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What Should A Good Violin Sound Like?


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I am fascinated by this discussion. I must begin by saying I cannot read music, play an instrument, or have any training in lutherie, music or art.

I have bought and sold over 500 violins in 2 years. That is the full extent of my experience. All of my violins have sold for less than $5000. Most are under $1000. I have managed to learn a few scales and half a dozen of something resembling songs that I wouldn't ask anyone to listen to. I cannot accurately tune without an electronic tuner, although I am getting close.

I can say without question that I can hear the differences between violins that I have played. I would say that I could even identify some of them blindfolded, as long as I have played them recently. I can tell if they are bright, dark, loud, quiet, harsh, or mellow. I cannot identify them with the same ease if someone else plays them. I have friends who are professional violinists with major Boston orchestras and ensembles that test play many of my violins. They often agree with my impressions. I cannot judge power or focus because I cannot play aggressively enough nor do I have any intonation.

My friends can make even very poor violins sound ok, and decent ones sound great. I have real trouble hearing the differences except under my own ear. I must extrapolate that professionals experience the same thing at a higher and more complex level.

Would a professional, used to the tone of fine concert violins, be able to judge a violin’s sound when played by another great player, or would they have to play it themselves? Would top players ever consider buying a fine violin without playing it themselves? Would it be enough to hear a comparable player play it for them? My guess is the feedback to the player when they are playing it is the difference between good violins and that difference is difficult for the listener to ascertain.

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Would a professional, used to the tone of fine concert violins, be able to judge a violin’s sound when played by another... player, or would they have to play it themselves?


My husband had an audition many years back in which he didn't win the job, but the committee sent a proctor backstage to find out what kind of violin he was playing. They were crazy about its sound, particularly on the e string. (Incidentally, that was a modern violin, a Kinberg.)

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Yeun, when I indicate the quality of my violin, that is based on the playing character. I can play my "lesser" violin and feel very happy with the sound, but it does not inspire. When I switch to the better violin, there is always a "oh yeah, wow" feeling to playing it compared to the other. The specifics of that wow are complexity and response. The violin just reacts faster and the tone produced has a brilliance the other lacks. I have not had the opporutnity to try my teacher's violin but I expect it would provide even more of this "wow factor".

I'm an amateur, would I be willing to pay $2,000 more for that extra sound? Would I pay $2M if I had it? I don't know and I haven't had to decide. I do know I would want it however and that I spent about $500 on this violin last year just to be able to play it and am considering another round of expense to improve its playability with a neck reset. All because of the "wow" when it is under my chin.

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Taking a standard reference (Stroblel's "Useful Measurements...") the thickness of the neck at the nut is given as 13mm, at the root as 14 mm. If a wedge is added with a maximum thickness at the root of 2mm, the percentage of increase of the thickness of the neck with the wedge over that of the neck alone is 14.28%. Of course, some violins have necks which are thinner than standard - in such a case a wedge might actually bring the overall thickness closer to the standard. On the other hand, some violins (very many, in fact, especially in the commercial or "trade" category) have necks which are thicker than standard. In such cases the addition of a wedge could make the thickness approach Baroque measurements. Then, as we all know, not all fingerboards are of ideal proportions - an over-thick fingerboard can considerably add to the discomfort factor, apart from other considerations.

Becker may or may not use wedges "routinely" - I don't know. Whether he would in all instances opt for a wedge rather than a neckset might be debatable, unless cost is a major factor. Whether he would use wedges indiscriminately - regardless of the fingerboard and/or neck thicness - I would imagine is unlikely. That he would contrive a setup which is the best which individual circumstances will allow I don't doubt. That this would, in the case of a wedge, always result in a "perfect" setup I find hard to believe.

And finally, that with an optimally bad set of circumstances - a thick neck, a thick fingerboard, and a wedge as well - ease of playing will be affected, and intonation in higher registers be rendered troublesome, cannot be doubted. If this were not so, where do the standard modern neck measurements come from, and what possible practical purpose do they serve? All this apart from what I've seen and experienced as a luthier, based on the input of players.

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"My guess is the feedback to the player when they are playing it is the difference between good violins and that difference is difficult for the listener to ascertain."

- That's true. You can both hear and feel this feedback when playing a violin. You can't get all that just by listening to somebody else play it.

