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Scientific investigations of Stradivarius violins--an updated review article


Bruce Tai
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1 hour ago, sospiri said:

But I'm sure that too much varnish is bad for the sound.

I do not think so. However, I restored an old car horn I found home. There was a thin weakly semi domed metal plate with an adjustment screw in the center. Behind there was a tagged wheel driven by a push down mechanism. The horn in front was made of brass. I cleaned it and painted it with spray paint, I think. And I also painted the metal diaphragm source plate with a metal powder paint. After I did that, the noise level dropped noticeably.

I had this on the rollover on my half chopper trimmed moped, and could operate it with my right foot. 

Two things happen. Added weight, and damping. metal has very low damping in general, some metals less than others. The added, rather thick, paint probably changed the damping quite a lot. And that affects the resulting sound pressure level. 

When the damping already is substantial, as for wood, or more so grounded wood, then the added damping from a thick varnish does very little. The added weight and thickness does not make much difference either. And the effect becomes even smaller when the instrument is held for playing.

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23 hours ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

As Don Noon and others have often pointed out-if it doesn't sound exactly like what most players are used to then it is unacceptable. People often don't like change.

It’s not only the people.

Composers had often a typical string sound in mind when composing their music. If I remember correctly Carleen Hutchins made an experiment with the viola air volume and found that neither too big nor too small volume works musically in Mozart’s duos, because Mozart used the air volume sound characteristic in his pieces. There are certainly more compositions in this category, especially from composers who played the instrument themselves.

However, music, instruments and listener perception is an evolutionary process. Violin sound has already evolved from baroque because the baroque style would not work in romantic music. Right now I think we are heading towards some sort of ‘power up’ sound. (In the words of Paul Hindemith: ‘Tonschoenheit ist Nebensache’ (Beauty of sound is unimportant))
 

(So if you find for your visionary violin models a composer who creates music for it you come a step closer to the goal.)

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2 hours ago, Andreas Preuss said:

Right now I think we are heading towards some sort of ‘power up’ sound. (In the words of Paul Hindemith: ‘Tonschoenheit ist Nebensache’ (Beauty of sound is unimportant))

While I agree that power is becoming more prized, I wouldn't say that beauty of sound is unimportant... just that the balance of importance generally may have shifted.

One factor that I think may enter into the equation is the sound at the player's ears.  The "typical Cremonese sound" exhibits a subdued or even weak response in the ~600 to 1400 Hz range, where the modes that generate the sound tend to be in the lower bout, closest to the player's ears.  Higher frequencies tend to be generated in the upper bout, farthest from the player.  It is my opinion as a player that the strong midrange can be excruciatingly loud and offensive for the player, without much added power getting out to the listeners.  Why would a player want that kind of instrument?

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12 minutes ago, Don Noon said:

I wouldn't say that beauty of sound is unimportant

I was half way kidding.

I just see that players almost never ask as first question 'how beautiful does it sound?' but most of the time 'Does it have power?'

The quote from Hindemith is a heading in one of his solo viola compostions. I think he somehow reflected as a composer how in his days (already almost 100 years ago) sound beauty played a role in music. In this piece, like in many other compositions, he took it from a humoristic side and composed one movement where 'sound beauty' really doesn't matter.

Thanks for your analytical input on this matter, basically I do agree.

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1 hour ago, Don Noon said:

While I agree that power is becoming more prized, I wouldn't say that beauty of sound is unimportant... just that the balance of importance generally may have shifted.

One factor that I think may enter into the equation is the sound at the player's ears.  The "typical Cremonese sound" exhibits a subdued or even weak response in the ~600 to 1400 Hz range, where the modes that generate the sound tend to be in the lower bout, closest to the player's ears.  Higher frequencies tend to be generated in the upper bout, farthest from the player.  It is my opinion as a player that the strong midrange can be excruciatingly loud and offensive for the player, without much added power getting out to the listeners.  Why would a player want that kind of instrument?

