Is it possible to 'artificially' improve the sound of a violin?

Edited: April 29, 2020, 8:43 AM · Hi. This is maybe a silly question. But I've read (and to some extent, experienced) that violins improve their sound as they're played. A new violin sounds different after some time playing it, and the sound gets more mature and open while keeping some particular characteristics of that violin. So out of curiosity, I ask:

(1) Can you do something of the sort artificially? For instance, by letting the violin rest out of its case in a room where other music is being played, or by playing music with headphones through its f-holes?

(2) If that's true, would putting a violin under different kind of frequencies make it develop different sound characteristics? (Would putting it under cello music make it darker than doing so with brilliant violin music?)

(3) And again, if #1 is true, would those 'changes' be permanent or would they be reversed some time after the sound stimuli cease?

Thank you!

Replies (36)

April 29, 2020, 8:52 AM ·

I tried one of these once. I did a before and after with some violins. It was hard to say but I think it took the edge off a newer violin slightly. A lot of that is perception, mood and placement of microphones! Hard to be scientific about it.

Edited: April 29, 2020, 11:14 AM · What constitutes "improvement" can be very subjective. I'd have to wonder what 10 listeners would say if they thought a violin had had some kind of "treatment." Say you assemble them, play the violin, tell them you're going to do something to the violin in a back room for 30 minutes, then bring it back out and play it.
And let's say you did nothing but had a cup of coffee and read the headlines. I'd be willing to bet half of them would say it sounds better.

Give a violin to 10 players, and half will say it's responsive and half will say it's hard to play. Half will call it bright, and half will call it dark. It will depend on what they're used to.

Even luthiers are not immune to their own expectation bias: I'd estimate that just about every time a luthier adjusted my soundpost, they said "now it sounds better" even when it sounded the same or worse to me.

It's not just hard to be scientific about violin's practically impossible.

Edited: April 29, 2020, 11:42 AM · Scott, I tend to agree with you, it is so subjective. Tell people you are playing a factory violin followed by a Guarneri or Strad, swap the violins unknown to the listener and a statistical majority of listeners will say what they think is the expensive violin sounds much better. Similarily give a Stad to anyone to play and they'll put their best effort playing it as is should sound great, ignoring that their better playing is the reason why it sounds better. This is why blind testing has become the norm, but even with that, the listener earing and sound perception changes constantly. You want your instrument to sound better? Play with a mute for 3hrs, then take it off, the instrument sounds more open than it did before the mute treatment. Obviously the mute's effect improved the sound on the instrument! The reality is that our earing and sound perception isn't constant, the brain is constantly adjusting, blocking out certain frequencies. Ask any parent which sounds they are blocking out!
April 29, 2020, 11:40 AM · Soundpost adjustment seems to me the best thing to try. Small adjustments can make the violin sound quite different. Let your luthier try some and see what you think.
April 29, 2020, 11:54 AM · I agree, we are talking about a very subjective measurement. For example, player bias of what they are playing makes a big deal. Here is an example of caring vs. not caring on the same instrument:

I find that after an initial break in period, it's probably the player getting to know the instrument that makes it sound better.

Edited: April 29, 2020, 12:28 PM · I have played brand new violins (right off the makers bench) some still in the white (unvarnished) and the same violins later and they had none of the problems many people associate with new violins. I have an early Tonerite and I cannot tell if it made a difference, but it didn't hurt anything.

I read somewhere that subjecting a violin to variable humidity can improve its tone (i.e., keep it in the bathroom while you take a hot shower). I actually tried this too. I don't know if it helped, but it didn't hurt.

Try bridges of different mass. Heavier will suppress higher frequencies, lighter will pass them to the violin body and everyone's ears.

Moving the soundpost further from the bridge and/or in the direction away from the edge will decrease high frequencies and emphasize the low.

Different strings can make a big difference. So can different rosin. So can a different bow.

If everything fails, get your ears examined and learn what you do hear in different frequency ranges. With this hearing test ( ) and an over-the-ears headset you can do it yourself.

Get a hearing aid. The prices are coming down.

I have done all of these things. But the story is too long and involved to tell - and not worth a book.

