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How The Violin Got Its Sound.

Byline: Aarathi

Have you ever wondered about the long stylish curls that resemble the letter 'f' on a violin's body? Did you think they were just a decoration?

In fact, these f-shaped holes play a very important role in producing the violin's distinctive sound.

Recent analysis of different types of violins from the past has revealed that the af' holes in today's violin may not have been a thought out decision by violin makers. On the contrary, they may have evolved by mere chance. Surprised? Let's see how this happened.

The Evolution Of Violins

Stringed instruments, as their name suggests, produce sound by vibrating strings. These vibrations are transferred to the main body of the instrument which releases sound-waves through carefully-placed holes. The oldest stringed instruments known to mankind have been dated to 2500 BC and were excavated from ancient Mesopotamian sites. Over time, an astonishing variety of other instruments evolved from this common ancestor.

Lutes were one such class of instruments which had strings stretched across a neck and a hollow body -- such as guitars and violins. The strings vibrate by plucking (like a guitar), striking (like in piano) or bowing (like in violin). Different notes are produced by controlling the vibrations of the string with fingertips.

Violins today closely resemble the designs of the early 16th century. In that period, Italy was a hub of violin makers, or luthiers. It quickly became popular, with many street-musicians and aristocrats placing large orders for the production of violins. Violins such as those made by the Amati family, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri are famed even today for their unrivalled tones. Read our earlier article here.

Perfecting The Sound!

Lutes from the medieval times had strings stretched over a circular sound hole in the middle. By the 16th century, the sound holes had become long and elongated af'-shaped curves.

Dr.Nicholas Makris, a scientist from MIT, was intrigued by this change. Along with his team, he carried out some experiments and found that the sound flow was maximum along the edges of the hole rather than at the centre. This means that the perimeter (or length) of the sound hole's edge had a greater effect on the final sound - not the size of the hole itself. So, a violin with a longer and narrower hole produced much better sound than one with a circular hole (even though the final size of the hole was the same).

However, looking at the violins from the past, Dr. Makris found that the shapes had changed gradually - from ac'-shapes to finally af'-shaped holes. It appears that as violin makers preferred the sounds produced by violins with narrower holes and were not aware of the science! So those designs became more popular and were passed on by a master to his students to be replicated.

Similar was the case with the back plate of the violin. Thicker plates produced more sound - they reduced the reaction of the violin's body and prevented any interference with the main sound vibrations. From Amati to Stradivari to Guarneri, violins developed longer f-holes and thicker backs. This may also be why Amati violins are preferred for smaller intimate performances, while larger ensembles may find a Guarneri better.

Wonder how violins are made?

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Title Annotation:Society/Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 22, 2015
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