How to Choose a Violin: 10 Factors to Consider According to Science


By Jenn Miller

Choosing the right violin can seem like a daunting journey, but there are many factors that can be taken into account to help you decide which is the best choice for you. The violin is an exciting and beautiful instrument that is comprised of many parts that all play specific roles in creating the sound it makes.

Ranging broadly in price and quality, it can be hard to know where to begin when searching for an instrument. As the violin itself is only part of the puzzle of figuring out what you need to find in order to make the sound you want, this article will also include the accessories you will need for everything to come together.

Buying a violin is not like buying a car – You are not promised performance based on price. Although it is an investment, and you can certainly consider a very rare, high-quality violin an asset of sorts, you will need to try a lot of different types to find the violin you enjoy playing the most. Having said this, it is important to note that while you may consider your instrument an asset, it may not appreciate a particularly large amount of money with age if it is below a certain quality.

It is more common to find violins through dealers rather than auctions, but for buying your own violin to play at home, the most common route is a luthier or a music shop. Violins will vary in price greatly, depending on what you are looking for. Some violins may be extremely expensive, but as a player, you may find a cheaper option that you prefer the sound of.


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The other things to consider are your bow, the way the instrument is set up, the strings – If you are comparing two intermediate violins at a luthiers’, and let’s suppose that they are on the higher end of the price scale, perhaps [15,000$ and 16,000$] apiece, the difference between them may not be colossal; however, if you decided on the cheaper option and invested the extra [1,000$] into your bow, it may make a huge difference to the sound quality. The choice of bow will make a very noticeable difference in one’s tone.

Does this sound like a lot to keep in mind? Never fear – This process should be an opportunity for you to try out instruments in order to find one you really like. Luckily, although there are many factors to consider, this process can be very enjoyable and rewarding if some key points are taken into consideration.

One of the first things to note before venturing into the quest for the ideal violin is that you will most likely be paying for more than the violin itself. Before considering the different factors that contribute to the violin, its tone and its playability, it is important to note that you will be buying the entire outfit, unless you are already a player, or buying a set with everything included. A case, bow, shoulder rest, and rosin are just some of the essentials that may not necessarily be included in the initial purchase, so bear this in mind when budgeting for your new (or old!) violin.

The violin will usually come with the bare bones of what is required, if you are seeking your beginners’ violin. Most will have the essential parts attached, such as the bridge, tailpiece, and, especially if you are purchasing a cheaper, beginner violin, a chinrest. It is common for a beginner violin purchased from a standard music shop to come equipped with strings (more on that later), and more often than not, a bow and a case. When looking at intermediate to higher-end violins, things change a little. A luthier will most likely be selling the violin separately from the bow, so if you are looking for something more advanced, be prepared to pay more and pay for the parts separately.

The Basics

Knowledge is power! A basic knowledge of the anatomy of the violin is a good thing to have when going into a music shop in search of a beginner violin. Although most staff in music shops will be able to explain this to you, some staff may only specialize in a certain type of instrument, so it is something to consider brushing up on.

When buying a violin for a young person, the music shop staff or the luthier will usually be able to assist you, but a child or young person should be able to comfortably put their hand around the scroll of the violin without stretching their arm out straight. The sizes range from 1/16th up to full size. There are a number of helpful guidelines available online that show the different measurements, but going to test it out in person is the safest option. Nothing is quite as good as testing out an instrument in person, and having someone else accompany you to listen (more on that later on).

When purchasing a violin, you need to know how it sounds. If you are a beginner, you can ask someone else to play it for you. If the staff member you are dealing with in a music shop isn’t a violinist themselves, you can ask your violin teacher to test it out for you. Many people would be happy to do this. If you are already a player, you are probably already well informed about these tips, and are able to play the violin yourself.

Even an advanced player would usually consider asking another person to play the violin to hear how it sounds objectively. Remember to plan where you are going to play it. Are you borrowing it for a week from the luthier/music shop? Where are you going to try it out, a hall or a church? Perhaps you want to play it in a group setting, if you are part of a folk music group, or an orchestra? Hearing the instrument played, and playing it in different settings, will help you establish how much the instruments projects. These are all important things to think about when making sure you are choosing the best instrument for your needs. Remember, there are other factors to take into account – The strings and the positioning of the bridge, for example, will have a great amount of influence on the sound. We will discuss these factors later on.

The Materials

The materials used will be divided into 4 subsections, as each one is as important as the other, yet differ greatly. How do luthiers make violins, and what materials do they use?If you are a total beginner, you may actually know more about violin making than you think. Have you heard of a Stradivarius? It is common knowledge that Stradivarius violins are the most renowned of all violins, crafted by the masterful luthier Antoni Stradivari.