Have you ever considered the odds that among all the millions of violins made since Stradivari, not one of them could be as good? That would probably be a mathematical impossibility. I have never played a Strad, but I have played some exceptionally fine fiddles. While I can't know for myself how those would compare to a Strad, I do doubt the difference in their values would refelct a commensurate difference in sound quality or playability. The monetary value of a famous violin is like that of a famous painting. The biggest part of it has to do with pedigree.

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Hi Yuen! I think that your capacity of judging violins will increase with time, as you play better, you will need better violins.

Andrew Victor: Bergonzi is great, it seems that he made violins with thick plates, as Del Gesù. Unfortunatly he left few violins, perhaps 40.

Erika: a good instruments really makes a difference in an audition. I had the oportunity to see some auditions and have noticed that.

Nicolo: Strad is important becaus he made not just ten good sounding violins, but hundreds of them. The output, influence of the maker, creativeness (Strad made his own models), all that contributes to the fame of a maker.

When we listen to Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich, Prokofief or other great composer, we recognize the style of the composer almost immediatly, even if we don`t know the piece. That occurs also with great violins, they have a personality that is unique.

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" Erika: a good instruments really makes a difference in an audition. I had the oportunity to see some auditions and have noticed that. " unquoted.

My friend passed audition and he told us (after) he used

a $30k violin. His violin has power, I know, but I don't know if that was what he needed.

Another thing,one time I went to one master class and witnessed the teacher there spotted an advanced student's

bad violin very quickly and told him to have a better violin. (first time they met). The teacher

did not even bother to look at it. The student probably did not use his main violin. The student played with great skills. It was so amazing. Some people just have sensitive ears.

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"Have you ever considered the odds that among all the millions of violins made since Stradivari, not one of them could be as good?"

That's an excellent question. The mistake is in assuming that a Strad is just the better version of any old violin. Let me put it this way: if every bicycle manufacturer made bikes from solid lead tubes, except one who used carbon fiber, what are the chances that of infinite numbers of lead bikes, one would act just like the carbon one?

Modern violin makers make many assumptions about the similarity of what they do to what Stradivari did, yet there's no proof that they're doing anything even vaguely the same. Varnish is a good example: everyone argues about tone, but no one seriously suggests that anyone has copied the precise appearance Cremonese varnish. That's one of the reasons that people thought the tone came from the varnish--that no one had made a modern violin covered with it. Now, given that no one's done that, this means that no one is, in fact, doing what Stradivari did, in at least one very easily visible way that was formerly considered essential. What possible things are there that exist but are not as obvious as varnish? Lacking any of these could be the same as building a lead bike.

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I can understand the logic in thinking there may have been a secret varnish ingredient or other substance that soaked into the wood and affected it's resonant qualities in some way, but I never quite bought that theory.

The fact remains, evidently, that a Strad can be expected to beat out the modern competition. I have read that a high quality modern violin might hold it's own against a Strad in the lower frequency ranges, but tends to fall behind in handling high frequencies.

You have had opportunities to play a Stradivari or two. What was it like? Was there an overwhelming sensation of tone quality?

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Yes, but I'd expect that people listening without much previous experience wouldn't hear that.

A friend of mine who owned a Strad cello for about five years said that before he owned it (and not having much experience), trying to understand from what people said about Strads, that they must be the result of magic. Then, he said, for the first six months he played it, he felt that he began to understand that it was simply a great instrument. After he got to really know it really well though, he reverted to his previous opinion: that it was magic.

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I am soo confused. You are merging two totally different items in one lump...althought it sounds pretty good at first, it has nothing to do with the subject at hand??? which is the sound quality of violins. Of course, a good tool can enhance the craftman to perform his best. Of course, a good craftman would know how to use his tool to its optimum...but, how is that argument has anything to do with how good any violin sounding. Can your teacher come up with one name of a good violinist whose doesn't care what violin he own??? I'll bet most of them can make any violin sounds good. But, do you know any of them turn down an opportunity to own (or play) a Strad??? What is your teacher point?? Does he not liking a Strad??

And I don't think what you said is true at all:

"It just may be that Strad magic is the ability to be whatever the player wants it to be, to take the effort of making music away so that everything flows from the player's heart to the music emanating from the violin, and you forget that there is an instrument in the middle."

I don't think any Strad can make a lousy player sounds good???

Didn't your teacher try to sell you a "better violin"??? What happen to focusing on playing and less worry about violins???

Sorry Last chair...I hope i don't turn you off...just exchanging ideas...i hope you don't mind...