April 29, 2020, 12:45 PM · No. The answer is no.
Edited: April 29, 2020, 1:04 PM · I have to go back 50 years to the beginning of this story:
The cellist in my string quartet (back then) told me he knew I was playing in the community orchestra as he entered the large building the auditorium was in - my violin penetrated so much. And then he went on to say that I needed a different violin for our string quartet. At our next concert he brought a couple of "ringers" and I got to play on the violin of one of them by a maker who lived near our cellist's former home in Redlands, CA (that he still owned). I liked it so he asked the maker to make one for me, but within a few weeks he had one ready that had been returned and the cellist had brought it to our quartet rehearsal. I bought it on his say so. (I eventually learned why it had been returned.)

So I had my more mellow violin.

A very few years later I heard that violin on a video local TV had made of our performance of Schubert's Trout Quintet and I did not like it - just too weak. By this time I had established a relationship with the maker of violin#2, who had appraised all my instruments and bows. I visited him and asked him about changing the tone of violin#1 so it would not be so bright. He said he could regraduate it so I left it with him. I saw him again about 6 months later and he had not done any work on it and told me to just keep playing it and in another couple of hundred years it would be just right (something about the vibrations eating away the wood between the nodes). But, before I took it home he handed me a François-Louis Pique violin he was trying to sell for $5,000 (recent auction prices have gone almost as high as $90,000) and it was just a bright as mine (not the one he had made). So I took mine back home, unchanged. (He said Heifetz's assistant at the time, Claire Hodgkins, had expressed interest in it.)

About 10 years later a friend of mine had taken up violin making as a hobby and about 7 years later I bought one of his violins. I asked him about regraduating my violin#1 and he did. It did take some of the penetrating sound from it. After checking all my instruments about 20 years ago and installing new bridges and soundposts on most, Jay Ifshin said violin#1 was my best violin.

I don't know (it is certainly my prettiest) but that's the story and possibly the hardest way to change a violin's sound.

April 29, 2020, 2:45 PM · I came across the Alto Violin or Vertical Viola, which is a string instrument with the range of viola but played vertically instead of horizontally. I don't know if it's an improvement though in terms of sound. But you don't have to worry about whether to use a shoulder rest or not.
April 29, 2020, 8:59 PM · Tone may be subjective, but changes shouldn't be. When I'm adjusting, I usually discuss what needs to be changed, or suggest it myself, explain exactly what I'm going to do and what I expect to happen, then do it. At that point we usually agree about what happened, but not necessarily if it's better or not. That's the subjective part.

It's my experience that violins definitely change with playing, sometimes dramatically, sometimes not so much, and it doesn't stick if an instrument isn't exercised. There are a number of artificial "activators", and I have tried several, but haven't been impressed. Not only does the instrument have to move a lot--more than most of the devices I've seen cause, but it has to be consistent input in the desired direction--just randomly shaking the violin doesn't do it the same.

If the OP is looking for his violin to sound better, the quickest path is a great setup and adjustment, and a good set of strings.

Edited: April 30, 2020, 8:54 AM · As an attempt to objectively prove the existence of "play-in", I made a fairly sensitive test rig and used a voice-coil driver to drive a violin at the bridge with a variety of strong vibrations, including violin music... FAR stronger than the Tonerite produces. I had to enclose it in a soundproof box to avoid neighbor complaints.

Although I was able to detect daily changes due to temperature swings between night and day, I did NOT detect any changes due to any vibrations. So for me, the answer to the original question is NO. Play-in remains in the subjective camp, and thus far has resisted any objective means to detect it... so you can decide for yourself what that means.

April 30, 2020, 12:51 PM · I have done experiments similar to Don's, and have been unable to conclude that changes due to vibration or playing rose above the placebo level.

I don't think there's any question that violins change, but I continue to question whether playing or vibration are involved in these changes.

Here's one "playing in" study:

April 30, 2020, 6:39 PM · In response to David's suggestion, I put a putty mass on the scroll and did not detect any change. What did make a difference was placing two magnets sandwiched around the plate and moved it around while playing. Placed near the bass bar (outside of it) by the bridge foot caused a tremendous boost to the bass frequencies. I'm not saying it was better, it was just different.

I'm trying to tame a pretty "piercing" and loud violin. It's almost painful to play under the ear. I'm shopping for instruments as well but I do love something about this violin, I just wish it was a little more "chill".

May 1, 2020, 5:26 AM · Thank you for all the answers. I see that the consensus is that most of it is subjective, and that experiments of the sort are not concluding.

Andrew Victor: Thank you for your suggestions and for taking the time and sharing your story. I enjoyed reading through it. And I agree that there are easier (and faster) methods for changing the sound of a violin.

