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How does a violin work?


An introduction to violin acoustics

A vibrating string can produce a motion that is rich in harmonics


(different frequencies of vibration). Bowing the string not only allows
a range of expressive techniques, but also supplies energy
continuously and so maintains the harmonic richness. However, a
string on its own makes little sound (think of an electric guitar that's
not plugged into an amplifer). The bridge and body of the violin, and
other related instruments, serve to transmit some of the vibrational  
energy of the string into the air as sound. The way in which they do so A violin in
is important to the sound of the violin family of instruments. The the
contents are: baroque
style
made by
First, something about sound
John
The strings McLennan
The bridge
The belly or front plate
The body and the air inside
Bowing
More detail and other links

First, something about sound.

If you put your finger gently on a loudspeaker you will feel it vibrate - if it is playing a low
note loudly you can see it moving. (More about loudspeakers.) When it moves forwards, it
compresses the air next to it, which raises its pressure. Some of this air flows outwards,
compressing the next layer of air. The disturbance in the air spreads out as a travelling
sound wave. Ultimately this sound wave causes a very tiny vibration in your eardrum - but
that's another story.
At any point in the air near the source of sound, the molecules are moving backwards and
forwards, and the air pressure varies up and down by very small amounts. The number of
vibrations per second is called the frequency which is measured in cycles per second or Hertz
(Hz). The pitch of a note is almost entirely determined by the frequency: high frequency for
high pitch and low for low. 440 vibrations per second (440 Hz) is heard as the note A in the
treble clef (the violin's A string), a vibration of 220 Hz is heard as the A one octave below,
110 Hz as the A one octave below that and so on. We can hear sounds from about 15 Hz to
20 kHz (1 kHz = 1000 Hz). A double bass can play down to 41 Hz or below, and the violin
can play notes with fundamental frequencies well above 2 kHz. Human ears are most
sensitive to sounds between 1 and 4 kHz - about two to four octaves above middle C.

The violin: strings and bow, bridge and body

Strings

The pitch of a vibrating string depends on four things.

Thicker, more massive strings vibrate more slowly so the strings are thicker as (on a
violin) you go down from the E to A to D to G strings, even though the length of the
string doesn't change, and its tension does not change much.
The frequency can also be changed by changing the tension in the string using the
tuning pegs: tighter gives higher pitch. This is what the player does when s/he tunes up.
The frequency also depends on the length of the string that is free to vibrate. The player
changes this by holding the string firmly against the fingerboard with the fingers of the
left hand. Shortening the string (stopping it further up the fingerboard) gives higher
pitch.
Finally there is the mode of vibration. When you play harmonics, you induce the string
to produce waves which are a fraction of the length of those normally produced by a
string of that length.

For more about strings and their motion, including harmonics, see Strings, standing waves
and haromonics. For their interaction with bows, see the section Bows and strings.

The strings themselves make hardly any noise: they are thin and slip easily through the air
without making much of disturbance - and a sound wave is a disturbance of the air. An
electric violin or an electric guitar played without an amplifier makes little noise. It is the
bridge and body of the acoustic violin that transmit some of the vibration of the strings into
sound in the air.
This diagram showing the anatomy and nomenclature of the violin is provided by Atelier Labussiere.

The bridge

The bridge transfers some of the energy of vibration of the


string to the body of the violin. The bridge itself is very
effective at transmitting power to the body at frequencies
from about one to four kHz, which is where the ear is most
sensitive. This is one of the reasons for the bright timbre of
the violin.You can reduce the effectiveness of the bridge at
Cross section at the bridge, seen
transmitting power by attaching a mass to it - the mass is
from the tailpiece end. At low
usually called a mute, and it serves to make the instrument frequencies, the bridge oscillation
both quieter and less bright in timbre. approximates rotation around a
point near the treble foot.
The bridge stands on the belly between the f holes. These
holes have two different functions. One is to connect the air
inside to the air outside, and we talk about this below. The
other is a result of their length: the part of the belly lying
between the f holes can move more easily than can most of
the wood of the body. Let's see how this works.

The soundpost and bass bar

The treble foot of the bridge (the one under the E string) is
quite near the soundpost, which is a small post connecting
the relatively flexible belly plate of the violin to the much
stiffer back plate. This post prevents the belly from
collapsing under the vertical component of the tension in
the strings, and it also couples the vibrations of the plates.
This connection to the stiffer back plate restricts the motion
of the treble foot considerably. The bass foot of the bridge
is much easier to move up and down. (Press gently with
your fingers and you can feel this difference.) As a result,
when a string is driven from side to side by the action of
the bow, the bridge tends to pivot about the treble foot,
highlighted in yellow in the sketch at right. The bass foot
moves up and down a little, moving part of the belly with
it.

The position of the soundpost (which at low frequencies is


the pivot for the motion of the bridge) is critical to the
sound of the instrument. Makers will sometimes move it
slightly to change the response of the instrument. Small
changes can have a noticeable effect.

Under the belly on the bass foot side of the bridge is the
bass bar. It extends beyond the f-holes and thus transmits
the motion of the bridge over a large area of the belly.

The body

The body: the front and


back plates, the sides and
the air inside - all serve to
transmit the vibration of
the bridge into vibration of
the air around the
instrument. For this, the
violin needs a relatively
large surface area so that it
can push a reasonable
amount of air backwards
and forwards. The most
important part is the belly.

The belly or top plate.


The belly and back plates
are made so that they can easily vibrate up and down. The plates have a number of
resonances: ie there are certain frequencies at which they vibrate most easily.

