Violin Tone - What do you think about these?

Edited: August 22, 2021, 11:04 AM · Hi all, I came across this site since the beginning of the year, and would like to say that this forum has been a great help to me!

Ever since my 12yrs old boy “upgraded” from a 3/4 violin to full size violin this year, I have been trying to find a suitable instrument (or 2) for him. The problem that I have is trying to relate to the jargons around violin tone. I have heard terms like nasal, thin, bright, dark, focused, complex, 1-dimensional, powerful, dynamic range, deep/shallow, etc; but how to tell, for example, a violin is having complexity? Or how bright is consider bright enough without being shrill? How dark is dark without being called nasal or muddy?

I have tried searching the Internet for samples but they are usually of one tone or the other; and I cannot tell the acoustics and recording properties behind those samples.

I have four violins in which I am trying to setup a different sound for him so that he has the right horse for course, so to speak. Since I don’t have a reference point, they may very well all be considered to be bright and simple!!!! I would like to seek the folks here for your opinion, on what you would consider the tone quality of each violin.

These were recorded about 8 feet from the player using an iPhone. Pardon the terrible/inconsistency in playing, the boy has not touch Bruch for a while, but I found a passage in the 3rd movement that contains enough elements to compare.

Violin 1:

Violin 2:

Violin 3:

Violin 4:

Replies (38)

August 22, 2021, 11:26 AM · Regit, it sounds like you are doing some serious homework. Good for you!

My impressions of the four violin sound samples is that they are all toward the dark side of the spectrum. This can be more forgiving, than playing on a brighter violin.

Edited: August 22, 2021, 4:46 PM · I suppose much depends on what equipment one is listening with. I used Bluetooth transmitting to my SONY headset that cost a couple of hundred dollars on sale about 5 (or so) years ago.

I played therecorded samples in order from 1 to 4. 3 was the first that peaked my interest. After that I couldn't really judge number 4. I went back to number 1 and realized it was going to be hopeless. My ears are not good in the high overtone range any more, but I would need to hear something with more vibrato to judge how the instruments really sound.

And repro is nothing like live in the same room.

Which violin does you son like best and why? I was 16 when my Dad took me to THE violin maker to try instruments to select my next violin. I played 6 that I recall and made a selection that I have never regretted. After choosing, the maker took his Amati out of his safe and I played that. I still preferred my choice! Actually still do!

Actually, violin sound is three dimensional and that is hard to record, like photographing diamond sparkles.

Edited: August 22, 2021, 5:29 PM · Yes, the recording and playback chain of equipment can make a big difference. Even the position of the microphone(s) in the room can make a huge difference.

Beyond that, it's pretty easy nowadays to process a recording of a violin to make it sound any way you want.

For these reasons, I am reluctant to place much importance on the recorded sound of violins, particularly if the recordings are furnished by the seller.

August 22, 2021, 1:08 PM · As a student you don't want a violin that lays to your weaknesses, you want one that will expose and illuminate them. If you tend to play too sweetly, for example (as I do), then you don't want a sweet-sounding violin.
Edited: August 22, 2021, 1:11 PM · Let the kid pick the violin he most wants to play. What you think doesn't really matter. Pick one he doesn't like and you won't have to be paying for lessons anymore, if that's what you want. It doesn't matter if he does it based on varnish color if that's what it takes for him to enjoy playing and want to play more.
August 22, 2021, 1:20 PM · I agree with Michael. The player has to be comfortable with the sound first. What everyone else thinks is secondary.

August 22, 2021, 1:24 PM · I second Michael’s advice- whatever the reason, nothing is worth more than being inspired to practice a lot. If it isn’t the objectively best instrument, so be it. Nobody knows how he will develop, anyway. Maybe he will need a totally different violin, in a few years, anyway.

Keeping that in mind, however, I would possibly rule one out if it is full of cracks or other technical issues that might make it unsellable, later.

