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Old strings


Argon55
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So, this is a question about strings, their ageing and how that might affect the sound. Perhaps it belongs in The Fingerboard but it's a technical question really and I though I was more likely to find some expertise in here.

I'm an amateur violinist (not especially talented but good enough to play in a community orchestra playing mainstream symphonic repertoire) and I've always been rather puzzled by the claim you need to change your strings regularly because they age or "go dead". I've never encountered this, despite trying to create the condition by leaving strings on my violin for at least a three years in a couple of instances. I do hear a change in sound after a few days when I put new strings on my violin (especially with Dominants) but after that, they settle and seem to sound the same for a long, long time. I only play on synthetic strings by the way and practice daily.

Now I may have cloth ears but I have good hearing and am quite sensitive to subtle differences in sound in other areas of life outside music. So I wondered whether there is any objective evidence for string ageing and an accompanying change in sound? Blind testings or objectively different string acoustic spectra on ageing? Or is it one of these issues that has become commonly accepted without any actual evidence? When people claim to hear a change even when they don't so as to appear one of the crowd, or perhaps even believe they hear a change because they expect it as it's "common knowledge".

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Strings lose their elasticity over time. One result of this is that they become harder to play in tune. When we tune a violin it’s important to bow lightly because when we bow with greater pressure we are effectively stretching the string to a greater degree, and therefore raising the pitch. Old, inelastic strings are more prone to this effect, and by the same principle, are more difficult to play in tune under all conditions.

And I can perceive a diminished tone quality with old, stretched strings. You seem to be implying that we’re all subject to some herd mentality, and imagining the effect, to which I’ll respond that I’m happy to let you go on using your three year old strings. Enjoy!

 

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1 hour ago, MarkBouquet said:

Strings lose their elasticity over time.

I can't see how this could be a big factor... that somehow the spring rate of the material increases drastically or becomes non-linear?  Surely a synthetic core wouldn't become as stiff as a steel core... and even steel core strings can be played in tune (more or less).

And even steel core strings go bad as well, and definitely steel won't be changing its elasticity over time.

I think all of these effects are from either finger sweat and debris getting into the string and/or wear, which creates a non-uniform string weight per unit length and adds damping.  The damping makes the strings "dead", and nont-uniform weight distribution will make it hard to play in tune.  I have noticed these effects with steel guitar strings too.

The finger chemistry of each player can be different, and how rough they are on the strings can vary as well.  So while one player might trash a string in a few months, another might go for a lot longer.  I have strings that have been on a violin for many years, and they're not too bad... but I don't play much.

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New or lightly played strings will have a certain stiffness to them. Old, worn out strings feel like worn out rubber bands. You can feel the difference with your fingers when changing the strings. The core of synthetic strings is typically a nylon of some kind, and it stretches out over time and loses its snap, similar to the horsehair in a bow.

The frequency of string changes depends a lot on playing style and conditions.

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Don, you make some good points, and I’m not sure that I have the background to argue with them. I think it would be interesting to tune a new synthetic string to pitch, position it horizontally, hang a weight from it and carefully measure the deflection. Then do the same test after having kept the string at pitch for, say, six months, played on or not. My intuition is that the deflection would be less after the time interval. And we all know that a new string stretches for a while until it reaches pitch “stability.” But does that stretching process ever really end, or does it just slow down to the point where we’re less apt to notice it? That’s what I’m suggesting, that strings stretch and gradually lose their ability to do that.

I also find that strings on a violin that’s seldom played still seem to lose the “fat” response of new strings over time, so contaminants in the windings aren’t a necessary factor in their deterioration.

Granted, my thoughts have more intuition than scientific rigor.

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27 minutes ago, MarkBouquet said:

That’s what I’m suggesting, that strings stretch and gradually lose their ability to do that.

Certainly a polymer core string will stretch (creep) most when new, and gradually stabilize.  That's a different thing than the elastic modulus of the string, which won't change much... and that's the thing that controlls the pitch and vibration.

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Damping and elastic modulus of a synthetic material is unaffected by creep. Simple, permanent stretching should have little effect on tone after the string is retuned, EXCEPT....

Violin strings are not a thick, single strands of nylon. They tend to be multi-filament and are wound with multiple layers of wire. Considerable research has been done into the behavior of multi-filament synthetics because of the application to many industries outside the music world.

Creep and vibration, even under "modest" loads, will tend to delaminate the filaments and increase the internal friction (damping) of the string. Similar affects occur with the wire windings. Dirt and rosin buildup, and finger oils and salts penetrate into the windings and filaments and over time contribute to friction loss (damping). 

The "ideal" string in terms of longevity might be a solid synthetic with very low creep rate, but with enough density not to need metal windings to keep the string at a usable diameter. 

