How does a violin open up?
I recently bought a 'modern-ish' viola, made in 1965. I'm not sure how often it was played, so I'm interested to know how the sound develops.
How exactly do the vibrations from playing the instrument alter the wood? Does the molecular structure or stiffness of the wood
change? I've heard people say that playing in tune helps, but wouldn't that mean you have to always play at a certain pitch like 442?
No need to play it. Just heat a thin knife with an iron and cut all the way around!
Assuming the viola's bridge and sound post are properly setup, the way it opens up in the short term is by the player figuring out the combination of bow speed, pressure and articulation the instrument needs to cleanly vibrate the strings.
This is the very esoteric area of playing strings. Pull an instrument out of the case or off the shelf/hook in the shop and if it's been there quite a while it sounds "congested" but, play it more and more and it begins to "open up."
I agree with Carmen. I think most "playing in" of the instrument is the player adjusting to the specific response characteristics of the instrument. There's a lot of baloney out there on stuff like this. New violins probably do age more quickly than 30- or 50-year-old violins. But I don't know if anyone can definitively say whether it matters that they've been played.
Like I said, nobody really knows. They just come up with bogus reasons to satisfy their curiosity and stop thinking about it.
I'd be interested to hear from someone with information (I'll settle for an opinion) about this from a perspective other than that of the player; namely David Burgess or one of his tribe. Does he think his instruments sound any different when brought back to the workshop for the first time after a few weeks, months or years?
You're assuming, Steve, luthiers get out a bow and play on an instrument extensively when it comes in for repair. Second assumption is the aural memory of how the instrument used to sound new is written in stone.
As a viola maker, I use a device called TONERITE to play in my new violas. They sound good from the very beginning, but after two weeks with this device the sound will get more focused and open. Some makers say it does not work, so I think it depends a bit of the instrument. And yes, there is the question of the player adjusting to the instrument, top players will get that in some minutes, others will take more time.
Yes, of course it's hard enough for a listener to distinguish between violins played minutes apart, let alone weeks or months, but even an honest hunch from a maker such as Luis is valuable. And I heartily agree that even a brand new instrument should "speak" from the outset. One of the violins I tried in a Florentine workshop 20 years ago had been roughly set up for the very first time. As soon as it had cleared its throat I knew it was the one I'd been looking for. Over the ensuing months I wouldn't say it "opened up" - more that its sharp edges became rounded
Probably the same way a guitar opens up.
My experience with new violins agrees exactly with Mr. Manfio's about violas. Of course this presumes that an instrument already has ideal soundpost and bridge.
New instruments are a whole different beast.
I think people that don't believe violins open up from being played in are hard of hearing, tone deaf so to speak, there are a lot of them out there and they tend to be very "scientific".
Why are you incapable of expressing an opinion without tossing an insult?
I found your first post insulting to our intelligence!!
You leave it in the attic over a dry winter.
The problem with this debate it's that mixes facts with hypothesis.
I think as oil based varnish hardens, there is a definite reduction in its dampening effect, hence the instrument opens up. This process continue to happen for years after the instrument is made. Then there is the various theories about wood fibers transformation at the cellular level over time and the amount and nature of vibration the instrument is subjected to. I know for a fact that the hardening of the varnish on my instrument resulted in a significant effect on its tone when its maker subjected it to additional UV light bathing and polishing.
Mr. D'Agulleiro: your "hard fact" of violin sound changing over time is in reality an opinion. There is no way to 'prove' this into a hard fact. It may be true, it may be our imagination.
changes in wood composition over many years are well documented, obviously that effects the tone.
I'm basically in agreement with Carmen and Herman. While violins will clearly change over time, there doesn't seem to be good evidence that this is related to being played. Evidence is more to the contrary.
Carleen Hutchins wrote about this, with a careful mixture of experiment and guesswork. It's somewhere on my computer...
My luthier suggested playing octaves deliberately out of tune .He claims that this technique starts that nodal "beat" vibration in the instrument which will help "drive" the plates.
I'm well qualified to be a volunteer plate-driver
Just a mention here that bad, pseudo-scientists assume nothing exists until they manage to discover it. The violin world is filled with bad, pseudo-science (as is, I suppose, the whole of general science as well, since that's where a lot of the violin ones seem to come from).
I'm in the Burgess/Carmen/Herman camp...