May 3, 2020, 7:30 PM · IMHO a bad violin is a bad violin.. In my experience, A tone-rite can help loosen or warm up the instrument, but it will still basically be the same instrument, only temporarily warmed up. Electronically, there are resonance simulators like those used by acoustic guitarists for live work. One company now offers one for violin. Guitarists also now have an attachable reverb device as well for a flat backed instrument.
A good instrument can sound worse with a bad set-up, but a good set up can barely improve a bad instrument. It can be made more physically playable, but not more than marginally better sonically.
May 3, 2020, 9:09 PM · Change the strings. I use the new multi core sinthetic strings they are softer and don't need as much tention to tune. I also use a baroque bow which has made huge difference.
May 3, 2020, 9:09 PM · Change the strings. I use the new multi core sinthetic strings they are softer and don't need as much tention to tune. I also use a baroque bow which has made huge difference.
May 4, 2020, 6:15 AM · I agree with Edward, a dog's a dog.

Edited: May 4, 2020, 8:35 AM · As someone who is making nearly his entire living these days buying dogs at auction and making them into functional, tonally desirable instruments, I disagree about the power of a good setup. But the reason those violins end up in auctions is the shortage of people who can do anything beyond a mediocre setup.

And a complete, necessary, job may well cost beyond what a player is willing to risk without knowing whether the results will be something they themselves like. That's the advantage of being a dealer who can fix the instruments and then look for a home for them. But the improvements are real.

May 4, 2020, 8:16 AM · I agree with Michael. A good setup can do a lot.
Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that just any old setup can do a lot.
May 4, 2020, 8:40 AM · Considering the number of crappy violins out there, someone who can turn a crappy violin into a decent one ought to be able to make a living and I would be delighted if that's actually true.
Edited: May 4, 2020, 3:43 PM · Michael, your statement actually agrees with mine, ’a Good instrument can become a dog with a bad setup.’ But I still stand by my first statement, I don’t think that a VSO will ever be anything more than a polished @#$* with even the best setup.
BTW, I don’t think that a setup is an artificial method of improving the sound of an instrument. It is a necessary part of maintenance for any player that cares and can afford it.
May 4, 2020, 7:06 PM · I remember taking one of my violins to Dalton Potter. I told him it had a muted tone. He held it in his hands and looked it over for about 30 seconds. Then he looked up and said that correcting the problem was completely hopeless as the violin was grossly overweight. "It's built like a tank" he said. I found a luthier in Richmond who was willing to try regrading the top for a ridiculously low fee (like $200) so I figured I would let him try. It helped but only a little.
May 4, 2020, 7:26 PM · Paul- Eggs-quackly what I was talking about. My back up 1964 Ernst Heinrich Roth viola is a student grade viola. I have upgraded it to the point that it sounds better than many other better built student instruments, but it is still a heavy over built German Panzer tank of a viola with a fat neck that is nowhere in the class of my beautifully playing sweet sounding, svelt 1926 EHR.
Edited: May 5, 2020, 4:23 AM · I’ve got a decent Chinese violin. It sounded good.

Its sound improved a LOT over the years. It can be the break in, or my change in set up. I have replaced all of its original boxwood (looks like it) fittings to ebony, and remove all The fine tuners including the E after I installed Wittner fine Tuning pegs. Now it’s really good : very responsive, powerful, very rich in overtone. Sounds like some 20,000 dollars Italian (I’m serious!) I had a chance to show the violin to its staff, by comparison and they all agree that their stocks are nothing like this. I think that Chinese workshop don’t make good violin anymore.

The limiting factor has always been my skill.

May 5, 2020, 5:44 PM · Right. Parts can improve a violin when well matched to the instrument’s natural resonance as reported by bass luthier Chuck Traeger and it is normal for an instrument to break in. Again both are normal and not artificial ways to improve the sound of an instrument.
May 5, 2020, 7:00 PM · We just have to keep in mind that the player gets broken in along with the instrument. That is, you learn its strengths and weaknesses and you gradually compensate.
May 6, 2020, 6:19 AM · On a note about shoulder rests, I recently switched from the Wolf Secondo to the Kun Voce. It was a little pricey and I thought about it for a while, but I found it to have a very pleasant resonance, or 'ring'. I wondered if a chunky shoulder rest with too thick a padding combined with the metal support, with the big rubber legs was overall, dulling the sound. Following from that, I also started to wonder whether the amount of area of chinrest cork, and also the weight of the chinrest and shoulder rest combined might have an effect. Any thoughts on setup weight/material vs sound quality?
May 6, 2020, 9:39 AM · I've been offline for a little while. I see you've kept giving good answers. Of course, the player is the main factor that makes a violin sound good.