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Do we have the evidence?  Several effects have been alleged here.  Some of them make more sense to me than others, but I don't really know.  I can understand wear making the string non-even.  One thing I don't understand is the rapid change in sound when strings are first strung.  It seems to me that changes can be measured.

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16 hours ago, MarkBouquet said:

Strings lose their elasticity over time. One result of this is that they become harder to play in tune. When we tune a violin it’s important to bow lightly because when we bow with greater pressure we are effectively stretching the string to a greater degree, and therefore raising the pitch. Old, inelastic strings are more prone to this effect, and by the same principle, are more difficult to play in tune under all conditions.

And I can perceive a diminished tone quality with old, stretched strings. You seem to be implying that we’re all subject to some herd mentality, and imagining the effect, to which I’ll respond that I’m happy to let you go on using your three year old strings. Enjoy!

 

Well yes we are all subject to some sort of herd mentality. In human societies, if you don't conform, you can often get ostracised, which in some circumstances can be disastrous for that individual. Psychology tells us that unless we have some sorts of neurological developmental disorders, we all take some care to be one of the crowd. We've evolved to be members of groups with complex dynamics requiring cooperation and influence. We've also evolved with lots of cognitive biases too, which make most of our opinions extremely subjective. So for example, if I knowingly pick up an expensive pair of binoculars, I'm likely to prefer the view in them to a cheap pair, even when I know of this cognitive bias. The same things apply to sound as well. That's not to be critical of people. After all, we are human and can't escape from the way our brains work. But at least the scientific method attempts to correct for these biases (mostly successfully), which is why I asked if there was any objective evidence about strings going off. :)

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1 hour ago, Argon55 said:

... which is why I asked if there was any objective evidence about strings going off. :)

I'm quite sure that there is, if you will spend as much time talking to the engineers at the various string manufacturers as I have.

On the personal experience end, I have replaced a ton of old strings with new. Sometimes, the difference will be more apparent by replacing only one string, since less time elapses to forget how the string sounded before,  and one still has the other three older strings for comparison.

That said, some will prefer the cleaner sound and more immediate response of a new string, while others will prefer the the properties of an older and more used string.

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1 hour ago, Argon55 said:

Well yes we are all subject to some sort of herd mentality. In human societies, if you don't conform, you can often get ostracised...So for example, if I knowingly pick up an expensive pair of binoculars, I'm likely to prefer the view in them to a cheap pair, even when I know of this cognitive bias. ...After all, we are human and can't escape from the way our brains work. ...:)

I mentioned this last week , on another forum, and was told it's BS - I used wine as an example though. ^_^

Apparently some people are born with an innate ability to tell "true quality" from cr*p. :rolleyes:

However, I'm stickin' with my take on it! 

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Also from another forum...regarding guitar strings. One poster mentioned he changes strings every 3-6 weeks - to do anything else would be to dishonour the glorious sound quality of his expensive guitar. ^_^

Well...I must have a tin ear then, because my guitars all have strings at least 2 years old and they still sound fine to me.

I do know that guitar strings need to be changed out more often...maybe I'll notice a huge difference when I finally put on a new set.

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1 hour ago, Argon55 said:

But at least the scientific method attempts to correct for these biases (mostly successfully), which is why I asked if there was any objective evidence about strings going off. :)

I don't think there are any double blinded controlled experiments. It would be hard, and extraordinarily laborious to carry out such a project for so little gain. On the other hand, most players and even students find that that either the reliability or the sound of their strings decline over time depending on the string type, playing hours and sweat type. If you don't hear the degradation in sound in three year old Dominant's I am surprised, but that's about all I can say. You must also be blessed with the perfect sweat composition, because many of us would find our wound strings disintegrating long before they reached 3 years.

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22 minutes ago, Rue said:

Also from another forum...regarding guitar strings. One poster mentioned he changes strings every 3-6 weeks - to do anything else would be to dishonour the glorious sound quality of his expensive guitar. ^_^

Well...I must have a tin ear then, because my guitars all have strings at least 2 years old and they still sound fine to me.

We all have different psycho-audio thresholds. Some are more psycho than audio. We also have different thresholds of sensitivity. What I find acceptable, might annoy the hell out of you. My daughters, both lifelong musicians, listen and hear very differently to me, a life long audience member and non musician. I started playing only in my fifties, but now, in that next decade, I hear and listen in a different way than I did before I played.

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15 minutes ago, Televet said:

We all have different psycho-audio thresholds. Some are more psycho than audio. We also have different thresholds of sensitivity. What I find acceptable, might annoy the hell out of you. My daughters, both lifelong musicians, listen and hear very differently to me, a life long audience member and non musician. I started playing only in my fifties, but now, in that next decade, I hear and listen in a different way than I did before I played.