These are identified by luthiers and scientists using Chladni patterns. To make the graph at
right, isolated bellies were driven mechanically at the position of the bass foot of the bridge,
and the acceleration was measured. The graph gives the ratio for force to acceleration. If we
were vibrating a small mass m, the ratio would be that mass, independent of frequency.
However, the resonant behaviour of the plate appears here: the acceleration produced by a
given force is a strong function of frequency. On this graph, each major resonance is
indicated by an inset photograph of its Chladni pattern.

The two curves here are for the bellies of two rather similar violins.

When the violin is assembled, the resonances are more complicated. However, the
resonances are very important in transmitting the varying force exerted at the foot of the
bridge into radiated sound.
The complete instrument

The graph at right shows the


acoustic efficiency of two
complete violins. This is the
ratio of the sound pressure
produced (recorded by a
microphone near the f hole) to
force applied
(electromagnetically at the
bridge). The two curves are for
the violins made from the top
plates whose properties are
shown above. (The
measurements were made by
Ra Inta, PhD student in Music
Acoustics, as part of the study
on how violins change with
playing and environmental changes over time.)

The air inside and the Helmholtz resonance

The air inside the body is also important, especially for the low range on the instrument. It
can vibrate a little like the air in a bottle when you blow across the top. In fact if you sing a
note near D4 close to the violin, and then hold your ear close to the f-holes, you may hear the
air in the body resonating. This is called the Helmholtz resonance. You can see the effect of
this resonance at around 300 Hz in these two curves.

Resonances increase the sound output over some frequency ranges

Of both the violin and the guitar, we might say that the lowest resonance (associated with the
Helmholtz resonance) falls near the pitch of the second lowest string, and the lowest body
mode falls near the pitch of the third lowest. Together theseincrease the sound radiation at
fundamentals of several of the notes in the low range of the instrument. Further body
resonances are distributed at higher frequencies. These improve radiation of the fundamentals
of higher notes, and to harmonics of lower notes.

Where does the sound energy come from?


We have mentioned the importance of resonances in increasing the sound output of the
instrument. It is worth making it clear that the body doesn't amplify the sound in the technical
sense of the word amplify. An electronic amplifier takes a signal with small power and, using
electrical power from the mains, turns it into a more powerful signal. In the violin, all of the
sound energy that is produced by the body originally comes from energy put into the string
by the bow. The purpose of the body is to make that conversion process more efficient. In an
electric guitar, very little of the energy of the plucked string is converted to sound. The body
of an acoustic guitar or violin is more efficient at converting some of that energy into sound.

Timbre vibrato

An interesting, very important and almost characteristic feature of the sound of members of
the violin family is timbre vibrato, which is largely due to the acoustic response of the body.
We see at right that the ratio of the sound pressure to the force that the string exerts on the
bridge is a very strong function of frequency, because of the many resonances in the body.
(This may seem strange to someone with a background in hifi, where the aim is to produce
apparatus with negligible dependence on frequency!). When one plays a note with a
particular frequency, some but not all of the hamonics coincide with resonances and so are
strongly transmitted in the output sound, while others are weaker.

Now consider what happens when the player rocks backwards and forwards the finger that is
stopping the string. This produces a pitch vibrato: the pitch of note varies regularly up and
down. As it does so, the harmonics of the note also vary up and down in frequency, and so
they may move from a strong transmission (due to a resonance) to weak transmission, or vice
versa. This means that the spectrum of the output note varies strongly during the vibrato.
Perceptually, this makes the sound much more interesting. It is one of the two most important
features that help us identify the sound of a violin. (The other is the way in which a bowed
note begins.) The key paper on timbre vibrato is by J. Meyer: "On the Tonal Effect of String
Vibrato", Acustica, 76  283-291 (1992).

To get an idea of why vibrato is so important to the violin, ask a violinist to play a long soft
note on an open string, or two notes simultaneously on two adjacent open strings. On the
open string, it will have no vibrato. Now close your eyes? Can you imagine that it is an organ
playing? Each time the bow changes direction you can tell that it is a violin, but during
sustained, steady bowing it is much less clear. Now ask the violinist to play the same single
note, or a double-stopped fifth, on different strings, and to play normally. How important is
the difference?

We demonstrate this with soundfiles, waveforms and spectra on the page Articulation and
vibrato on the violin.

Bowing

The use of the bow is also very important to the violin sound. First, it allows the production
of a sustained note, whose loudness can be held nearly constant or, at the performer's choice,
varied over time (musicans say 'shaping the note'). There is another important difference
between plucking and bowing. A plucked string very quickly loses its high harmonics and,
after a few seconds, nearly all of the remaining energy in the string is in its fundamental.
Bowing inputs energy continuously to the string and thereby maintains the power in the high
harmonics. See Bows and strings.

The bow can be used in a variety of different ways to produce different articulations and
sound effects. Some of these are demonstrated with sound files, wave forms and spectra on
Articulation and vibrato on the violin.
For more information, see

Strings and standing waves (a simple introduction to vibrating strings).


Bows and strings (a simple introduction to that interaction).
Articulation and vibrato on the violin and their importance to the violin sound(s).
Chladni patterns (experimental results showing the vibration of the plates of violins).
The research papers of John McLennan, PhD student in Music Acoustics at UNSW.
These include
The thesis is available on line: The violin: music acoustics from baroque to
romantic (34 Mbyte).
The thesis has also an on-line appendix, containing chiefly the sound files of the
violin being played in its various configurations.
Sound files and analysis of The Effect of the Soundpost on Violin Sound.
Some calculations of Monopole Radiation at Low Frequencies in the Violin.
The Soundpost: an Update.
A study of torsional waves in the bowed string, and how they are strongly coupled to the
normal transverse waves during normal playing.
Acoustics for violin and guitar makers by Erik Jansson.
And finally, yes, we felt obliged to put on our FAQ some comments about that hoary old
question "what was the Stradivarius secret?".

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