I alternate between my instruments relatively often and it takes from a few minutes to few hours to adjust to sound production on a specific instrument. Does the sound open or it is the player who opens toward the instrument? While I have witnessed changes in sound changes on my commissioned violin through past 8 years, the most dramatic and subjectively noticeable were due to changes in setup. Old violins... every dealer will claim that they will open (or re-open) if played enough. When the player gets accustomed to the instrument, he/she will support the belief. I always say, the violin sounds at its best at the moment of purchase "as is" ... never subscribe to sound improvement, especially with old instruments (with the exception for substantially restored instruments)
There's much better evidence that humans adapt, than there is for violins auto-adapting to playing. Like Don, I too have invested quite a bit of time and effort looking for real answers, rather than just placing my faith in legend and anecdote.
This is a fascinating topic to me because any 150-250 year old instrument we've played has a completely different character from recent instruments. Does building modern instruments from 200 year old high-quality wood make any difference, or do the results tend to sound like any other modern instrument? It wouldn't answer this question of static changes under load vs changes from "playing in" but it might provide some useful insight.
Yet, when some accomplished soloists were given a sampling of old and new violins, they were unable to reliably guess (without looking at them) which were new, and which were 300 years old.
Our concertmaster has the use of a Sanctus Seraphin violin.It has ENORMOUS power and richness.Did it sound like that when it was made in 1775?
I doubt the tonal effect of aging/drying has on wood can be totally dismissed, otherwise makers of fine quality instruments would not waste money on well cured wood supplies. If there in a difference between a 30 day old kiln-dried wood and a six year old one, then the same can be said between a six year old one and a hundred year old one, albeit perhaps with more subtle difference to a point of diminishing return.
There was a discussion some years ago about tonerite and similar contraptions for playing in violins. In the thread I have described a easy to make device that I have used on several instruments with good effect. The thread is here:
There are simply too many variables that change over time to expect that it would be possible to definitively assign changes in a violin's tone to changes due solely to wood aging.
I do own an early model of TONERITE and I did use it on a couple of my instruments. I can not say whether or not it helped them, but it certainly did not hurt. (Part of the reason I can't judge the device's effectiveness is because my hearing has been undergoing changes over the past several decades and I now wear hearing aids that make all things sound better than they did starting about 30 years ago.)
I think it's important to realize that anecdotal results can be very different from experimental results.
there is no scientific research to show David's instruments are any better than any other makers, its all up to subjective choices made by players, maybe its a placebo effect.
Lyndon its time for your medication again.
Lyndon, it's pretty common for my instruments to be tested under blind or double-blind conditions, to minimize "expectation effects" associated with a particular maker, a price, or the age or provenance of the instrument. It's fine with me that people evaluate them that way, because I realize that hardly anyone is totally immune to placebo or expectation effects of one sort or another, and I want my instruments to be able to stand up under the most thorough forms of scrutiny.
such studies are hardly scientific!!
In my innocence I'd never heard of the Tonerite which has put a smile on my face this rainy morn. According to my local luthier's web site it's "the world's most advanced and premier violin play-in device, significantly accelerating the play-in process and providing increased tone, playability and balance" which begs so many questions I don't know where to start. You could also use it on your cat if it gets a bit plump around the middle.
I have many years of working with vibrational effects on materials. Although I would be skeptical of boastful claims about devices like Tonerite, the basic principal of vibrational loading and aging has well-established scientific merit.
Lyndon, different people have different definitions of what is and isn't "scientific". I think most people would agree that using a blind or double-blind structure for an experiment is more scientific than drawing conclusions based on anecdotes, beliefs, or folklore.
David Burgess said:
Michael, all the players involved in that particular test were soloists, not just "people off the street".
Without wishing to open old wounds (the thread I started on this topic a year or two ago went on for more than 1000 posts), the Fritz study actually assessed the ability of both soloists and audience members to identify what they were playing/hearing. I think the authors made too much of what was essentially a negative result, that in general the ability of soloists and audience members to correctly discriminate old from new, Strads from Brad's or Vlad's, is quite poor. Similar results have been obtained before although this study was probably the most rigorously (still very imperfectly) controlled.
The latest effort to reliably differentiate between old and new is using speech analysis software, with emphasis on this software's ability to recognize and categorize vowel sounds, better than humans are able to do.
For me personally, a quality that I tend to find in really good old instruments is depth+slight nasality. Nasal might sound weird at first! But I think it's extremely important for the instrument to not be too round in sound, or else it begins to have the very rounded voice of pop singer rather than the sizzling 'nasal' projection of an opera singer.
@James, is 'boxy' a word that describe a similar sound to 'nasal'?
@matt - I have a nasal and a boxy instrument and they sound very different.
James, most anything one likes or hates can be found in either a new or old instrument, if the sample size is large enough.