August 22, 2021, 1:34 PM · Well, I'll try, but with all the reserves expressed above..
No1 boxy & dull;
No2 thinner & a touch nasal
No3 a little nasal but clearer
No4 the most "complex" - my preference
August 22, 2021, 3:49 PM · @Michael Darnton. I agree 100%
August 22, 2021, 4:21 PM · Where’s the teacher?
In the past our searches have consisted of going to a couple good shops, playing everything in the range we were looking, borrowing 3-4 from each shop and taking them home.
Then having at least a couple teachers and other musicians listen in a couple different spaces, one a hall, to our kid playing, with no conversation about price or brand. Then rank them, on paper.
If you are adding bows, same process.
Also I think there is a surplus of dark sounding 100 year old German violins around. Might sound seductive under your ear but aren’t going to be the kind of instruments that Mr. Darnton or Mr. Burgess are making that can project in a hall, and have the brightness when you need it.
It’s fun as a dad being involved in this, but you need trained ears and experience to choose best. Just my opinion, though.
Edited: August 22, 2021, 8:25 PM · I have been playing the violin for decades and I confess that I have no idea what "dark" means when applied to sound. Let alone the even more metaphoric adjectives listed in the OP's post.

However what I can add is this: The tone of a violin changes with different styles of playing and good players use a different tone in different musical contexts. Good violins will make this easier to do.

August 22, 2021, 9:24 PM · To me "dark" simply means not "bright", and to some it also means with a lot of overtones, whereas "bright" might be associated with "pure" and "focused" sound. Much to do with personal preferences though, and an instrument may sound "bright" under the ears, but more complex to the distant listener, so there is nothing easy about the sound characteristics of an intrument. For me as a non-performer (solo that is), my preference was for the sound under my ears for the pleasure of listening to myself; I don't really care what it sounds like to others. If I were an aspiring student I might have different priorities. To complicate everything the choice of strings and setup of a particular instrument greatly affects how it sounds so what you hear when trialling may be very different depending on that (not to mention the bow that may be a better match to certain instruments), especially when comparing subtle differences. Therefore you need to look at other factors such as string balance (variable with quality of the setup), response especially up the finger board, wholf notes (very rare that there isn't a weak/wholf note here and there, find them) and how the instrument feels overall. Also an "easy to play" instrument isn't necessarily better and may be limiting when getting to more advanced levels, hence the importance of bringing in an experienced player able to push the limits of the instrument into the selection process.
August 22, 2021, 10:46 PM · Thank you all for the replies!

I do agree that violin selection is highly personal (tone aside, but for playability as well). My challenge is getting the boy to choose, it has always been having the "anything is fine" mentality. If he has his way, he will choose his iPad and favourite (non-musical) Youtuber to inspire him.

In where I reside, home-trial violins are unheard of, and getting the teacher to tag along for violin-shopping is also relatively rare.

Admittedly, this is all quite fun for me, changing strings, finding the right tailpiece down to the mm for the correct afterlength and gut-length. And I recognize the risk when this old quack tries to get "involved", and will try to butt out where it counts.

Beyond all these, I still believe that there may be some universal properties that signify a great tone. We will mostly agree that a Darnton or a Burgess will sound great. But how would one go to describe their sound? Most likely with the jargons that I mentioned in the original post.

What I am trying to learn here is to recognize at least some of the basic "element" of a tone, i.e. learning to hear what I am hearing out for; and from this, hopefully learn how to “tweak” the one/two element (for better or reversible worse) so that the boy has something nicer to play with.

Edited: August 23, 2021, 12:20 AM · @Adrian Heath, thank you for your input. I now and then do refer to your descriptions between richness and complexity (the latter seems to gravitate towards the concept of wabi-sabi).

When you mentioned "nasal", am I correct to say that you are saying lacking in clarity? Also, are you referring to the upper or lower register (or on the whole)?

August 22, 2021, 11:52 PM · I think I like #4 the best. Not that what I think matters, it doesn't. Which one do YOU like? That's the one!
Edited: August 23, 2021, 1:38 AM · @Albrecht - for me the difference between "dark" and "bright" is most obvious when comparing violas. The present tendency seems to be to go for bright-sounding instruments, which may be appropriate in concertos but I always find disappointing in chamber music. My go-to metaphor would be "chocolatey" with "lemony" at the opposite end of this particular spectrum.

My "darkest" violin is the one you might mistake for a viola. The other 4 or 5 all sound different to me under the chin but remarkably similar in playback!

August 23, 2021, 2:18 AM · My €0.02's worth of vocabulary.

"Nasal" covers many sins, often either side of 1 kHz, with a whining, insistent sound.
"Boxy" is deeper than "nasal" but no less tiring.
"Thin" suggests neither depth in low notes nor brilliance overall.
"Harsh" may be a dominance around 3 kHz, but which is also the "singer's formant" allowing "projection" at a distance.
"Brilliant" is nearer 5 or 6 kHz, added to other qualities.
"Dull" is a lack of brilliance and projection.
"Warm" has a strong lower spectrum, without excluding brilliance.

