Violin: A Classical Beauty of Stringed Musical Instruments

Eloquent of sound, the violin. Here are some interesting facts about this classical musical instrument...

Violin: the Quintessential Classic

The bowed instrument with the high voice. Born of ancient origins, it is a favorite instrument of classical musicians as well as folk/traditional and jazz performers.

A diagram image showing the basic parts of the violin. The violin is glued together using what is called ‘hide glue’ which is an adhesive made from animal product. Hide glue is strong water-based glue that is intended to allow the violin to be disassembled if necessary, and then reassembled when the adjustments or repairs are completed. Most stringed instruments are not designed to be disassembled this way, only the violin.

A weaker strength of this adhesive glue is use on the nut and fingerboard and it is common to have need of repairs to these components.

Violin identifications of parts chart

Image Source – (above) Wikimedia Commons Image

Violin Back and Internal Support

  violin back, not assembled yet   and    violin internal support braces, pre-assembled state

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Violins (or fiddles) can be ornate with carvings or more ‘traditional’ with plain coloration that reveal the detailed nature wood grain. The best, most coveted violins are the ones made in the 16th through 18th centuries by skilled families of luthiers (“violin makers”) such as Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati. Prized today for the unique and mellow sounds, they are the pinnacle of the violin-makers craft. The older a violin gets the nicer the tone becomes because as the wood and varnish union ages, they becomes more flexible. The master craftsmen learned secrets over time how to craft their instruments to emit the very best sounds. The overall size, materials used (certain wood provides better sound that other varieties) gradient thicknesses and even the stain and varnish used contribute to the final result. As the wood and the varnish age together, they become more supple, creating a more desirable tone when played. Older violins sound the very best. All of this together can make the best-sounding musical instrument. Mass-produced instruments almost certainly do not adhere to the majority of these traditions, yet they seek to produce the best sounds possible and come as close as possible to the works of the masters.

violin body partially assembled, face ('front') still missing

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Created from different types of wood, violins are very particular instruments and the sound they create is closely tied to the materials used. The modern ‘electric’ and the ‘silent’ violins do not however, as they use either modern sound pick-up amplification microphones or in the case of the ‘silent violin’, are intentioned to be nearly mute. This is to allow a violinist to play and practice within apartment and multi-tenant swellings without adversely disturbing the neighbors. Loud enough to be heard and appreciated but silent enough to not bother even people in the next room.

Old Violin

an old violin close-up view

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The person whom plays the instrument is called a violinist, or fiddler, regardless of what the musical performance genre is. Other members of the ‘violin’ family include the viola, a larger version of the violin, and the cello which is a floor-standing version of the bowed instrument.

Playing the instrument is done by using a ‘bow,’ a long wooden dowel rod to which long strands of course fiber, usually the hairs from the tail of a horse, which are tensioned tightly by an adjustable knob on the end of the bow. When drawn across one or more stings of the violin, a tone is produced. Rosin is used to lubricate the bow strings to produce a less squeaky tone and reduce the amount friction. The violin strings are tuned in perfect fifth increments and most of the classic violins do not have the typical ‘frets’ to denote musical tone increments on the playing neck. This was a more modernized introduction. Plucking of the strings with the fingers of either hand in conjunction with the use of the bow constitutes another method of playing the violin, and is common for some types of improvisational playing.

The strings of the violin can be steel strings, catgut (which is really sheep intestines and not real ‘cat’ entrails) or man-made synthetic material, such as nylon perhaps. Some of the finest violins ever produced by Stradivari have such mellow and beautiful tones that their actual construction materials and methods somewhat elude master violin makers of today. I recall an account of a man whom upon the draining of a lake chanced upon many water-logged hardwood logs that had many years prior sank to the silty bottom of the lake where they laid undisturbed for many decades. The lumber had unique qualities of hollow wood cell chambers and yet was not rotted owing probably to the low oxygen level of the lake bed, yet the structure was sound, compact and intact. He thought to try slicing these logs at a lumber mill into thin sheet and machining them into flats suitable for making violins and the result was musical instruments that nearly rival the best works of the 16th century masters! Electron microscope examination of the wood structure revealed a striking similarity between the old violin material and the material salvaged from the bottom of the lake. Perhaps the old master luthiers accidentally happened upon a source of submerged lumber material that gave them such a competitive and qualitative edge in the industry?

Front & Back Prepped for Being Hollowed Out

violin back and front is prepared to be hollowed-out, forming a concavity on the inside and a convexity on the outside surface

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The inside front and back of the violin are not flat, but gently convex-biased outward from the internal center. Using a precise depth guide and the use of drill bit augers, the rough depths are plumbed and the violin maker must chisel-out the bowel, making it smooth and even. Then, the outside planes are sanded smooth to create a uniform thickness to tolerances specified by the craft.

There is much handiwork in the crafting and creation of a violin!

Violin Face Close-Up

close-up of a beautiful violin face

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Detail of the F-Holes and Bridge. The bridge is that white wood device that holds the string away from the body. Its ornate shape allow for flexibility when playing without changing the tone. A solid bridge without these flexible cut-outs would make the violin sounds completely different and not so nice.

Modern Electric Violin

A modern electric open-body violin, still beautiful

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Because of the electric pick-up amp, there is no need for special wood materials and shapes to produce the desired sound. The amplifier does the work and the instrument sounds just fine.

Bright Beautiful Violin

bright beautiful violin

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Some of the older violins often have elaborate carvings and elaborate scroll work designs on the back and edges, adding to the intrigue and value of these ancient instruments. Much forethought would have had to gone into such a design and the creation of such a work surely would have taken much time. The image above appears to be of a more modern construction.

The Violin, Musical Instrument with Style

old, used and in need of repair, the violins here are still gorgeous

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Old and used, waiting for repair. These will have a most pleasant sound when rebuilt. A truly good violin has a particular odor to it, sometime described as ‘mouse pee.’ At least, that is what my brother claims. I have ’sniffed’ the odor from the F-Hole of several old violins and yes, -that is what it probably smells most like. He is a violinist, although he prefers to be called a ‘fiddler.’

A quick ‘field test’ to a violin’s state of construction is to do something that he calls ‘barking’. You place your mouth close to either F-Hole and ‘bark’ once loudly and if you can hear all four strings respond with their open tone, the violin is stable and not coming unglued or too loose. The sound of your ‘barking’ is translated backwards through the body of the violin and, if it is in good shape, the strings play the vibrations! It the exact reverse of playing the strings using the bow and hearing ‘good tone’ emanate through the F-Hole slots.

I really need to play my violin more than I do. I have not played or learned anything new is some time and I have to say that I miss it. Mostly, I just take my violin out when I am alone and play for a few minutes at any one time. Just enough to say that I played today.

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Ileen Zovluck
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thestickman
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Jerry Walch
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