Cheers

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Nooo, don't say that!!! I have heard you playing...You are a very good player. It's just drive me nut when teachers "BS" the students. So called, "professional"!!! Who died and make them professional?? is there a standardized test to qualify these people??? In my opinion (here i go again getting in trouble with my big mouth) some of these people (remember!! not all) ruin a lots kid playing career, because they have such a chip in their shoulder. They wanted to be a performer but couldn't make it!! So they could be in very, very bad mood...and they take it on the kids...so, they make life miserable for the kids...too bad...Remember, it's not their best interest to make you a better player!! It would put them out of business...Think about it...How many time have you seen teachers making faces telling what are the wrong things you do??? How many time can they show you what is the right thing to do??? If they did, you would not have to keep coming back for more lessions!! Have you notice, after a while you keep hearing the same critics over, and over again??? No...there's nothing wrong with the way you play...they just "milking" you...

The biggest myth about learning how to play violin is: It should not take years to learn how to play violin!!!Not everyone wishes to be a concert violinist!! If after about five lessions and you still couldn't play it right...Fire your teacher!!!he/she is milking you...

Cheers,

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"It just may be that Strad magic is the ability to be whatever the player wants it to be, to take the effort of making music away so that everything flows from the player's heart to the music emanating from the violin, and you forget that there is an instrument in the middle."

Actually that is pretty much what one of the players (I think it was Isaac Stern) said on that BBC program I referred to earlier. When asked what the Strad or Guarneri gave the player he said: "security!" and went on to explain that the player didn't need to worry about what the violin might do or could do - one could just get on and concentrate on the music and know the violin would go with you whatever you did.

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"When asked what the Strad or Guarneri gave the player he said: "security!" and went on to explain that the player didn't need to worry about what the violin might do or could do - one could just get on and concentrate on the music and know the violin would go with you whatever you did."

Sure Alan...your are still talking about "responsiveness" and how a violin carries an execution by a player!!...You're still talking about a Crafman and his tool, and how he can optimized his tool...What's that has anything to do with "What Should A Good Violin Sound Like?". You've made a same confusing argument that my good friend Last Chair had done. ..Never mind...

Cheers,

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OK. A violin should sound like it's coming from everywhere at once, filling the whole end of the hall, rather than just one place where the violin is--you shouldn't be able to close your eyes and "see" where it is with your ears. It should start every single note cleanly, without any ugly noises at all, ever, no matter what, no matter how sloppy the bow attack. Vibrato should stand out, with minimal finger movement. The notes in fast passages should stand apart with impact, not smear together. It should have a pleasing quality that doesn't sound like chalk screeching on a chalkboard. It should sound loud as a cannon and soft as a whisper while retaining all those qualities, and it should have a tonal variation from sounding like dust to a knife cutting the air, with all the other qualities above still available at the same time.

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OK. A violin should sound like it's coming from everywhere at once, filling the whole end of the hall, rather than just one place where the violin is--you shouldn't be able to close your eyes and "see" where it is with your ears. It should start every single note cleanly, without any ugly noises at all, ever, no matter what, no matter how sloppy the bow attack. Vibrato should stand out, with minimal finger movement. The notes in fast passages should stand apart with impact, not smear together. It should have a pleasing quality that doesn't sound like chalk screeching on a chalkboard. It should sound loud as a cannon and soft as a whisper while retaining all those qualities, and it should have a tonal variation from sounding like dust to a knife cutting the air, with all the other qualities above still available at the same time.


Halleluya!!! Finally...may be we can end this question. Well put Micheal! Now, go make a violin sounds just like that...stop wasting your time on this ... By the way, How can one recognize or measure these characters??...just kidding ...Don't even start it...we'll never put an end to this...

Cheers,

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OK. A violin should sound like it's coming from everywhere at once, filling the whole end of the hall, rather than just one place where the violin is--you shouldn't be able to close your eyes and "see" where it is with your ears. It should start every single note cleanly, without any ugly noises at all, ever, no matter what, no matter how sloppy the bow attack. Vibrato should stand out, with minimal finger movement. The notes in fast passages should stand apart with impact, not smear together. It should have a pleasing quality that doesn't sound like chalk screeching on a chalkboard. It should sound loud as a cannon and soft as a whisper while retaining all those qualities, and it should have a tonal variation from sounding like dust to a knife cutting the air, with all the other qualities above still available at the same time.


Very true.

Ever found that you need a player to help bring out these qualities, though?

Not many violins make any sound at all if they are not being 'played'.......

