Looking back over the journey we have taken so far, it’s amazing to see how much we have covered in so little time. Hopefully, you’ve been able to catch on to the scent of where we are going and have picked up some valuable nuggets along the way. But even though this may feel like a good resting point, those of you with a taste for observation may have noticed that we have not yet ventured into the most sacred shrine of violin purchasing. In fact, it’s the main reason for this whole expedition! Have you figured it out yet? If you have been reading carefully, I just left you a trail of clues to our next destination. Hark! How sweet! The hills are alive with it! Of course, it is sound!
What really could have been the first stop on our quest is just now being discovered well into our travels. But you see, the enlightened path to understanding what makes a violins “good” is more of a circle than a straight line. All of the individual aspects we have discussed thus far all fit together to become one with the whole. None are greater than the other, rather they must all work equally well to produce a well-sounding instrument. That is why we took what seems to be the long way around to this point – so you could have a deeper understanding of how and why the quality of all the individual pieces of a violin are important to producing the most desired overall sound from it.
The fascinating thing is that there are so many aspects to a violin that can affect its sound. And just like when you go to a fine restaurant with the option to choose from all of the savory meals on the menu, there is no one “best” sound for a violin. It’s more a matter of taste. Sure, there are specific qualities of sound that will certainly improve the overall voice of a violin, just like higher quality ingredients will result in better tasting food. But what I think may be a beautiful sounding violin may sound completely different to your ears. So how can you tell if the instrument your testing out is made poorly or just has a particular sound that isn’t quite pleasing to your palate? Well, prepare yourself for a feast of the senses as we dig into discerning the answer to this question!
Let’s first briefly recap how sound is even created from a violin. First you have a bow and you have the strings. The hair on the bow is stretched taut and is very smooth. If you ever tried to play a violin with a brand new bow, you will notice that hardly any sound is produced when it is pulled across the strings. That is why rosin is applied to the bow hair – to give it friction. It is this friction from the bow that causes the strings to oscillate back and forth at a very high rate, producing a sound frequency. This resonant frequency is then transferred to the top spruce plate of the violin through the bridge. The soundpost and bass bar, located inside the violin nearly under the feet of the bridge, help transfer these frequencies to the bottom plate and diffuse it across the top plate. The frequencies bounce around the inside of the violin body which amplifies the sound, but also exits through the f-holes into the open space around it to enhance its projection. All of this happens nearly instantaneously as soon as you pull the bow across the strings, thus producing sound. Class dismissed!
Ok, so now that science class is out, we can head back over to the music room. While there can be much subjectivity when it comes to describing how well a violin produces sound, I have found that there are four main areas of focus that you’ll want to analyze when trying out violins – and they are tone color, playability, response, and projection. Some of these same terms are also attributed to violin strings, as they can certainly be paired with a specific violin to either enhance or subdue these same sound qualities.
Let’s start with tone color. Tone color is basically a more artistic way of saying musical expression. It’s what gives a piece of music personality or emotion. And while musical expression is typically determined by the player of the instrument, the violin should be able to accurately reflect them. For example, if a violinist wants to produce a brighter or more direct sound, he/she can bow the strings closer towards the bridge. For a softer, more subdued sound, he/she can bow closer to the fingerboard. The amount of pressure applied by the bow, bowing speed, bowing position on the strings, finger pressure on the strings, different fingering positions, or specific bowing techniques are all other ways that a violinist can enhance musical expression. Surely there are more, but the important thing is that a good violin should be able to perform these expressions well.
So when trying out a violin, you can test out its tone colors by performing different techniques that you may know. Give it a powerful, long bow stroke near the bridge and listen to its resonance. Do the same near the fingerboard and you should be able to hear a difference. Try playing sweetly and softly, then try playing loudly and more expressively. In essence, you want to try and mimic the same types of techniques you will use when performing a piece. The idea is that you should be able to distinctly hear a difference between each of these musical expressions. If while trying out these techniques and they all sound pretty much the same or if the violin just sounds dull or monotone, then it is lacking in tone colors. Just like a person who utilizes voice inflection when speaking is more engaging than someone who talks in a boring monotone voice, the same goes for a violin. You want to find one that can dynamically portray the emotion that you will put into playing it.
Which leads us to the next area – playability. This simply means, how easy does the violin feel to play? Does the sound seem to come forth effortlessly or do you feel like you really have to work hard to get a decent sound out it? Does holding the neck of the violin feel comfortable or does it feel too wide? Does the instrument feel heavy or is it an ideal weight for you? These are the kinds of questions that will help you determine its playability. And while some of the factors that determine a violin’s playability may be relatively unchangeable (like the thickness of the top spruce plate or the violin’s particular shape) there are other factors that can easily be changed (like using different strings, reshaping the bridge, or moving the position of the soundpost). Certainly the playability of a violin can be a matter of preference differing from person to person, but the idea is to make sure that when playing a violin, it feels comfortable and easily playable for you.
Continuing on, we move to response. The response of a violin is essentially how quickly it reacts to the techniques you are using or how well it performs the way you want it to. A violin with a quick response may accentuate every little move you make while a violin with a slower response will tend to be more forgiving. If just starting out, this may be difficult to tell on a violin, but that’s quite alright. I think this particular aspect of a violin’s sound will cater to more experienced players who are looking for a specific reaction time from their instrument when playing. The key here is that when trying out a violin, you want it to be able to do what you want it to do. Of course, it will not play itself (even though we would like it to sometimes!) but it should accurately respond to your command. Just don’t ask it to roll over and play dead. 😉
Lastly, we come to the final main sound quality of a violin and that is its projection. In other words, its power! How loud can it be played and how far will its sound carry? A violin’s projection gives it strength and a commanding presence. When playing loudly, it should sound solid, strong, and clear. Have you ever wondered why orchestras always seem to have three times as many stringed instruments than the other instrument sections? Well, it’s because they (especially violins) are some of the quietest instruments out of all the instrument families and it takes three times as many to equal the volume of the others. That is why a violin can never be too loud. Of course you are not always going to play it that way, but it should be able to put forth a full-bodied volume without sounding constrained or weak. Since the violin is usually right next to your ear, you may think that they all sound loud when you play them, so you may actually want to listen to someone else playing it to make a more accurate determination.
Now, before we leave the subject of a violin’s sound, it is important to note that the four points covered above only represent those aspects that are the least subjective and mostly result from how well a violin is constructed. But all things being equal, there are probably hundreds of other adjectives that can describe how a violin sounds. Warm, rich, bright, mellow, nasally, clear, full, smooth, even, brilliant, deep, etc. These are all terms that can be heard in connection with describing a violin. This is where the “flavor” of sound that a violin produces will all be a matter of personal taste or preference. So you can see how many combinations of savory sounds violins are capable of producing. They color your performances, you can feel them when you play, and they breathe life into every piece of music. The important thing is to find a violin that connects with how you want to feel and whose authentic voice makes you feel alive!
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