Why aren't violins ''thicker'' (top to bottom plate) ?

March 27, 2021, 7:45 AM · A silly question perhaps but I am going to ask it anyway. Since many of us use a should rest or some such aid in order to hold the violin, why aren't violins made with wider ribs ? Wouldn't this increase the volume ? What would it do to the tone ?

Replies (16)

March 27, 2021, 7:48 AM · Here is a silly answer: Because some of us would have a neck too short to hold one of these super violins.
March 27, 2021, 8:00 AM · I am only talking about increasing the width of the ribs by about 10mm. You would not need a longer neck !
Edited: March 27, 2021, 8:08 AM · And some of us have less prominent clavicles than others, so we'd still have to use a shoulder rest.
March 27, 2021, 8:18 AM · I think the answer is in 'resonant frequency'. But having spat in the pot I'm going to run until a luthier answers!
Edited: March 27, 2021, 8:39 AM · Not a silly question at all! There's actually considerable math and science behind the dimensions of violins (and pretty much every other instrument), luthierie is just as much a science as it is an art.

Helmholtz resonance is the vibration of air within the body and near the f-holes (think blowing air over an open bottle), this is essential to the tone production of the violin. By changing the dimensions of the violin, the volume of air inside the body also changes.

The volume of air inside the the body of a violin is precisely calculated to produce the correct Helmholtz resonance frequencies, typically the open string D. This is reason why your violin will resonate beautifully when you tune the D string and hit the correct pitch, I for one prefer to tune by the D string instead of A precisely because of this phenomenon.

To see how the wrong dimensions can affect the tone of the violin, try stringing up a 14" viola (same length as a full-sized violin, but with thicker plates and taller ribs) with violin strings. The strings themselves will continue to sound at the right pitches of course, but the instrument won't be able to amplify this effect properly and will sound considerably more dull than a proper violin. This is also the reason why a violin with viola strings wouldn't sound the same as a proper 14" viola, the correct Helmholtz frequencies matter.

No doubt an actual luthier will be able to provide more technical answers, this is simply what I learned from buggering my luthier with not-so-silly questions.

March 27, 2021, 9:17 AM · You see violists using shoulder rests, too, so that's not the issue.
March 27, 2021, 12:08 PM · The shoulder rest I use on my 15" viola is set shorter than my violin shoulder rest.

I think violinists that are comfortable playing without a shoulder rest would have a difficult time with larger ribs. It's a lit easier to adjust with a shoulder rest than chip away at a violin.

March 27, 2021, 12:26 PM · Hermann von Helmholtz was born many decades after the greatest 18th century violin makers did their work. They knew nothing about the math but they knew what worked.

For many of us an extra 10mm = 1cm thickness is A LOT! I need a low chinrest on my violin and an even lower one on my #1 viola (which is already thin by viola standards). My #2 viola is normal 16"-viola thickness and that is probably one of the reasons it is my #2 (and its chinrest is even thinner).

It's the "drop" from the height of the player's collar bone to their shoulder muscle (under the back of the instrument itself) that shoulder rests contact - and that distance would still be the same even if violins were as thick as violas.

And everything else said above about the air resonance of the volume creating the characteristic-instrument sound is right.

Edited: March 27, 2021, 9:17 PM · 1 cm is a lot. If a violin were 1 cm thicker, I would not be able to fit it between my jaw and collarbone at all, unless I go with no chinrest. It would be as thick as the largest violas in existence.

(I play a 15-3/4" viola with a custom-made, ultra-low chinrest.)

March 27, 2021, 12:36 PM · There are violins with taller ribs. They’re called 14” violas. Increasing the height of the ribs makes a violin change its character and enhances lower frequencies than the range of a typical violin. Just as longer violins tend to be more viola-like, violins with extra-tall ribs have that deeper resonance that comes with an increased air volume in the body.
Edited: March 28, 2021, 10:31 AM · The lowest strong resonances come from the contained air volume, via the f-holes, (C# to D on the G-string); and from the top plate, especially the zone near the chinrest (A to B on the A-string).

The pitch of the air resonance depends on the internal volume (bigger=lower) and the size of the f-holes (bigger = higher, with more power). We can find it by blowing across an f- hole, although the plate vibration due to the air resonance has an influence also.

The pitch of the main wood resonance depends on the length of the body, and to a lesser extent on plate thickness and vaulting (thinner=lower, but lighter= higher; thinner ususally wins) . It is also the pitch of the main "wolf" note, when played high up on the G-string.

We usually find these two resonances near the middle 2 open strings. High ribs will separate them too much, unless the f-holes are enlarged accordingly; but this may make the air resonance too strong for a well balanced instrument.

My own "main" violin (Nicolas Morlot ca.1820) is a little longer, wider, and deeper than usual, and sounds like a 14" viola.
Which suits me very well!

March 27, 2021, 6:48 PM · Helmholtz resonance frequencies : thank you very much for the explanations :)
March 28, 2021, 5:29 PM · I have an inherited 18th c violin that is slightly oversize at 14.25", with the . Its length is 14.25", the bouts and ribs being larger in proportion. It is a light instrument at 385gm, in comparison with a 450gm standard 14" Jay Haide that I used to play. The larger dimensions of my old violin show up in its excellent response and resonance from the lower strings. The downside, for me, is that the overall larger size makes anything beyond the 2nd octave tricky for my hand, so say the least, but ifortunately virtually none of my orchestral playing needs to go into the 3rd octave. On one occasion, when there were 5 or 6 measures to be played in that stratospheric region, the section leader took the excellent pragmatic decision that we play it an octave lower.

I don't use a shoulder rest. I have come to realise that, because of its deeper ribs, it is a comfortable violin to play without a chin rest, and the tone is better. Hours of Covid-19 lockdowns have been put to good use in learning reliable CR-less technique, that I am now happy with.

March 28, 2021, 10:46 PM · Somehow this conversation about thicker violin ribs reminded me of the collars worn by fabled hockey announcer Don Cherry.
March 29, 2021, 5:19 AM · I would call 450gm for a violin overly heavy, and question the quality of the construction
Edited: March 29, 2021, 9:25 PM · The simple answer is cause Strad did it that way.

Historically violins were not always held under the chin. For a long time they held them any which way and any which where they could be. Most often it was rested on the forearm, hence why the predecessor to the violin was the viola da braccio: "arm viol".

I guess the short ribs stuck. What would you want a bigger, heavier violin for anyways? The compact size is one of its best features, along with the bragging rights.

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