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The science of violin making

Violin acoustics research slide by Colin Gough

There are many different tribes of violin makers, in my experience. Conservatives, Futurists, Archivists, Geometrists, Philosophers, Luddites, Artists, Storytellers, Archaeologists, Forensic Scientists, Cosmetologists, Chemists, Radiographers, Botanists – among others. Most makers have some specific passion that drives them and defines their style, although they may also work closely with other tribes. The best luthiers are often the mavens who flit between them all, collecting the most important information from each and synthesising it in their instruments.

Yesterday, I spent the morning in Cambridge with the Acousticians, sitting in on some sessions of a group of makers and scientists who gather every summer to share their thoughts and research on violin acoustics. The event is organised by Jim Woodhouse, professor of Engineering at Cambridge University, and was set up a few years ago as a sister event to the summer acoustics workshops in Oberlin, with a few people going to both.

This is the rational tribe, which takes nothing about violin sound at face value. They believe what they can measure scientifically, but only if they can repeat it. In this way they seek to understand every detail of how a violin works and how each detail impacts on the other, and ultimately the sound. Having heard many such presentations during my time at The Strad, and armed with an antique A Level in Physics, I would say I understand some of it superficially, although my mind often boggles and I won’t try to explain what I heard (you can see a few of the slides). Much, though, is made beautifully simple by the diagrams that are created by the data, with their violin shapes with colour patches or graphs with vivid peaks doing the job of a thousand words.

There are an infinite number of variables when understanding violin sound, ranging from the materials to the shape to the psychology of how people listen. But these researchers have the patience to pick them apart and to focus on the measurables to try to understand them. For example, in his talk Colin Gough, professor of Physics at Birmingham University, described some of his findings from his ‘finite element analysis’, whereby he creates a model violin with which he can test the effect of f-hole and soundpost positions, arching, shape.

One of the reasons the group was set up was as a networking forum. Violin maker George Stoppani told me about the importance of this: ‘A lot of us who are involved in violin research don’t want to be entirely on our own. It doesn’t work to be in this field as a loner. It’s important to have people to bounce ideas off and to tell you if you’re doing something stupid, or they might be supportive and tell you to keep going, or have a suggestion.’

He described the long-term benefits of such research: ‘It’s going towards a much deeper understanding of how violins work, and that’s useful to a lot of people, to people who play them and of course to makers who are making high-quality instruments.’

It’s not about finding quick solutions, though, as he says: ‘One of the things that goes wrong when trying to bridge the gap with less technical makers is that they want a formula. They don’t want to know the fancy stuff, they just want the answer. You have to invest the time in getting an in-depth understanding of how violins work, the basic elementary point of view. Makers need to take this stuff on board, to incorporate measurement into their working steps. They will eventually build up a database that will help them avoid mistakes they’ve previously made, and to get to a place they’re intending to get to. That will affect wood choice, design, and particularly arching and graduations. It’s not a quick fix.’

Impedance graph

The aim is certainly not to copy Strads, though, unlike for many makers. Stoppani says, ‘Originally we imagined we wanted to clone the best old Italian instruments. That’s not entirely gone, but we don’t want to say that just because it sounds like an old Italian violin we’ve succeeded in making something excellent. We’re saying there are good, bad and medium violins, as well as excellent violins, and those are not uniquely Italian. It happens that among the old Italians there are some good ones. They still serve as a model of at least part of what violins do. We’re not trying to replicate what they are, we’re saying, “Let’s make use of this enormous legacy of design information and make instruments that incorporate some of those features, using our modern expertise to make them more practical for players today." We’re creating a product that rivals the old Italians but isn’t’ necessarily the same thing.’

Icelandic maker Hans Johannsson is also a regular, and has found the research beneficial to his whole concept of violin making: ‘The measurement and analysis part of making has become really important for me. I started going to the Oberlin group around 2005 and I’ve been hanging on to these groups and trying to go as often as I can. It’s improved my making. It’s changed the way I visualise the function of instruments. In some ways it has allowed me to make more calculated guesses. Violin making is and always will be an intuitive job – it’s never going to be pure science – but if you spice that up with some objective knowledge then you’re in a better position to make logical decisions about the construction.’

Johannsson says that not all violin makers see things this way: ‘A lot of my colleagues are sceptical about scientific approaches to violin making. They say that the finest instruments in the world were made by people who knew nothing about science. This is true, but I believe that any increase in knowledge can never hurt. Any student of violin making should know some of the things that these people are discovering – basic things like how the instrument behaves at certain frequencies. When I studied in Newark in the 70s they said, “Just make it properly and it’ll work.” Some of my colleagues say, “I don’t know anything about sound, I just create violins,” and I think that’s really limiting.’

Standards of new instruments are incredibly high these days – possibly the highest they’ve been since the old Cremonese days. There may be several factors contributing to this golden age, and many tribes involved in furthering their own respective skills and knowledge, as well as those of the violin community at large. But whether or not the entire violin community buys into such acoustical investigation, this quest for scientific knowledge must surely be a huge factor in this golden age.

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