Let's not forget that the violin was invented to accompany the voice. The violin has been imitating male singer formants since its invention, as shown in my 2018 PNAS paper. Carrying power is another feature of operatic singers. I believe that great violins are imitating human singers in some ways that we still do not understand. We can't judge voice quality by looking at the spectra alone. We don't now what spectral features distinguishes a great singer. 

I have a theory on why violin models have not changed much since the days of Stradivari. Drastic changes cause violins to loose its singing qualities, deviating from the favorable traits of the human voice. When we finally understand what acoustics features makes Pavarotti being Pavarotti, we will understand what makes Stradivari being Stradivari. There is still a long way to go. 

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3 hours ago, Bruce Tai said:

1. Let's not forget that the violin was invented to accompany the voice.

2. The violin has been imitating male singer formants since its invention, as shown in my 2018 PNAS paper.

3. Carrying power is another feature of operatic singers. I

4. believe that great violins are imitating human singers in some ways that we still do not understand.

5. We can't judge voice quality by looking at the spectra alone.

6. We don't now what spectral features distinguishes a great singer. 

7. I have a theory on why violin models have not changed much since the days of Stradivari. Drastic changes cause violins to loose its singing qualities, deviating from the favorable traits of the human voice.

8. When we finally understand what acoustics features makes Pavarotti being Pavarotti, we will understand what makes Stradivari being Stradivari. There is still a long way to go. 

1. Opinion is very divided on that one. Most probably was "invented" for outdoor dancing.

2. It may have similarities with.  It is not IMITATING male singers. When played in a certain way and in certain conditions most people musically inclined think of a female soprano voice.

3. Yes. However, the "operating singers" at the time the violin was invented sang very differently.

4. The reason "we" do not understand is because in all probability that's not the case. 

5. True. But it's worse : we can't judge voice quality. With very rare exceptions the "judgement" is all over the place. 

6. True. 

7. You're kidding yourself and what is "much" ?? They did change and "much" by some opinions. A typical Amati does not sound remotely like a Long Strad. And the Lord Wilton DG does not sound like a Steiner. And of course, the average public won't really notice or care and that in itself means nothing.

8. We understand what acoustic features make  Pav. sound like Pav. The rest is wishful, uninformed thinking. There is no connection between Pav's mechanism of sound production and a wooden violin.

Michael Darnton had somewhere a list of the qualities top violins have and a short commentary on each. I would suggest you might find beneficial to read it carefully and if possible make further quantification based on exact definitions, of course. I mentioned this to you before and I don't think it stuck : if you're looking for human voice formants, you will find them anywhere. My dog barking has them. My cat does actually way better than average. It's the cuddling where it comes short. 

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Pavarotti wasn't tall, but he was a big fella. It's not a cliché to say he had big lungs. I would bet that he did indeed have a 8very large lung capacity and a big heart to match, thus a very large aerobic capacity. I don't know how this assists volume.

His vocal range was narrow but high. Much higher than mine. Those were some of his genetic components. So if we sang the same notes he would be much louder than me in his lower range.

My range is C1 up to C#4 just over 3 octaves  his was C#3 to F5 less than 2 1/2

 

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The violin has no frets on the fingerboard. Nor does our voice. A good player can perform the same music as the sung. I agree that the violin has been used to accompany dance. Think about Kletzmer music for instance. There are numerous examples. Our folk music has a large dance music reportuire, but that deos not cover the entire. There is also a special non-chromatic tonality that actually has relatives in our old folk music, playing and song.

I think the music is more important than the voice per se. And I think it mainly has been performed indoor for dance, although it can happen outdoor too. Outdoors only the gound or a near reflecting building helps the violin and instruments to carry. But in dance, the rytm is more important than the melody. And all dancers contribuutes to it. Sometimes the audience does too. 

In Kletzmer music there appear to be a sjangre of particularly equilibristic performance for listening. Some electric guitar players perform along such a line, as does jazz musicians, singers and others. «The creative birdieness». 