If the taste for a particular tone at any period of time has anything to do with speech pattern, no wonder nasal sound is attractive to some nowadays!
Everyone has their own taste for sound, much like beauty in the eye of the beholder.
Just to be clear, my remark was perhaps a failed humourus attempt at making reference to what David mentionned about the recent trend in tonal research, and the reference made to the relationship between what is considered superior violin tone and the human voice, and the overwhelming and unfortunate growing popularity of the fry speech pattern (aka nasal talk), and wasn't meant to be critical of anyone's personal taste.
"Versus maybe 100 per year being turned out by the world's high-end contemporary makers."
"I don't understand this. Are you implying that the world's high-end makers are collectively turning out 100 violins per year? Seems a bit low. Or do you mean that high-end makers are producing 100 violins each? Seems a bit high."
Thank you, Herman. Yes, it depends on where one wants to draw that line. There might only be ten to twenty contemporary makers whose instruments I would be interested in owning, and not all of them are full-time makers, so output can vary.
Once again, people seem not to be differentiating between "opening up" and "change of tone." They are different.
"However, while the TONE remains the same, they can be capable of improvement in response, especially in the higher positions."
Possibility and theory are FAR from proof!
Anecdotes and opinions are also far from proof. So here we are... exactly where we were before this thread (and the many identical ones) ever started. Everyone gets to keep their own theories, because no one has proof of anything.
Exactly. The only caution I would add is that once someone starts testing this, the lack of evidence for one cause is not proof for the other side. It is simply a lack of evidence. And further, that a single phenomenon may have multiple causes. We have a fondness for simple, tidy solutions, but the world rarely complies.
Michael, Don has done some testing. I have been testing the notion of "playing in" for at least 20 years.
"However, while the TONE remains the same, they can be capable of improvement in response, especially in the higher positions."
David. Doesn't Don Noon say violin making is not rocket science, its more complicated??
The greatest differentiator in sound is perhaps not the instrument itself but the violinist.
David. Doesn't Don Noon say violin making is not rocket science, its more complicated??
maybe you should pay attention to your advice???
My own theory about this: while there are some changes that doubtless happen to the actual wood and carpentry, a lot might also be the adjustment. I.e., it is a fact that sometimes moving the bridge or soundpost a fraction of a millimeter can have an extraordinary effect. Is it possible, then, that playing an instrument that is nearly correct in setup will set up a pattern of vibrations that will only be optimal when the moving parts pop just that last little bit into the sweet spot?
Back to my use of the TONERITE advice, I would not say that it operates a miracle in my violas, but just that it speeds the time to get them in a "competitive" condition after finishing them (about 30 days). It was Melvin Goldsmith who recommended me to use it.
Here is a link to Carleen Hutchins' article: it does not constitute "proof", but I find it "convincing". The method is sound, but cannot take every single parameter into account.
Adrian, how did Hutchins determine that the change was due to being played, rather than to the passage of time under string tension alone? (which Don Noon and I have measured)
Hmm, the Hutchins article does not mention anything about humidity levels before and after.
Yes, but they are different instruments, and no information is given on how long any of the instruments were strung up prior to the initial testing. The longer an instrument was strung up before the initial testing, the less I would expect the changes to be as more time elapses
"Expect", or "know"? As I wrote, there are many missing parameters, so nothing actually rules out these assertions. Therefore they are worth exploring more methodically. It is a domain where the science has to catch up with the aural impressions, or admit that it can't be sure.
"Know", on the instruments I have tested. I have not tested every instrument. Nobody can. ;-)
So Tom, you spent "tens of thousands" on an "Italian" violin, apparently without having ever played it, and then you were disappointed when it didn't sound good? So you went after it with a cello bow (you didn't say how often for how long) and a year later it's a great violin?
As David suggested, and observed, once a new instrument is set up, the effect of pressure and vibrations will, as any other body subjected to pressure and vibration does, eventually settle into an equilibrium state. This can be microscopic changes, that overall can have an impact on the free vibration of the body. Add to this varnish curing and human fine tuning, and you'll end up with something that sounds different. Then add the effect of a player that adapts to what makes the instrument "speak", and you end up with a much better sounding instrument. The effect of the player can be very significant as some have observed. This is what makes studying these physical changes so darn difficult, how do you remove the player variable? Until someone comes up with a violin playing robot, we'll never know! Oh... The Japanese did that... hum... I see some possible research work potential with that new toy!
Robots? Several studies from the scientific world (e.g. Charles wood, Norman Pickering) have used mechanical bowing to remove human variability and partiality.