"Rich" and "complex" suggest those sonic impurities which distinguish a wooden violin from an electric one, gut from steel strings, and which electric guitars must find in those little black boxes (distortion phasing etc). Wood vs formica.

August 23, 2021, 8:24 AM · there really is no way to describe one's experience of sound in words that's accurate in an objective sense. My son and I used to joke around when I was building a tube stereo that "liquid" and "glassy" meant some part just substituted sounded 'better.' We picked those words cause they popped up in reviews a lot. It's fun to describe sound, and sometimes we say something that somebody else understands in the same way, but the words still don't re-create the experience of hearing the sound.

Violins are fascinating because their sound can be complex and beautiful, and the tone depends on so many factors. The instrument, who's playing it, strings, etc, and all the playing variables, like bowing, sound point, etc. Plus, the more one's 'ear' is developed, the more they hear.

'Nasal' can mean whiny and thin, or it can mean a beautiful, dreamy French tone poem. Context can fill in a lot.

I'm struck by op's saying the boy would rather play video games, and this process is fun for op...

August 23, 2021, 8:28 AM · Different violins have varying abilities to amplify tones in the 195Hz to about 4500Hz range. The various descriptions of tones you mentioned refer to a violin's over emphasis, or lack of response, in different areas of this frequency range.

Of the four samples, #3 sounds to me like the one that has the most balanced response over the range of notes that were played. Another way of putting this, is that none of the notes sounded like there was an over emphasis or lack of response across the overtones that the note would generate.

August 23, 2021, 9:15 AM · IMHO 'bright' means emphasis on higher overtones, whereas 'warm' means emphasis on lower overtones. Any agreement? Language means nothing without agreement on definition of terms...
August 23, 2021, 9:31 AM · @Tom Bop "I'm struck by op's saying the boy would rather play video games, and this process is fun for op..."

I did not say the boys would rather play video games, I said iPad and Youtuber. Music is not everything for him (and I support having variety at his age); he aspires to fly commercial airliners and likes to watch video about planes. I figured aeronautical science will be a even bigger challenge for me :)

August 23, 2021, 9:44 AM · @Adrian Heath, @Carmen Tanzio, thanks for the pointers with reference to sound frequency. My phone has a spectrograph, so it would be a good starting point to see where the emphasis are when bowing a note.
August 23, 2021, 9:49 AM · Regit, if he wants to be a pilot, playing video games would probably be better for him than passively watching stuff. Modern cockpits already a lot like video games! Get him the MS flight simulator and a nice computer to use it on! At any rate, just saying it sounds like parent living through child, and maybe you should be the one struggling with the fiddle!
Edited: August 23, 2021, 10:18 AM · @Erin Sabrini
Do you mean "bright" and "dark"?

If I can "see" sound, my take is like looking at a yellow-dominant or blue-dominant picture (warm vs cool) on my monitor; and adjusting the brightness of the monitor (bright vs dark) to give the most pleasing image.

Maybe "warm" and "cool" for the emphasis of the fundamentals and "bright" and "dark" for the emphasis of the overtones?

August 24, 2021, 4:36 AM · I'd pick #4 because he sounded the most comfortable on it. Nice playing!
August 24, 2021, 8:33 AM · It sounds like you enjoy tinkering with technology.

Rather than a spectrograph program, which tends to display way too much information for what is mostly qualitative observations, consider an app that plots a response spectrum, sometimes call fast Fourier transform (fft) analysis. A freeware version for android phones is called Spectroid. I would be surprised if there is not a freeware version of an FFT program for iPhone.

Basically it plots sound level in decibels (dB) on the vertical axis, and frequency in hertz (hz) on the x axis. The x axis is usually a logarithmic plot and gives a better visual representation of what is happening, IMO.

These apps usually display two plots at the same time. The smaller plot is a dynamic plot which rapidly varies in time. This is the frequency response of the current sound it is picking up.

The higher plot is the max hold plot. It captures the peak sound intensity across the frequency spectrum. As long as you do not make any sudden, loud movements, it will eventually reach a steady state that captures the peak response of the violin.