Edited by Anders Buen
A bit more elaboration
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10 hours ago, Carl Stross said:

If you're looking for human voice formants, you will find them anywhere.

No, you will not.

We tried to analyze pianos and Chinese guqin and they don't show voice-like formants. Some instruments produce voice-like formants but a lot of them don't. 

The reason that violins show voice-like formants are actually known: 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23997425_Structural_acoustics_model_of_the_violin_radiativity_profile

One can download the Bissinger paper and look at Figure 9. It is pretty amazing that the body resonance prodcues human F1, F2, F3, and F4 formants. 

The first paper to show that LPC formant analysis used in phonetics can be applied to violin sounds was my paper in 2012: 

https://www.savartjournal.org/index.php/sj/article/view/16

If one drastically alters the violin shape, size, or arching, I suspect that the voice-like formants will be affected. Once deviating too much from the human voice, we may not like it. This is my speculation. But it can be tested by violin makers. If Hutchins were still alive, I think she would be interested.  

We have published step-by-step instructions on how to analyze voice-like formants by a free phonetics software called PRAAT.

https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/suppl/2018/05/17/1800666115.DCSupplemental/pnas.1800666115.sd01.pdf

It only takes 30 min to learn the LPC analysis if you follow our 7-page instruction above. Plug in a sustained, recorded piano note. And you will find that the piano does not produce voice-like formants.  Makers who experiment with drastic changes to violin geometry can try to record their violins and use our method to analyze voice-like formants. We have used this method to analyze 17 violins on eight different microphones in two recording sessions. It seems to work well in all cases. It works for human singing, too, although this type of LPC was developed for speech initially. To make the violin sound like a male singer was Amati's genius (our 2018 PNAS paper had analyzed a 1570 Amati violin). I may be the first to propose this theory. We don't give Andrea Amati nearly enough credit. He made the wooden box sing like a human, amazing. 

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Bruce, you can find ideas like yours in early German violin acoustics literature. They use vowel descriptors on the sounds, which probably is fairly useful and understandable by the readers. The tone of a violin can be shaped, if you know how to play well. You can change the bowing position, which changes the spectrum and where the dips come. Some of the spectrum is indeed related to the design, - of course. The design done by the repairmen and not Stradivari, if you think about the "singers formant". Stradivari used a different bridge design. 

This is not particularly intersting, if you make violins or other instruments, and some of the observations look more like biased and somewhat bombastic "truths" than neutral observations. It is fun to have access to the fine old instruments, and this becomes a part of the game. To please the owners. 

Fun enough, but it is far from science.

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3 hours ago, Bruce Tai said:

 

If Hutchins were still alive, I think she would be interested. 

Perhaps, but I don't know of any successful violin maker who still applies her theories. The couple of times I attended her lectures, (yes, I am really that old :lol:), my impression was that she was much more into pomp, than substance.

Lots of silly stuff, like "my violas are so powerful, that people have accused me of having hidden electric amplifiers inside".

Back when that was all the rage, I kept a Hutchins viola in the shop, so people could compare for themselves. I've got to give her credit for that instrument selling many of mine. :lol:

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3 hours ago, Bruce Tai said:

To make the violin sound like a male singer was Amati's genius (our 2018 PNAS paper had analyzed a 1570 Amati violin). I may be the first to propose this theory. 

Bruce, please use the correct scientific terminology. Hypothesis, not theory.

You have to be a genius to propose a theory. 

Anyways, Andrea Amati didn't invent the violin did he? He just made it look more sexy. That's my theory. And I know it's incontestable.

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3 hours ago, Bruce Tai said:

No, you will not.

We tried to analyze pianos and Chinese guqin and they don't show voice-like formants. Some instruments produce voice-like formants but a lot of them don't. 

I have to ( very ) respectfully disagree. Pianos, in my experiments,  do show voice like formants.  May I suggest you try again one day ? I am not familiar with the Chinese instrument in question. Also, in my opinion only,  the PRAAT software is not reliable.  