Another study on whether vibration changes wood:
Hmm. Looks like someone was determined to look for it. But didn't find it.
Is this to suggest that it takes a psychic or a "seer" to perceive playing in?
I was going to say that no scientist ever massaged their data to make it appear negative, but then I remembered the tobacco industry
David, I was referencing the whole article, not just the last sentence! This century's magic is the next century's science, and it's been that way for about the last 500 years. So it's best not to get too entangled in the current "wisdom" beyond the ability to move with what becomes learned. The self-appointed gatekeepers of what's reasonable are exactly the ones who fall away as irrelevant.
I was referencing not just the last sentence, but the entire web site, including the title of the website, "Seers See Ministries".
David, that is naughty!
Adrian, I don't know if trials will ever completely triumph over suppositions. There are still one or more "Flat Earth Societies".
I guess David's attempt at humor and distraction either means he got it or he doesn't.
When we cannot understand the cause of strange observations, the answer is not "the spirit world". It is "we do not know". We take a closer look, devise some tests, and further our knowledge.
Michael, the "seer" website was something you introduced to the discussion, not me. I just quoted from it.
So now you're saying God approves of your violins?? That's quite an endorsement??
Lyndon, I was not the one who brought the psychic, spiritual, or metaphysical angle into the discussion. I simply responded, mentioning things a couple of clients have told me along those lines.
David: Similar story: back in 1951 or '52 when we selected my just finished Strad model violin from maker, Carl Holzapfel, he would not let my father pay. He sent us home with the violin. About a year later, after I had left high school and was a college freshman, my father brought the violin to me for my 18th birthday, and took back the ancient 7/8 Tyrolian violin I had played for the previous 8 years (until the Holza[pfel came into our home).
This paper (Weldert 2017) hasn't been mentioned yet.
Tom you've got a business plan in the making. Just go round to violin shops and buy up all the shopworn "tens of thousands of dollars" Italian violins that sound like bricks. Attach them to Sawzalls fitted with 85-g cello bows and in a year's time they'll double in value.
Paul, we can name it the Bow-zo-matic. ;-)
Most likely result:
A recurring challenge on informal forums that are trying to deal with complicated issues is the loose use of language.
Don, you're completely right. Tom might be right too. We have to remember that as violinists (and as luthiers for those that are), we have quite intentionally developed keen perception regarding the sound of our violins. We make tiny alterations to our instruments (or the changes occur on their own through aging or environmental effect), such that they might be very hard to measure using scientific equipment, but we perceive the changes as huge. When Tom says the volume of his instrument increased six- or seven-fold, I would say that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration but that might be his
I used to believe in the opening up of violins. Not sure if it was the fibers, the glue or what. I felt it, so I believed it.
Carlos, violin prices seem to positively correlate with age. An indirect conclusion is that violins do 'open up' and sound better as time passes. If not, all modern makers would have to underperform predecessors - which is apparently not true.
Age imposes a natural selection (more a professional selection).
Professional selection is an interesting thought! But I find it hard to apply the same logic to most other equipment / furniture, wooden or otherwise.
Carlos, a maker of CF violins informed some potential customers (in a music fair) that a CF violin's tone changes with time: not because of the Carbon fibres themselves, but rather the resins which enclose them.
Though a Da Vincy painting or Princess Diana's crown or what not can sell for millions, there is a very small market for them. Things whose value are sentimenal alone can be very illiquid.
Wish I'd bought a Strad back in the 60's or 70's, when they could still be acquired for the price of a mid-level house. It would have been a fine investment indeed! I'd guess that the majority today are not owned by pro performers, but by amateurs, investors, and museums. Not unlike many other "collectibles".
A sobering look at the current state of fine, old violins. It directly challenges several opinions offered in this thread. One can find many other, similar articles.
"Wish I'd bought a Strad back in the 60's or 70's, when they could still be acquired for the price of a mid-level house" ... you mean a Strad could be bought back then for $7K as such house could be bought back then for about $15k?
Although pro performers don't earn enough $$$ to buy authentic Strads (not even world-class soloist!), owning an antique instrument has become kind of a common industry standard once a player reaches a certain milestone, be it professional, semi-pro, or amateur.
Yes, playing a Strad or Guarneri has become a sort of signal that the user is "somebody special", whether the instrument sounds superior or not.
Sorry to insist, but there was a scientific basis for Mrs Hutchins' experiment, incomplete though it may be;
Very interesting! I wonder the frequency and intensity of the vibrations provided to these experimental violins.
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