Help with Understanding String Tension

October 9, 2021, 8:19 AM · I am led to believe that lower string tension is better (for sound and the violin), and for this reason, I have stop using strings like Rondo and PI. I am currently using Larsen Tzigane and Virtuoso...

1) I have read somewhere that if a violin is "keyed" to the max, it is more appropriate to use higher tension. What does "keyed" up means? How can we tell from our violins?

2) When moving from higher tension to lower tension string, being underload, I read that it is natural that it will sound hard and nasal, but the sound will improve as the violin reacquire the shape. How long will this "reacquiring" takes (in general, assuming the violin wasn't severely/irreversibly overloaded)?

Replies (13)

October 9, 2021, 9:15 AM · It depends on the violin.

Over the past 60 years I have been through far more different string brands than I can remember. As string "technology" has grown during those 60 years I have gotten closer to finding the ideal strings for all 4 of my violins. They are better strung now than ever before and they are each strung with a nearly full set of a single brand while previously each violin had a sort of "mix & match" to "optimize" sound (at least to my ears).

Two of my violins are now strung with Warchal Timbre strings. One of my violins is strung with a set of Pirastro Perpetual Cadenza and one is strung with a Peter Infeld platinum E string and Evah Pirazzi Gold A, D & G strings. If I move those strings from their current violin to one of the others there is a significant degradation in sound volume or some other problem.

Some violins can tolerate high-tension strings and some cannot because the force through the bridge seems to damp the vibration of the top plate (anyway I think that's the problem). (By the way, a too steeply set fingerboard and too high bridge will have the same effect.)

There are a couple of simple tests you can do that might help evaluate your strings and setup.
1. Play a 2-octage scale all on the G string. If you run into problems in the 2nd octave, a lower-tension set (z.b. Tzigane or Perpetual Cadenza) might help.
2. Play each natural harmonic both close to the bridge and close to the nut. If the sound volume is much reduced near the nut you would probably benefit from lower tension strings.

Getting a good pizzicato sound with lower-tension (non-gut) strings is easier. Although I find it easiest with gut strings (that I pretty much abandoned 50 years ago except for a few return trials).

Be sure your soundpost is optimally positioned!

Edited: October 9, 2021, 10:10 AM · @Andrew, thank you for your experiences and test-tips! I have read many of your posts on strings, and how you have shown great enthusiasm when talking about string, had influenced much of my strings choices (e.g. Tzigane and PI).

In a different discussion, I tapped on the "golden ears" of the forum, and they made me realized that PI on this violin is somewhat "compressed", in that there is limited colors to the sound. Using the Tzigane definitely give me more richness, but I do missed the fullness of the core-sound of the PI.

I did get my luthier to do sound adjustments whenever I decided to switch strings, but I am wondering if that core sound will come back given more time for the violin to re-acquire the shape; or do I need something in-between Tzigane and PI in terms of tension to get the sound I want (if indeed the violin is "keyed" to a certain degree, and I want to find out what this "keyed" translates to).

October 9, 2021, 10:11 AM · High tension is brighter, takes more effort, and has better projection. Low tension is more resonant, easier to play, and darker. It depends what you want or need.
Edited: October 10, 2021, 11:34 AM · The Luthiers will have the best understanding on this topic. The top plate is the most important sound radiating surface of the violin. I like to think of this analogy; the top plate is like the head on a snare drum. If it is "tuned" too loose it sounds flabby and the sticks rebound too slow. If it is too tight the sound is crushed, the sticks feel like drumming on concrete.
The total pressure on the top plate will be a combination of the tension of the strings and the angle that they make with the bridge. As you play higher on any string the perceived stiffness of any string increases; the tension and gauge stay the same as the vibrating string length gets shorter.
Two easy and cheap tests to help optimize your string gauges:
Test all three of the Goldbrokat E string gauges.
Raise and lower each string a half-step (one at a time!), to see how the string and instrument responds. You loose some resonance doing that. I discovered that my Viola preferred the low-tension C string that way. A low-tension G can help tame any wolf-tones. On two of my violins a low tension E helps the response of the ultra high notes. -JQ-- ex fife and drum corps snare drummer.
October 9, 2021, 12:18 PM · On your violin high tensions might be fine. Just would not recommend it as a sure way to improve all violins "power"-even in the cases where they are more "powerful", you will have to "fight" for that "power".

For instance, try Evah Pirazzi Stark. Powerful, but at what cost? My violin ends up sounding better and more "powerful" with less "powerful" strings.