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Is great sound then best judged by the player or the listener? If its the response of the violin that makes it great, or if it's Stern's "security", then the listener is really left out of the equation. Isn't a great instrument really then, the ultimate self-indulgence of the player and makes little difference to the end product-the music as it is heard by the audience?

Jesse

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On the contrary. I think that great sound can only be judged by the listener.

Sure, you need a good player to produce great sound, but I promise you, what sounds great under the ear, often sounds shocking in a concert hall. And vice versa.

If money was no object and you could buy any violin in the world that you wanted, BUT you could only base your choice on either playing it or hearing it played (not both). Which would you choose?

I'd choose the listening option every time.

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A player is also a listener.

He's just hearing a different amplification of the same qualities being heard at a distance by an audience.

Surely clarity and focus, subtlety and range -- the various qualities MD has so elegantly enumerated -- are also manifest under the ear to the player.

A violin with great response to the player is surely also being heard by the distant listener to have a clarity and sharpness of tone. So, no, I don't think "response" is a quality only detectable by the player.

The security Stern refers to is a confidence that the instrument is capable of the varied flavors. It is based on reaction to what's coming out of the fiddle, not some abstact notion of security because he's been told del Gesu's perform thus and such...

I'd say if we are talking about great tone -- as opposed to "great feel" -- then both the player and the audience are hearing describable versions of the same qualities. What may be left only to the astute player -- one who has played a range of instruments -- are the ways in which the great fiddles feel different in the hands.

The first time I held a Stradivarius (I've played, badly, on three) it truly seemed almost weightless. It seemed -- all very subjective and anthropomorphic responses, I know -- anxious to respond to the slightest provocation (and believe me, my playing was a provocation). Yet, at the same time, it was incredibly forgiving.

I've lurked through this long and meandering discussion. And all I can say is: you may think it's obvious that the value of a Strad is purely market manipulation or a conspiracy of afficiandos or its rarity or voodoo or self-delusion. Come back and weigh-in again after you've played one.

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On the contrary. I think that great sound can only be judged by the listener.

Sure, you need a good player to produce great sound, but I promise you, what sounds great under the ear, often sounds shocking in a concert hall. And vice versa....I choose the listening option every time.


Your theory sounds good...but, when is the last time any performers went out and ask the audiences which violin they should play in their concerts?? I've had this conversation with some violin playing friends...The reality is, unless you play violin, most listeners couldn't even tell the differences between a violin and a viola!! Most violins sound the same 10 feet away...unless you can afforded to be in that range...please, don't kid yourself...And this very discussion also proved that even most so called "expert"(violin enthusiasts) could not even tell: "What Should A Good Violin Sound Like?" So, who are we kidding??? As the matter fact, when i listen to Heifetz records, I alway noticing all kind of strange sounds(hissings, ackings...) that would make some of the today's "experts" rolling their eyes and make funny snoddy faces...but, because of the genious man himself did it...so it's ok. As the matter fact, when i was taking violin lessions from one of these so called "experts"...you know... "the great Russian method", I used to hold the bow the same way Heifetz did, and she would say "that's a no no...", "Heifetz could do it, but that's wrong!! you souldn't do it!!" ???...She also said "don't do vibrato like Heifetz!!!" again..."that's a no no!! That's too fast!!"

To make the long story short...most of the time, these so called "expert" are full of it!!...The bottom line is...a good violin sounding would come and smack you right in the butt...you don't need an expert to tell you...If you have to ask...may be it's not!!!

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Who's Ronnie R.? Ronnie reagan?... (by the way, I happen to believe R. Reagan was the last great Republican President). To aswer your question, it's kinda embarassing...even that we've move to California (bay area) this last time for ten years, I had never been to Yosamete park, nor that i have seen a redwood tree before...So, like our current beloved President(W)...I plead ignorant!!!So, when you ask me a difficult question (to me...any question is difficult...), I just answer you with some irrelevant answers but sounds good, so most dump poeple like me (almost 50% of the population, that's why he won the election last time, in combination with other trick his freinds and family pullled) would feel good and fuzzy inside. Like "security", "tax cut", "fighting terrorist", "Space mission to Mars", and "banning same sex mariage"...

Since most average Americans are dump and angry, and full of hatred like the president and I, all the president has to do is be himself...kinda like a "nice guy next door", whose is divorced and driving a Hummer H2...you know, an average guy...He(W) will get re-elected again...

Sorry, I am rambling again...I see too many "BS" happening, and they are bothering me...I am just a human being...

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