation. As a violinist I even had some experience that some sets of strings were false already upon buying.

That is why I described the pencil method. It may serve well to those who are not quite sure when the strings need to be replaced, also in the case of replacing the whole set. I believe this is also the way of amateurs for whom the sound aspect is not always the most important thing and they rather consider the prices. Being born during the time of socialism, I can fully understand also people who live in poorer countries and want to play violins. Today I find it not less than absurd that at the high time of socialism there was a workshop in Bohemia where gut strings Pirastro were regenerated in the same way which is now still used, from time to time, to regenerate tires. The metal winding was unwound from the gut and a new winding was applied. Luckily, this period is definitely over.

Bohdan Warchal

violinist, strings producer

December 2, 2005 at 08:27 AM · Interesting information Bohdan.

Perhaps then, to the first subject in this discussion of replacing a "false" string, we must now (by value of individual taste and technical aptitude) also try and include a method to replace the string one simply doesn't like anymore.

This becomes complicated, and in some ways, is part of the constant search violinists have for better strings, hence defining 'better' might be one place to start? Or is that too objective?

December 2, 2005 at 05:39 PM · simple. Pluck it. If there is a weird overtone, it's false. Discard it immediately. And don't forget about recycling!


December 2, 2005 at 05:51 PM · And I totally agree Ilya. That was the main intent of my earlier post in this thread.

But what makes one string 'better' than another, and can we objectify this somewhat w/o losing something along the way???

December 3, 2005 at 04:31 PM · This question needs to be answered by everybody himself. There are a lot of violinists having been looking for an ideal sound for theit whole lives. I have always been one of them. I have dealt with the issues of creating sound also in a book I wrote within my pedagogical careeer. However, I got increasingly intrigued also by the world of violin-making and instrument production. Therefore, I decided to establish a company to produce strings. We receive a huge number of emails from violinists from around the world, writing how surprised they were that strings of a completely new and unknown brand solved their long-term problems of sound. This, however does not mean that all types of our strings are suitable for any instrument. The relation between a string and an instrument is very individual, often complicated and influenced by a number of factors. Those violinists who search for an ideal sound know that some experimenting is worthwhile.

I have even met a violinist who did not know what strings she played. Not only did she not know the brand name of the product but she did not, either, know whether they were gut, metal or synthetic strings. She told me that she had been playing ot this kind of strings for 25 years because they had been recommended to her by by her teacher while she was still a student. This type of players, of course, will never become our customers. But for those who really care about the sound, a change in strings may be the effective solution. When somebody, for example, consideres the adjustment of the instrument by a violin maker who is not known to him, and he decides to change the thickness of the top (or to replace the bass bar), he undergoes a risk that the result may even be worse than the initial situation. In addition, the repair can take several weeks to be completed and cost quite a lot of money. On the contrary, when some new strings are tried instead, the result is immediately obvious. In case the player is not satisfied with the result, he can anytime return to the original version.

December 3, 2005 at 07:16 PM · Granted I am new to this sight and still extramly new to things about Violins. With that saied I am wondering if easing the tenshion off of the strings befor putting it away, like is done w/ the bow, would surve to prolong them going faulse?

December 3, 2005 at 07:41 PM · Hey, Robert. You don't want to do that. It isn't tension that wears the strings out. Also, it's good for the violin to have the pressure on the top all the time. The bow gets loosened to keep the curve in the bow from straightening.

December 3, 2005 at 09:59 PM · I also don't recommend to loosen the strings. It would be good neither for violin nor the strings.

December 4, 2005 at 01:23 AM · Ah ok. While I was reading through the thread earler it just seamed that it would mkae about as much sence but I gues not.

Why would the pressure need to be kept up at the top at all times?

December 4, 2005 at 01:28 AM · Not necessarily at all times, but it keeps the bridge in the same place and helps keep the soundpost from falling, also some of them seem different for awhile after the tension's been off.

December 4, 2005 at 05:34 PM · Ah ok.

December 4, 2005 at 08:46 PM · I'm still very confused about this whole deal of false strings. Can someone send me a message here and explain to me as simply as possible what it sounds like when strings go false? Or else, explain it CAREFULLY here? I'm very much in the dark!

December 5, 2005 at 03:27 AM · It also doesn't vibrate as well, projects less and has a flatter sound. The problem is when you can really tell because they go false gradually so you get used to it and you don't know. That's why I made this thread.

December 5, 2005 at 05:25 AM · Exactly hard to tell because it is so gradual. Usually the A or e will go bad first. If you end up changing the A and e then feeling like the violin is unbalanced, i.e. the d and g NOW feel dull or fuzzy, whereas they didn't before because you got used to it, then it means all 4 needed to be changed. So one way to test is to change one string first and see if there is a difference.

How do I mean about going bad? Unevenness on the string, one note on the string might blare whereas the other is dull right next to it. General wierdness with intonation of fifths. If you want to try to find false string examples, go to a shop and test some violin that's been sitting around forever, first of all, will be hard to tune it up. After that, there might be the blaring on certain notes, a twang or buzz on some of the overtones. D and G feel dull, or that persimmon-like feeling overall.

Of course one could always blame intonation problems on false strings, ha ha.

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