Scroll weight and tone

Edited: July 17, 2019, 3:43 PM · Earlier there was a discussion (now archived but linked below) of different woods for violin accessories such as pegs, tailpiece, and such, and the effect of these different woods on the tone of a violin.

In that discussion it was suggested that small changes to the weight of a violin's scroll can influence the violin's overall tone -- audibly, if perhaps not in wholesale fashion.

If that is true, then why don't violins come with a deep hole drilled down into the top or back of the scroll that you can fill with the material of your choice (think sand, lead shot, an aluminum rod, or just a wood plug to cover the hole if you want nothing at all) as a means of tonal adjustment? That would seem to be something the early masters of the luthier's art would surely have employed.

Replies (19)

July 17, 2019, 3:44 PM · It's a balance thing--a violin can actually feel scroll-heavy because the body is light.
Edited: July 17, 2019, 4:26 PM · I could believe it, as adding a shim to the fingerboard when I bought my violin (in order to bring the too-thin neck up to a reasonable thickness) changed the violin tone quite a bit.
July 17, 2019, 4:26 PM · The scroll only vibrates appreciably in the lowest modes of the violin, primarily the B1- mode around G# - A. If the scroll is not there, the neck vibrates somewhat, which I don't think feels too good. The scroll mass keeps the neck vibration under control, and has some influence on the frequency and amplitude of the vibration.

At higher frequencies (where "tone" happens), the scroll is far removed from the activity of the body, so I don't think it matters that much.

Edited: July 17, 2019, 5:29 PM · Don, eventually it's not these frequencies themselves that contribute to the change in sound, but rather how these frequencies interfere with all those other vibrations from the body when they're transmitted onto there via the neck block? I could imagine that by these interferences, some part of the spectrum (and be it "only" in the overtones) might be inhibited, while others were enhanced. I can't present a complete theory on that, but I would boil it down to "no matter where you add or remove mass, it will have an impact on the vibrations of the whole system".

You can easily demonstrate this in a less multiparametric system, like a fishing rod for example. Each rod has its own characteristics how it bends, snaps back, and vibrates. Add a small weight (like a knick light) to the tip, and things change. This will be obvious to anybody, since the tip is understandably the most sensitive part. But in a similar way, things also change if you vary anything else in the system, even if it doesn't have a noticeable impact on the balance of the rod. Longer cork handle. Position, size or number of the rings. Length of the ring feet. Length of the windings used to fix these feet. Etc. etc. Not even to speak about the reel you choose to use. (I once was engaged in the production of high end custom made fishing rods a few decades earlier...)

The problem in showing these effects in a complex system like a bowed instrument isn't because of the lack of their presence, but because there still was a system to invent to measure them. Too much depends on the player, and the automated / "objective" systems (hammers, rotating devices of all kinds, or electroacoustic devices sending a sinus wave of varying frequency through the bridge or any other part of the instrument) I've seen yet aren't really helpful in producing what we may consider "a good tone" we'd like to measure.

As I recently wrote here
there are instruments which are more sensible to nuanced setup changes than others. I guess that there is a certain spectrum of proportions where an instrument works "best" (or, meets best with the average customer's taste). If it's built somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, you will not achieve a lot by changing pegs, tailpiece, chin rest or even a modification of the fingerboard. But if an instruments construction tends more to one or another "extreme" (not necessarily an instrument of worse quality), these setup things can do the trick.

Look at some artist's Strads - ebony pegs, boxwood tailpiece, rosewood chin rest... Looks like they used what was left at the moment the instrument came in for it's annual service. But I cannot believe that folks like Perlman (or his luthier) would do something like that just to gather our communitys attention. For sure they know what they're doing.