Set your phone on a stand about 5 feet from the violin and about head high so most of the sound it captures is from the top plate. Reset the Max Hold plot, usually by a prominent button on the app overlaid on the displayed graph.

Using a consistent bow speed and pressure, play a string glissando style by smoothly moving your finger up and down the string. The rate at which you move your finger is irrelevant. Move it along the string, up to the end of the fingerboard, until you notice the peak response plot has reached a steady state.

Move on to a second string. You do not have to reset the plot. It will add the response of the second string onto the one detected for the first string.

Continue until you have played all four strings, then turn off the sound capture. What you have is a response spectrum for the violin.

Violins typically have 3 major response bands: Basic (200hz to 1000hz), Transition (1000hz to 2000hz), and Bridge Hill (2000hz to 4000hz).

In the Basic band, you will notice at least four prominent peaks. The first and fourth peaks tend to be a little weaker than the two middle ones. All four will usually have the largest peaks in the entire spectrum. People tend to associate this band with "core" and "dark" tone.

In the Transition band, one might typically observe about 5 prominent peaks. These are usually the weakest of the three bands and tend to outline a sloping hill. This band can be very prominent in inexpensive violins. People tend to associate "nasal" with this band, but not always in a bad way. Also "complexity" when it is balanced relative to the Basic band.

In the Bridge Hill band, you might see many peaks that seem to outline a hill or even a plateau. In a "good" violin, the height of this hill tends to be higher than the Transition band, but lower than the Basic band. People tend to associate this band with "brilliance" and "projection".

Beyond 4000hz, response drops off very rapidly. In several "great" violins, there might be a few of peaks around 4000hz that approach the intensity of the Basic Band peaks. I have not seen any studies that explain the cause of this "Upper Hill" band, but do not expect to see it in any violins you might encounter.

Finally, what you are actually doing is comparing the relative strengths of each of these bands for a single violin. Comparing bands across violins, like basic Band of violin 1 with Basic Band of violin2, is not very useful for a variety of technical reasons.

Have fun!

August 24, 2021, 12:04 PM · Plenty of advice already has been given, so I'll just give my preferences about the recordings.

Like almost everyone else who gave an opinion, I liked #4 the best. #1 worst, and 2 and 3 about equal in the middle. I listened first, before reading any other posts.

Edited: August 25, 2021, 3:05 AM · Carmen, from multiple "googling" I think the higher "hill" is called the Bridge Hill, corresponding to the natural resonance of the bridge itself, or at least its filtering properties.

I didn't know Spectroid, but I have compared my instruments to those of soloists' cadenzas by recording a 4 octave chromatic scale and running a Long Term Average Spectrum in Audacity. (No doubt I should have played a 4 octave glissando..) The audible differences show very well (allowing for the soloists' various reverberations and mic placements). I can also "see" the results of my amateur "tinkering": mutes, bridges, a well fitted tilted soundpost...)

Don Noon has a corresponding protocol using the impulse response obtained by tapping the side if the bridge. I suppose this accentuates the reactivity of the violin rather than its output volume.

August 25, 2021, 2:42 AM · I guess just listening to the violin has become old fashioned!!
August 25, 2021, 2:48 AM · One reason I gave up trying to compare my violins' tone by recording their frequency spectra while playing was that it varies so much according to exactly where you place the bow. Of course when you think of the range of tonal variation you can get between ponticello and sul tasto that's hardly surprising. In my idle moments I'm thinking how a device to keep the bow exactly a given distance from the bridge might work. I'm sure many others have been here before me.
Edited: August 25, 2021, 3:06 AM · Lyndon, I'm just seeing if science can catch up with my ears!
Steve, that's the advantage of the LTAS of a wide range of notes.
August 25, 2021, 7:02 AM · This, to me, is an example of a "dark" tone:

How long has your son/ boy played?

I started to learn the violin at my early 20s and even though it took me very long to play "good", when I bought my first "upgrade" (from a very simple violin I had inherited) after three years of learning, I knew exactly what I wanted.

I just recently bought a new violin and I just told the luthier what I wanted - I was not sure if it was supposed to be darker or more even than my current violin - and when I played different instruments, I had a clear preference.

I would ask the boy the play different instruments, ask him to tell what he likes about recordings or even Youtube videos of soloists and then look for that. Just to get a gist of the direction. For example, I wanted a really deep g-string and a mellow e-string. Most of the violins I tried had an e-string that was much too bright and loud for me, and a g-string that was much to "hoarse". I guess most players of 2 years or so would be able to say what they like and look for in a violin and what they don't like and be able to hear the differences.