I must say I am surprised by a statement such as " To make the violin sound like a male singer was Amati's genius". It is not clear to me what is it you mean by "sound like". I never heard an Amati which sounded like a male singer and I never met somebody who did. I suggest that maybe some other qualification must be added to "male singer". "Sound like" means I should be able to hear the similarity. I do not. 

Anyway, thank you for taking the time to reply.

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22 hours ago, Andreas Preuss said:

If I remember correctly Carleen Hutchins made an experiment with the viola air volume and found that neither too big nor too small volume works musically in Mozart’s duos, because Mozart used the air volume sound characteristic in his pieces.

How did she know what "works musically" means ? Or, what does it mean "works musically" in her opinion ? The reason I ask is that when instruments are supposed to "blend" in a quartet the viola is not just a larger violin and the cello not just a larger viola. That does happen and sounds.... not interesting. 

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4 hours ago, David Burgess said:

>.

Back when that was all the rage, I kept a Hutchins viola in the shop, so people could compare for themselves. I've got to give her credit for that instrument selling many of mine. :lol:

You're welcome to borrow one of my violas if it would help sales.

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21 hours ago, David Burgess said:

Perhaps, but I don't know of any successful violin maker who still applies her theories. The couple of times I attended her lectures, (yes, I am really that old :lol:), my impression was that she was much more into pomp, than substance.

Lots of silly stuff, like "my violas are so powerful, that people have accused me of having hidden electric amplifiers inside".

Back when that was all the rage, I kept a Hutchins viola in the shop, so people could compare for themselves. I've got to give her credit for that instrument selling many of mine. :lol:

Good to know that's what really happened.

Researchers are generally proficient in theorizing and communicating ideas, but not in the real trade of making stuff that sells. Academic experiments aim to simply things in controlled settings, instead of overcoming practical issues in complex real-life situations. Useful academic research generates useful concepts, but not functional commercial products.

Newton's law of motion allowed us to design and build trains, but a train built by Newton would be a wreck. I believed Newton burned down his study (with the manuscript of Principia) while carrying out alchemy experiments. He was not willing to admit it because alchemy was kind of taboo at Cambridge. However, the king/queen did eventually hire him to analyze the purity of gold coins collected from world trade. He was for 20+ years the Master of the Royal Mint, and he surely knew a lot about gold metallurgy.  Newton also derived the relationship for wave velocity in solids, a cornerstone of physical acoustics (Principia, 1687). Some people say the Baroque Age produced three geniuses who have not been surpassed: Newton, Bach, and Stradivari. 

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44 minutes ago, Bruce Tai said:

I believed Newton burned down his study (with the manuscript of Principia) while carrying out alchemy experiments. He was not willing to admit it because alchemy was kind of taboo at Cambridge. However, the king/queen did eventually hire him to analyze the purity of gold coins collected from world trade. He was for 20+ years the Master of the Royal Mint, and he surely knew a lot about gold metallurgy.

A unique metallurgical experiment of Newton’s from his time as Mintmaster (not particularly germane to this discussion, but a cool thing, nonetheless):

29CF8311-7C79-4368-B034-59A455748DE9.jpeg

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On ‎4‎/‎25‎/‎2021 at 7:30 AM, Carl Stross said:

How did she know what "works musically" means ? Or, what does it mean "works musically" in her opinion ? The reason I ask is that when instruments are supposed to "blend" in a quartet the viola is not just a larger violin and the cello not just a larger viola. That does happen and sounds.... not interesting. 

The viola players testing the instruments must have told her.

 

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11 hours ago, Peter K-G said:

These overgrown, large and jumbo violins, called viola and cello, are just experiments that acoustically went terribly wrong.

I thought the cellos is no less perfect than the violin. Some say the cello is closer to human voice than violins. I have not been able to record great cellos to see whether they produce voice-like formants. Anyone has the chromatic scale recordings of great cellos that I can analyze? 

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