back to article Violin-fiddling boffins learn that 'F-HOLES' are secret to Stradivarius' SUPERIOR sound

Scientists have identified the design features that boost the acoustic power of violins. Italian workshops of master violin-making families (such as Stradivari) produced increasingly powerful instruments in the renaissance and baroque musical eras during the 17th and 18th centuries, the so-called Cremonese era. Advances in …

  1. linicks
    Thumb Up

    The great Tommy Cooper

    Tommy Cooper joke

  2. Mephistro Silver badge
    Coat

    What??? Violins also evolve???

    That's a rotten lie! All violins were made by God!!!

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: What??? Violins also evolve???

      And all future violin tone will be made by Line6, just like a lot of modern guitar tone.

  3. Stumpy Pepys
    Headmaster

    Rather disingenuous article

    Yes Stradivarius violins are anecdotally considered to be the best ever. The problem is, in blind tests among players and listeners, they score rather averagely against expensive, high-end modern violins.

    That's not to discredit the acoustic analysis though.

    1. Steve Knox Silver badge

      Re: Rather disingenuous article

      That doesn't discredit the acoustic analysis because it's irrelevant. They were testing how and why the Cremonese-era violin makers improved so dramatically over instruments of previous ages, not how they stack up against subsequent ones.

      Modern violins, being by definition made after the Cremonese era, are made with the benefit of the experience of that era. Any modern violin intended for professional use which does not sound better than (or at the very least as good as) a Cremonese-era violin is a failure of epic proportions.

      The fact that the Stradivarius violins still rate within the same class as modern high-end instruments after 3+ centuries of opportunity to exceed their quality indicates that they are truly advanced works of craft.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Rather disingenuous article

        Listen to the way Spike Jones tested the quailties of a Strad:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btdIr886BwU

        Starts at about 2:00...

      2. John Tserkezis

        Re: Rather disingenuous article

        "The fact that the Stradivarius violins still rate within the same class as modern high-end instruments after 3+ centuries of opportunity to exceed their quality indicates that they are truly advanced works of craft."

        And yet, they can't make a modern television's built-in speakers sound anything other than complete crap.

    2. dan1980

      Re: Rather disingenuous article

      @Stumpey @ Steve

      The best of those studies was also the most recent as it addressed pretty much every criticism of previous studies.

      I would not, however, say that they perform 'averagely' as they are able to hold their own with the best modern examples and some do genuinely prefer a given Strad to a given modern instrument.

      They key point, however, is that it is very much individual - both in the musician and the instrument - and it is pretty much discredited that these violins (by the Cremonese masters) are categorically better than modern ones.

      Even more importantly, while some in the tests have indeed selected one of the Stradivarius instruments as the best sounding, they are not necessarily able to identify what it is. Some of course like the Stradivarius most and identified it as such but others who also chose the like it best thought it was a modern violin. Still others liked a modern one but thought it was the Strad - perhaps because they simply assumed that the best sounding must be it!

      That said, in response to Steve, Violins are dependent on the wood as the vibrational properties are a combination of the materials (including any treatment) and construction (thickness, shape and bracing). As a living thing, with properties dependent in on growing conditions, it is entirely possible that the wood available in Cremona at the time was just better for making violins.

      Evidently not better than available today, as proven but perhaps better than what went before. (Though some luthiers most definitely believe that, say, the mahogany available today is not as good as it was in the 50s.)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Since they seemed to indicate an evolutionary approach to refinement would be successful, any chance they could develop a genetic algorithm with a fitness function of 'pleasing to the ear' (however that could be quantified) then set it loose, see if it could improve on a Stradivarius?

    1. plrndl

      Pleasing the ear?

      Any such algorithm would produce results similar to those produced certain TV shows, where "music" that is pleasing to the masses is produced by a voting process that eradicates anything that would be pleasing to the musically literate. Such sounds are readily realised by generic mass-produced violins.

      Regarding the Strad, the most sensible comment I have heard is by a user who said that it's not so much the sound which is exceptional, but the result from the player of the demands placed by such an instrument on its user, that he should be worthy of such a venerable instrument.

      1. dan1980

        Re: Pleasing the ear?

        @plrndl

        Actually, there is a little behind this. It's not really an exact science but nor can it be, of course. What people have done is kind of akin to market research because it's all about subjective taste. I mean, objectively, you can't say that some food or other tastes 'good'. You can say that it is sweet, because you can analyse the chemical make-up and maps what taste-buds are activated, just as you can say that a violin produces a bright sound by analysing the frequencies created.

        So, what people investigating these violins have done is to find out which violins people like the most and then analyse their sound and they have discovered is that those that are best-liked produce sounds very similar in frequency make-up to the human voice, specifically a female soprano.

        Again, it's like market research - you identify what things people like, find out what they have in common and use that to create a definition of 'good'. That's really the only way to evaluate something so subjective - if people like it, it is good.

  5. WalterAlter
    Happy

    There was a documentary about the secret of Cremonese violins from 30 years ago which concluded that a telling factor in Stradivarius's, Amatis and Guarneris, was the fact that the violin makers of Cremona got their wood from Venice lumber dealers who had yards full of wood floating in pens in the lagoons for generations and that they absorbed salt from the sea water that later crystallized in the fibers of the wood, adding density and changing the acoustic properties. Other researchers concluded that the positioning of the sound peg and the construction and positioning of the bridge in relation to the sound peg contributed importantly.