Look at this video from 9:35. The boy is a little excited and does not play the piece perfectly, but he knows what violin he prefers in the end.

I would suggest just giving your boy the same chance, especially since preferences between your ear and his may differ.

Also, take the violins home, let him play them one after the other, one per session/ day and see if there is a tendency of preference.

August 25, 2021, 9:31 AM · Adrian,

The Bridge Hill is what is observed in the 2000hz to 4000hz range. For most violins I have encountered, this is, indeed, the "upper hill".

There are spectra available for several famous Strads and GDGs. They seem to have a prominent response burst of closely packed frequencies at around the 4000hz area, quite separate from the Bridge Hill.

The response of most violins has already started to significantly decay at that frequency. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as the "4k rolloff".

The most prominent rocking mode of a bridge is in the 2500hz to 3200hz range. By selective carving and thinning of a bridge, I can alter this bridge frequency by a few hundred hertz. But I am not experienced enough to decide which value is best for any particular violin. What I do know is too low, and one can struggle to get the strings to respond to the bow. Too high, and the notes sound very screechy.

To find the bridge frequency, start Audacity and record the dropping of the bridge onto a hard surface a few times. Then run an FFT analysis. You should see a prominent peak in the Bridge Hill frequency range.

What further complicates the tuning of a bridge is the concept of phase shift.

For frequencies below the tuned frequency of the bridge, the strings tend to vibrate in phase with the body. For frequencies above the bridge frequency, the strings and the body are out of phase in various degrees.

This does not necessarily mean the response drops. That is a different effect related to dampening. But the higher tones are driven to combine with the lower tones with a shift in position. So the shape of the sound waves released by the violin are affected.

Spectroid is basically the same algorithm as Audacity's FFT feature, but on a phone and in real time.

I am not an experienced maker like Don Noon, but I agree with him that response spectra are an interesting diversion, but there does not seem to be a way to convert a response measurement into a process to alter a violin to achieve a desired tone. The response spectrum is basically confirming what you already hear.

Or as Lyndon Taylor suggests, one's ears are probably the best instrument for determining good tone.

Edited: September 6, 2021, 10:02 AM · Thank you so much all for your valuable inputs!

Sorry for the delay in getting back on this, as I have been trying to coax the boy to indicate some preference…. And he finally did!!!

His pick… violin 2! A 1947 An Amédée Dieudonné in Del Gesu pattern. What I have realised is that violin tone is not totally important, but playability is. I realised his 2 choices, including this (and the other being a 1840 from Tirol), are light (under 400g with chinrest). In additional, the Amédée has a 325mm scale length. I guess coming from a 3/4, these couple of points are relatively more important.

Tone wise, it was described as thin and a touch nasal. So I did shorten the after length (to 54.5mm), and put on a set of Strong Larsen Tzigane, which gave a fuller tone (checking graphs along the way). But I changed them out to a set of medium Tzigane instead, as the tension is quite high (keeping the strong G string though). The resulting sound is actually quite nice (still a little harsh, but will likely mellow out a bit as the strings settle).

Here’s the result of this exercise, and thanks again for all your inputs!

The boy doing a practice run of Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (once again, apologies for the page-turning, out of pitch notes, etc).

Btw, for those interested, here’s the sound sample with the full set of Strong Tzigane (violin had Pi before). Like the sound, but don’t like the tension:

September 7, 2021, 7:10 AM · That is a good recording and think that your son has enough talent to pick out which one he can do best on. At least he didn't rush to decide and wish him the best with a music career.
September 9, 2021, 10:11 AM · They all sounded pretty good, but the fourth one sounded the best to me.
September 9, 2021, 3:20 PM · Hello Regit, I'll second what Peter says and go with the fourth violin, a nice bright sound and i suspect it's a fair bit more responsive than the others.
Your son is coming along well and I'd say he plays well enough to make an informed decision. That said, trying out multiple instruments can be overwhelming for even experienced musicians. Sometimes it's helpful to change the psychology a little- occasionally, instead asking a which instrument a musician prefers I'll ask which instrument he or she will regret leaving behind. Often this is a much easier question to answer
September 10, 2021, 2:36 PM · As an aside, he plays beautifully!

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