Yup. My wife, who was doing regular paid gigs from the age of about 14, has such a discriminating sense of sound, that I consult her every chance I get.

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27 minutes ago, Televet said:

... I started playing only in my fifties, but now, in that next decade, I hear and listen in a different way than I did before I played.

Now why did I picture you as being in your late 30's? :mellow:

10 minutes ago, David Burgess said:

Yup. My wife, who was doing regular paid gigs from the age of about 14, has such a discriminating sense of sound, that I consult her every chance I get.

How often does she change guitar strings?

My guitar playing isn't good enough for me to notice subtleties - although I can tell right away if the instrument is out of tune. And before you laugh, I have an acquaintance who plays very well (technique wise) - but doesn't seem to notice if the instrument is fully in tune. :blink:

I find my violin strings sound fine for 1-2 years (depending on brand). Once I notice they sound dull though...I can't stand it, have to replace them right away. ^_^

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1 hour ago, Rue said:

I mentioned this last week , on another forum, and was told it's BS - I used wine as an example though. ^_^

Apparently some people are born with an innate ability to tell "true quality" from cr*p. :rolleyes:

However, I'm stickin' with my take on it! 

Absolutely. A few years ago in the UK, they got a bunch of Masters of Wine (the qualification for professional wine buyers, so rather expert) together to do blind tastings. Overall, their opinions were no better than guesses. I think in that trial, they also  found that with blind tastings, they couldn't distinguish white from red! Says it all really.

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1 hour ago, Televet said:

 

I don't think there are any double blinded controlled experiments. It would be hard, and extraordinarily laborious to carry out such a project for so little gain. On the other hand, most players and even students find that that either the reliability or the sound of their strings decline over time depending on the string type, playing hours and sweat type. If you don't hear the degradation in sound in three year old Dominant's I am surprised, but that's about all I can say. You must also be blessed with the perfect sweat composition, because many of us would find our wound strings disintegrating long before they reached 3 years.

Agreed. It would be difficult to do double blind tests. And probably not worth the effort unless somebody decided to do a PhD on this sort of stuff. Hmmm....now there a thought!

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I clearly experience changes over time in the strings I use.  I dislike the sound of brand new strings immediately after I put them on my instruments and it takes some time for them to settle in, more for some brands than others but all of them have to "break in".  So I'm surprised when I read about concert performers putting new strings on just before a concert.  This break in effect might be local in the sense that it is audible to the player but listeners might not hear it.  Certainly new strings require more frequent tuning, presumably because the strings have to stretch out.  I do experience a degradation of the sound after some time, with my schedule of practice and playing often need to change strings after around a year of use.  I've also experienced having strings go false after a time.  FWIT I generally use Evah Pirazzi strings.

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4 hours ago, Argon55 said:

.................So for example, if I knowingly pick up an expensive pair of binoculars, I'm likely to prefer the view in them to a cheap pair, even when I know of this cognitive bias...........

You picked a really good bad example here.  The differences between brands of binoculars (and camera lenses, and telescopes, and all other forms of optical equipment), which usually favor the more expensive models, can be readily and repeatably demonstrated both in the lab as well as in field performance, independent of a human observer's biases. 

I'll note that the price to performance correlation of optical equipment is far more dependable (and linear) than that of violins and any accessories associated with them.  :)

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Most of the players I work with prefer to have at least a week for their strings to acclimate before a performance.

I don’t know if there is a way to test string longevity (other than player observations) but I wonder if it would be possible to measure the stiffness of the string at different times. An old string feels like a piece of twine—the difference from when it’s new is quite plain, especially with a high tension set like Evah Pirazzi.

In the end I think player evaluations are much more important than lab tests. 

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On 9/18/2020 at 10:05 PM, Argon55 said:

So I wondered whether there is any objective evidence for string ageing and an accompanying change in sound? 

It’s going to vary depending on frequency of use but age is apparent by discolouration and wear. The string will get darker, metal windings can get flattened/crushed, the silk end will become frayed/ fluffy and eventually the string will break. It usually sounds awful way before this happens and most will change strings when they notice this.

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When I suggested that strings could be tested, I wasn't suggesting that we assemble the usual 100 monkeys with young ears and argue for 100 years about listening tests.  :D

Several hypotheses for aging of strings have been suggested, and these can be tested.  Elasticity?  Stretching as a function of time?  Easy.  Stiffness?  Easy to measure.  Damping?  Maybe a little harder, but easily measurable.  Non-uniform thickness and weight?  Definitely.  Dirt between the windings?  This effect too can be tested, and maybe they can even be cleaned.

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