Horace: I own a Yamaha V5 violin made in China. I've thought of getting rid of two or three fine tuners. It's slightly harsh. But maybe I'll try to change its fittings to see how does the sound change. I'm curious now.

Thank you everyone.

Edited: May 6, 2020, 11:40 AM · About a decade ago I bought a "Resonation Chinrest" and found that it improved the sound of the violin I put it on ( ) so I also put them on my three other violins - and it did the same for all of them. The 20-year-long-time violinist in my piano trio (where I payed cello) also installed a Resonation Chinrest on his Enrico Rocca violin with similarly favorable results. (My chinrests are all left-mounted, his was a center-mounted "Guarneri.")

Sometime last year I began missing the original Stuber chinrests I had used previously for 40 years so (considering the design of the Resonation Chinrests) I tried replacing the cork on my old (original) chinrests with 2mm thick rubber "tape" (with adhesive on the chinrest side) and got the same improvement. I had reasoned that replacing the cork with rubber provided more isolation of the chinrest mass from the violin corpus allowing it to vibrate more freely. It was just as effective as switching to the "Resonation" had been.

Also (for those who don't know) using 4 (add-on) fine tuners on the tailpiece is a sure tone changer (usually negative). However, tailpieces with built-in fine tuners can help produce the same tone as bare wooden tailpieces (other factors - such as total mass - being the same). I replaced all my bare tailpieces with Bois d'Harmonie tailpieces 15 years ago with no negative sonic effects - but I would have just switched to internally geared pegs at the time if I had known they existed (if they did).

These are two things one can do to change change the sound of a violin.

One other thing is to try a differently-mounted chinrest. If you have a center-mounted chinrest, try testing a left-mounted one - and vice versa. I certainly noticed differences when I was testing for them about 35 years ago.

As far as what your instrument "really" sounds like - you never really know. If you only hear it under your chin you only know how it sounds under your chin when you play it. If someone else plays it for you you know what it sounds like not under you chin when that person plays it. If you can learn to play it in "cello position" you can learn a little more about its sound, especially if you are testing modifications you are making.

For me, I have almost always been most concerned about what my instruments sound like to me and I want to be able to hear myself when playing in an orchestra - no matter how loud the noise around me. But when I had to play a solo I really did care about what other people heard and I doubt that you ever really can know without very expensive audio equipment.

May 7, 2020, 12:31 AM · Thank's Andrew, that's great advice. I never thought about recording myself using different combo's of shoulder rests/chin rests. I have a decent mike in my PC so that could be an interesting experiment. Could use different bows too :) Thank you for the link - some great information about different woods for chinrests which is invaluable information.
May 7, 2020, 2:17 AM · Hi Miguel!
I think the greatest change really came from removing all the A, E fine tuners, and a tailpiece made of better sound wood (ebony, in my case). I thought it's like the lighter (in weight) the better, but in my case, no.
Edited: May 14, 2020, 7:20 AM · My backup Ernst Heinrich Roth viola REALLY improved when I had Chuck Herin at PegHeds custom make replacement geared pegs for my Caspari pegs. Losing the tailpiece with the built in fine tuners and the brass/rosewood Caspari pegs opened up the student level Roth. The resonance is close to my 1926 EH Roth and its sound is pretty close. There is no way to make it play as well as the lighter and more svelte 1926 EHR,- a heavy log is still a heavy log.
Again, a normal setup change - not artificial.
Edited: May 13, 2020, 6:53 PM · Also, the two shoulder rests that are the closest in resonance to playing without imho are Peter Mach’s molded plastic shoulder rest and Wittner’s Isny. The problem with the cantilevered Isny for me is the bulky metal chinrest clamp that digs into my collarbone. It is also a little heavy. I have not tried the really pricey ones made of carbon or cork.
May 15, 2020, 4:56 AM · Thank you Andrew, Horace, and Edward. I'll progressively change some things on my violin setup and see. I'll start by getting rid of two or three finetuners and changing my synthetic wittner chinrest by a wooden one. That should have an impact on its sound and would also give me the option of trying gut strings on it, which is something I want to do someday. I find my cheap violin slightly harsh and 'not refined', but it has sentimental value and I want it to sound good. Unfortunately, I have no near luthiers to check it out, and their work would be expensive considering the overall price of the violin (around €400).

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