    There will soon come a day where wood bits will be analyzed via computer and sensors whose data will be fed to CNC programs and violin makers will simply assemble the lot in kit form. I'm not sure that any form of exorcism will prevent this, LOL!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin

    Pointless fact:

    His name was Stradivari, it was fashionable then to Latinise your name with an "s". Hence, Stradivarius. Christopher Columbu(s) did the same!

    1. Mephistro Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Pointless fact:

      Thank you!

      I always thought that Stradivarius was just their mid-range line of products, with the same luthiers making also the Stradirareus -luxury product- and Stradimanyus (the economy model).

    2. AbelSoul
      Trollface

      Re: Latinise your name with an "s"

      Unlike Ewar Woowar, who added several Ds.

  7. Werner McGoole

    Yet another explanation

    These seem to come around regularly and rarely do they sound that convincing; this less than most, in fact.

    It's obvious you can design just about anything by natural selection (c.f. the natural world) but you'd be a pretty dumb craftsman if you set out to do it that way and not use a modicum of intelligent design. For a start, you can make small sound holes, then play the violin, then make them bigger and see what changes. That's not random and I can't believe a decent craftsman wouldn't have done exactly that, many times over in fact.

    Obviously, sound holes aren't the only important design factor, either, so certainly not the "secret" of Stradivari. In fact, if it were just down to dimensions, machines would be able to turn out top-quality violins by the thousand as they'd be able to accurately reproduce the dimensions of great old instruments.

    And the sound holes don't just let the sound out. Among other effects, they allow the "table" (the approximate square of the top plate between the sound holes) to vibrate largely independently and affect the resonances of the whole instrument. Elongated sound holes obviously do that better.

    You'd have to think the old craftsmen were really pretty stupid to have spent their whole lives breaking new ground in instrument-making and not realise just a little of this. To the extent that they were no better than a bunch of random monkeys? Pull the other one!

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Yet another explanation

      While I agree with you, it's also human nature (so it seems) for many folks to simple say "well, that's the way it's always been done." and not try to improve. Then there are the few who break out from that.... So it wouldn't be "a decent craftsman".. it would be a talented, curious, rather unique craftsman.

    2. P. Lee Silver badge

      Re: Yet another explanation

      You fail at modern philosophy which says "modern = intelligent/good; old = dumb/bad".

      I think its part of the cult of evolution. Pretty much anything/one before the 1960's is considered a bit primitive, which is slightly ironic given modern music's preoccupation with banging a wooden stick against an animal skin.

      I find it curious that with the rejection of religion in the West, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll drumming - three major methods "heathens" use for communing with the spirit world - become increasingly central to the culture.

    3. DocJames

      Re: Yet another explanation

      I'm not sure that the craftsmen had enough time/cash to make violins "just to see how this one goes" on a regular basis. I suspect the answer is no. Someone will doubtless be along in a moment to answer how many violins a master craftsman could make in a lifetime, giving us the answer (or at least hinting at one).

  8. gerryg

    Original research?

    The Strad Magazine April 2001, Page 408, to 415 "The hole Story" by James Beament and Dennis Unwin discussed this, explored by New South Wales U (pdf).

    Then from 2004 The Cremonese System for Positioning the F-Holes (pdf)

    Then there's this from 2013.

    What happened to literature searches?

    1. phil dude
      Joke

      Re: Original research?

      Citations are quantum on the internet - they come into existence because a comment has been made.

      No cats were harmed in the making of this comment.

      P.

      PS. Please tell me I didn't nick this from TP?

  9. Hollerith 1

    Yo-Ya Ma's cello

    Yo-Yo ma has a Strad cello and, while he says it is a prvilege and honour to own it, he doesn't regularly play it, because even Strads, restored and protected, have a life-span. Modern instruments are now as good or better than Strads, but it will take a few hundred years for these makes to earn the same reputation.

    Strads Amatis etc are beautiful instruments to look at. I am always sad when I see one behind glass in a museum, but I do think their playing days are fading.

  10. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    Learning something new...

    ...Violins carved from wood are relatively elastic:...

    Wow! I didn't know violins were carved from solid. I thought they were assembled from a set of parts - back, front, sides, sound post, etc. I'm impressed at the way violin makers manage to get the wood thickness so even....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Learning something new...

      Not sure if you are being sarcastic of not, but you still carve the pieces. Many are laser cut these days, but some still do it all by hand.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Learning something new...

      The backs are carved out from a block to give them a convex profile on the outside and concave on the inside.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wrong letter

    I always thought those holes were shaped to look like 'S'es, y'know, for Stradivarius...

    1. Tromos
      Joke

      Re: Wrong letter

      They were going to be 'O's, but the centre bit kept falling out.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wrong letter

        That can be a problem with A-holes too.

    2. Peter Simpson 1
      Happy

      Re: Wrong letter

      Well, they are "s" holes, but in the olden days, "s" was written like "f", so that's the explanation.

      // fo full of bullfhit it'f not funny...

  12. J Neil Schulman

    The true secret to Stradivarius' SUPERIOR sound

    The true "secret to Stradivarius' SUPERIOR sound" is that for the past three centuries violins, violas, and cellos made in the Cremona shops of Amati, Guarneri, and Stradiveri have been prized and played by the world's best virtuoso performers and they make them sound GREAT.

  13. Alister Silver badge

    Did anyone scientifically measure the effect a couple of bullet holes had on the sound qualities of the Stradivari Cello in that Bond film (Living Daylights was it)?

    (Yes, I know it wasn't a real one...)

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