July 17, 2019, 5:33 PM · But yes, we're not talking about fundamental changes, for sure. Somehow like with rosin - in most cases it's just that last little kick if everything else (humidity, strings, bow, player / playing technique) have been optimized...
July 17, 2019, 5:50 PM · If the scroll does not itself experience vibrations of a given frequency, then it will not mechanically couple to vibrations of the same frequency elsewhere in the instrument. Is that not correct?
July 18, 2019, 4:34 AM · In my classical guitar days (far, far off!) it didn't take me long to discover that if I grasped the peg box tightly, or - and this is particularly relevant to violinists - had a tight grip on the neck, then either would deaden the resonance of the instrument.
July 18, 2019, 6:41 AM · Chuck Traeger, a New York bass luthier left quite a bit of literature on his research into the vibrating system of string instruments, including some discussion of mass by the scrolls. For bassists, c-extensions do affect the sound, although extension users do not want to admit it. That’s one of the reasons that I tune CGda like an octave cello- resonance.
The whole reason, as I understand it, for the scroll has to do with resonance.
I noticed that the resonance and sound of my 1964 Ernst Heinrich Roth viola was GREATLY improved after Chuck Herrin replaced the original heavy brass Caspari pegs with lighter Pegheds custom made to fit the non-tapered peg holes. I’m convinced that the mass killed the sound. I am still working to open up the instrument’s sound- almost like playing in a new instrument.
Edited: July 18, 2019, 6:50 AM · By the way, the electronic ToneRite device does work and is significantly helping the sound of both of my back up instruments- the Roth viola and an abused and damaged Chinese Andreas Eastman 405 violin that I saved from Goodwill.
Edited: July 18, 2019, 7:32 AM · I have seen Howard Needham check the tap tones of scroll as well as all over the top and bottom plates. I think he wants all to be the same pitch, and for that to have a relationship with the sound of air being blown across the f-holes.

When I asked about neck resetting on an old instrument, he also said that he retunes the neck during surgery.

July 18, 2019, 7:34 AM · That would jibe with Carleen Hutchins’ work.
Edited: July 18, 2019, 8:55 AM · Voodoo.
There's nowhere left to go in improving the design of the actual body of the instrument, so people look to silliness like titanium endpins and rubber chinrest pads and tuning the scroll and pegs to try and explain why their violin "doesn't sound right".
None of the great historical makers bothered with any of it, and yet.

Maybe it's your playing?

July 18, 2019, 9:13 AM · A strong advocate for the null hypothesis!
July 18, 2019, 10:33 AM · Cotton, I'm not sure how you think it's controversial that adding mass to a vibrating system could change its dynamics.
July 18, 2019, 4:02 PM · I also was a member of the null-hypothesis faculty. Then came the day when my sound wasn't mediocre anymore, but really boring. I still was in severe doubt. Until I switched back two days after. And my sound reimproved at a sudden. And all while my playing on my main violin as well as on my viola stayed the same.
It's right, it's mainly in my playing that I do not sound like Perlman, Mutter, Heifetz or JJ. I'm just one lousy little fiddler, without a doubt. But still it was there, although I didn't expect it.

* Maybe it's your ears? *

July 18, 2019, 5:38 PM · With the scroll you can record it with, then chop it off and record it again. Compare, decide... :)
July 18, 2019, 7:49 PM · Gradually I am catching on, by reading other threads: don't mess around with any of this. . .the answer is always. . . . . . . different strings! :-P
July 18, 2019, 10:50 PM · Cotton wrote, "Maybe it's your playing?"

I don't recall anywhere in my original post complaining about my violin's tone. But if the contributions of the scroll to the overall tone of one's violin are as important as some say, and if the primary factor is the weight of the scroll, then why hasn't anyone ever made it adjustable? After all we can adjust nearly everything else -- positioning of the bridge and sound post, materials for tail piece and tail gut, string afterlength -- why, some folks even claim that the number of windings around the peg are important to their violin's overall tonal characteristics.

July 18, 2019, 11:46 PM · The number of windings around the pegs will be hard to adjust without cutting the string. What we will not do for obvious reasons.
Paul, I guess the reason why scrolls aren't adjustable is because a competent luthier will not need this because he knows his proportions and his instruments will work just the way they are. And a less competent one might be busy enough trying to do things the traditional way. Experimenting would need someone who would need it the least...
In a field where tradition counts that much and the whole world prefers instruments with old Italian labels inside (even if fake), it could be risky to buy an experimental violin if you'd ever like to resell it. One could try to modify a cheap ebay violin that doesn't sound well, but a failure of this experiment wouldn't necessarily support the null-hypothesis, but only show that a bad violin with a hole on the scroll still is just a bad violin... with a hole in the scroll...
For experimental purpose you can add mass to the scroll even now and to your good violin, reversibly and without damaging wood or varnish. But bear in mind what I said above. "Some instruments react more sensible to that than others."

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