Violin Acoustics Term Paper

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History of the Violin

The violin is one of the oldest and most respected instruments that exists today, often considered the centerpiece of the orchestral musical ensemble. The violin is not simply an instrument complex in nature, but also a work of art. Depending on who you consult with, the violin might be considered one, the other or both.

The violin is widely appreciated for the complex sound and it produces and the complex craftsmanship utilized in its construction. The violin is the one instrument that might be considered both a work of art and a musical instrument because of its great complexity. The history and origins of the violin have been disputed by historians and musicians alike for some time.

Though there is evidence to suggest that the modern violin did not surface until the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there are those that argue that the violin is represented as early back as biblical times.

The violin as both a work of art and a musical instrument as well as its complex and often disputed history is explored in greater detail below.

History of the Violin

The violin has been around for centuries, though its exact origins are often debated by musicians and historians alike. Emerging as early as 1500 the violin developed 'officially' during the mid sixteenth century only to take on its characteristic shape during the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998:13). It was during the early eighteenth century that many well noted violin makers surfaced "including Nicolo Amati, Jacob Stainer and Antonio Stradivari" (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998).

Bowed instruments similar to the violin are mentioned in early ancient Greek and Roman texts. Generally Renaissance images portray individuals using instrument similar to the violin. Even in the Old Testament "there is mention of fiddlers and pipers," suggesting that the violin has a pre-history that dates 2000 B.C. Or more (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998).

String players were not uncommon as mentioned among the Greeks and Romans. It wasn't until the eighteenth century however that evidence surfaced suggesting the true violin did not emerge until about the Middle Ages (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998). Johann Tinctoris "refers to the use of a bow in a work entitled De inventione et usu misucae circa 1487" (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998).

Interestingly there is some historical debate about the true origins of the violin. Many historians believe that the violin is basic in nature and thus many early civilizations might have utilized some version of the instrument. What needs to be differentiated is whether stringed instruments of ancient times were 'plucked' or 'bowed' the latter indicating that more of a violin type instrument was utilized.

There is evidence suggesting that in the 12th century stringed instruments were plucked for the most part; despite this other evidence including a written document produced in the seventh century depicts the use of a bow as early as the seventh century (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998).

It wasn't until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the violin took the center stage and was exploited as much as possible during concertos and within the realm of orchestral excellence (Sternfeld & Wellesz, 1973). In the eighteenth century the emergence of the musical amateur helped popularize the violin even more. Chevalier de Saint Georges was one of the more popular violin virtuosos who used the violin in a manner that drove individuals to symphonies and concerts (Sternfeld & Wellesz, 1973).

One can at best conclude that the violin is many years in coming, and took many years to perfect and be considered the stringed instrument it is today. Depending on one's interpretation of what constitutes a violin, it may have originated as early as biblical times or as late as the eighteenth century.

Violin Construction

Even the construction of the violin is debated. "Hart" suggests according to Kolneder & Pauly that the violin consist of fifty-eight parts, whereas "others including Grillet suggest that there are eighty three" (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998). Why the difference? There are different methods for counting the pieces of a violin. The primary parts of a standard violin include the body, neck, fingerboard and strings which lie across the bridge (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998).

The construction of a violin is considered complex in nature, in part because the sound and tone a violin produces is thought to result in part from the quality of construction. The materials used, craftsmanship and manner in which the piece is formed all may impact its final value and quality (Johnson & Courtnall, 1998).

Sound, Tone and Acoustics

As Kolneder & Pauly (1998) point out it is important to differentiate the early forms of bowed instruments described from the actual violin itself, which is constructed in a manner that it sounds much different from its early and medieval predecessors. Violins are structured in a manner that produces a unique quality of sounds.

Mathematical measurements were even utilized in creating the classical shape and form of the violin that is the standard today.

There are many factors that contribute to the tone of a violin including strong down-pressure of the finger, good and strong gripping of the bow and a strong and directed stroke which 'attacks' the instrument in a bold manner (Knocker & Mozart, 1985). Confidence is an essential element of sound and tone when playing the instrument. Imperceptible pressure changes, particularly those that increase pressure most often result in the largest alterations of tone in the instrument.

Pitman (1953) suggest that the ear "does not tire of the tone and color and sonority of the string instruments, either singly or as an ensemble, as rapidly as of brass and woodwind" (p. 278). This is one of the reasons the violin is considered one of the more complex and beautiful instruments.

The acoustics and laws governing the vibration of stringed instruments, particularly the violin were discovered in the early 1600s and 1700s. Mersenne is credited with discovering the laws that govern the vibration of strings, and Taylor, and English mathematician elaborated on these in the mid 1700s (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998:49).

The great masters of the violin including Stradivari and Guarneri studied acoustics at great length in order to create instruments that were modeled after excellence and adhered to exact proportions. Stradivari actually compiled a manual of violin making. Stradivari, considered one of the greatest violin makers suggested that violins need to be constructed in simple proportions, with a length of 346.5mm broken down in the following manner:

"Division of the body by the bridge: 6:5 = minor third

Width (upper bout to middle): 5:4 = major third

Width (lower bout to middle): 3:2 = perfect fifth

Inside length (divided by sound post): 4:3 = perfect fourth

Inside volume (divided by sound post): 2:1 = octave"

(Kolneder & Pauly, 1998:148).

Truly optimal acoustics and sound however are derived not just from proportion or shape but also depend on the mass of the "vibrating material" which is impacted by characteristics of the wood the instrument is crafted from (Kolneder Y Pauly, 1998:151). There are many that argue that the violin can either be crafted as a work of art or as a musical instrument, the latter of course requiring that a violin be constructed not to be aesthetically appealing but rather according to the laws that govern acoustics.

There are actually three different ways that sound can be produced including the plucking or striking of a string (Beament, 2000). Bowing as a method for producing sound was actually invented hundreds of years ago, and gives the string ht ability to preserve air within the tube of the instrument thus sustaining the sound over an extended period of time (Beament, 2000). When the violin is played it does not produce a uniform sound, but rather the sound changes continuously as vibrations become sound via the body of the instrument.

Just as there is disagreement regarding the history of the violin, so too is there disagreement regarding the acoustics. Many have argued that violin making must be based on sound mathematical principles, however others believe that scientific evaluations are less important than the skills of the individual violin player (Devoney, 1893; Abbot 1936; Auer, 1921).

Many different things affect acoustics. The weights of strings for example are also important. Thin strings require more sensitive pressure. The bow when pulled over the string displaces it exciting the string and producing sound.

There are several factors that contribute to sound including "string length, bow to bridge ratios and bow to nut ratios as well as the duration of time the bow is actually held over the string" (Kolneder & Pauly, 1998:124). Twisting motions of the string may also impact the sound quality, though this is largely the result of the individual playing the instrument and their skill level. Force and quality of bowing as well as the consistency of pressure will result in tonal differentiations including crescendo-diminuendo (Abbott, 1936; Read, 1953).


The violin is one of the most remarkable and at the…

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