For low tension synthetics, also try Perpetual Cadenza. The best modern synthetics I have tried when compared to my favorite wound gut strings. It also "beats" Dominant to my taste, but at a slightly higher price and no aluminum D option.

I agree with most of what Mr. Cole stated, but at least on my violin, higher tension is darker-thicker, warmer power, rather than bright projection.

October 9, 2021, 2:08 PM · So basically high tension strings are more powerful and bright, and lower tension strings are more dark and warm sound?
i see that sheet of violin strings showing how much dark / bright / complex / etc. each stringset are, so the dark part is all lower tension strings?
Edited: October 9, 2021, 4:28 PM · Beware!

What Joel wrote is absolutely correct. If you try to use higher tension strings on an instrument that is not right for them the sound can really drop off.

Joel wrote, "Raise and lower each string a half-step (one at a time!), to see how the string and instrument responds."

That is what I did 3 or 4 years ago with one of my violas that had a really annoying C (lowest) string. I dropped and raised the tension and found that it produced much better sound with lower tension. With that information I took it to "my" violin shop and asked for advice. It was my good fortune that the "clerk" who waited on me was a violist who played my viola and suggested changes to my C and A strings with specific brand(s) and gauges of strings.
Great improvement immediately.

Edited: October 9, 2021, 6:07 PM · I didn't try all the string brands in the world, but speaking about a brand that i know very very well, Pirastro Tonica:
in the same violin, made in 2014 and quite powerful and with a complete sound, i've been using the strong tension set (that is not made anymore) of Tonicas and it surely gave me a more warm and fundamental sound than the medium sets i'm using now. I miss the strong tension Tonicas.......
I'm a firm believer that the sirs at Pirastro company have some form of deficiency.
Edited: October 9, 2021, 5:53 PM · @Joel, thank you for your analogy. If I understand correctly, it is almost like the strings vs everything-else-on-the-violin. The sum-total stiffness of the violin (top plate, bridge, FB angle, etc) presents a certain resistance. When choosing string against such resistance, too much tension and sound will be stiffen/compressed/deaden; too light a tension, the violin will not vibrate enough and will not response optimally. As with @Andrew's suggestion, seems like playing the higher octaves with detune strings will give clues on what will work best.

Linked to my second question, if I were to detune the strings to 1/2 step lower, how long do I have to wait before playing again? I am mindful that if I did not allow "sufficient" time to settle down, I may be hearing a false representation, i.e. sound of a "temporarily-underloaded" violin playing on lighter tension strings.

@Adalberto, to clarify, I am not looking into having more power, but having more core sound. Like your experiences, my experiences are also a little different from @Scott, higher tension strings are darker and thicker as well. It is this "thicker" sound that I am looking for (but not wanting to give up on the richness of the lighter strings).

@Scott, @Diego, my experience is a little different, higher tension strings give me dark and thicker sound; whilst lighter tension strings give me a richer and brighter sound.

Edited: October 9, 2021, 6:10 PM · Don't want to start a new thread since on the same topic. A new question if I may.

Is there a universal numerical value that qualify or disqualify a set of strings as low or high tension?

String manufacturers can be confusing with the numbers and classifications, e.g. Rondo at 51.9 is considered "Medium" tension, yet their own Vision is considered "Heavy" at 51.8.... hmmm

For me so far, I just consider anything below 50 as low tension strings, regardless of their tension labelling.

Edited: October 10, 2021, 9:38 AM · I don’t think there is a universal value at all, no.

I think different string brands can tend to become either “brighter” or “darker” as tension increases. I wonder if it’s particular to that brand’s specific composition.

For example, across several instruments, I’ve found the Evah (green) medium-gauge strings to be more brilliant than the Evah light-gauge strings.

But this general relationship has not held so true for many other brands for which I’ve tried different gauges.

October 10, 2021, 11:40 AM · Might want to reference the string tension data at Violin String Review:

October 10, 2021, 11:44 AM · You can easily find the simple (one-dimensional equation relating string tension and pitch (i.e., vibration frequency) on Wikipedia.

Frequency of the fundamental vibration is proportional to
1/2L x Sqrt(T/d)in metric units, Where:

L = vibrating length of the string (meters)
T = string tension (newtons)
d = unit density of string material (kg/m^3)

This should be pretty straight forward for metal filament and pure gut strings. It gets more complicated for metal wrapped gut and synthetic-core strings.

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