Many luthiers devoted their time to making violins based on his work, along with the work of the other luthiers and their schools. Their owners (or caretakers) are aware of their value, which stems from the combined talent of Stradivari himself, in conjunction with the quality of the materials he used. Stradivari crafted many different types of instruments, including cellos, violas and harps, among others, but he is most known for mastering the art of optimising his materials to craft the finest violins. Although Stradivarius violins are the territory of the professional players who are entrusted with them, don’t worry. There are a great many luthiers who craft beautiful violins.

The body: The first thing that is usually observed in a violin is the material from which it is made. For a violin to be generally considered ‘of good quality’, it will have usually been made from high quality wood. Violins will usually be made from spruce at the top, and maple on the sides, the back of the violin, and the ribs. The difference in wood grain serve as a signal of the quality of the violin. A finer grain usually indicates higher quality, however, there are many different types of wood used by different luthiers, and each is unique.

If you are buying a secondhand violin, it is advisable to gently press around the body to listen out for any creaking sounds, which may indicate a crack in the wood. Cracks can adversely affect the sound. The good news is that some cracks can be repaired by a luthier. The wood used has a major influence on sound, not only due to the wood type, but also the conditions the tree itself grew in. Different climates yielded different types of wood, and this was also a big factor for luthiers to consider, and one of the defining factors of why Stradivarius violins sounded so unique and pleasing. The wood can never be replicated exactly.

The back: Although technically a part of the overall body of the violin, the back of the violin is a part that can raise some questions for a first-time buyer. It is common to see backs made from either one single large cut of wood or two parts stuck together to form the back. The sound quality is something that will depend on the violin itself. People often wonder if there is a difference between a back that is made of a single slab of wood or a two piece back. The sound will be unique according to the violin, and as it currently stands, violins have one piece and two piece backs in every price range. The violin-maker may have had a preference depending on the cut of the wood or perhaps wanted the back to have a flare and left the single slab intact for that purpose.

The two piece backs must be assembled with a huge amount of precision, to prevent any cracking from occurring. Two piece backs will usually look rather symmetrical. The type of back and how it looks will be decided by a number of factors including the width of the wood, the aesthetic qualities of the back and the luthier’s preference. Sculpting the wood of the violin is a very important process for the luthier, and will have a bearing on how it sounds, as well as the influence of the wood itself.If you have any questions about the back, you should ask your luthier. They will, more often than not, have a great insight into the type of wood it is, how thick the wood is and where it was from.

The fingerboard: The fingerboard is the long, usually black, strip that goes from the nut of the violin all the way down to an inch or so above the bridge. This is where the strings are, and where the fingers press down onto the strings to make different notes. The fingerboard can be made of ebony or rosewood, although it can also be crafted using various other hardwoods. There are different grades of ebony, and they vary in price. However, the fingerboard is something that will be attached to the violin, so if you are buying a high-quality instrument, you can assume that the fingerboard will usually be of a high standard.Remember, the fingerboard will need some cleaning!

As we discuss in the bow section, the rosin from the bow can fall onto the fingerboard and leave a residue. One’s fingers will also naturally leave some residue on the fingerboard, so to maintain a fingerboard and make sure it stays clean, be sure to use a dry, soft cloth to wipe it down after you play.When wiping underneath the strings (between the strings and the fingerboard itself), only bring it up from the bridge area as far as is comfortable – By doing so, you minimise the amount of pressure put on the strings and protect them from breakage.

The tailpiece: The tailpiece of a violin is another component of the violin that will have a bearing on the sound. Typically, the tailpiece will be made of ebony, rosewood, boxwood, or another type of hardwood. The tailpiece will also serve to remove some vibrations from the sound produced, including the lessening of wolf notes.

The tailpiece should be light, to allow the best resonance, whilst also taming some undesirable frequencies. This is why you will quite often see advanced players use only the E string adjuster on the tailpiece. The posts (adjusters or fine tuners) that sit on the tailpiece can be very convenient for beginners, or for people who have very difficult pegs.

They allow the player to slightly tweak the tuning without going to the lengths of tuning with the pegs (the larger tuning pegs up beside the scroll). Again, this is personal preference, however, the lighter the tailpiece, the better, in a lot of cases. The adjusters add bulk to the tailpiece which can change the sound, so using only the E string adjuster, as it is such a fine string, might be something to consider for those looking to reduce the weight of the tailpiece.

The Bow

Whether a beginner or a more experienced player, a violinist will know that it takes a certain level of coordination to play. The previous link will give those interested an in depth look into the science of coordination between the brain and the bowhand. Don’t fret! This will be taught to you in violin classes, if you are just starting out. The relationship between the violin and the bow plays a very significant role in the sound that will be produced, and so it is wise to see the bow as another investment alongside the violin. A quality bow will be judged by its playing properties and tonal qualities, although there are many more factors that may influence how it feels to play and the sound it produces.

The bow can be made of horsehair or synthetic hair, and this hair will need to be replaced when it becomes too stretched, dirty or worn. A rehair using good quality horsehair can be costly, but it is a worthwhile investment. Like the strings and the rosin, good bow hair will contribute to producing the best sound possible from the instrument.

Trying out several different bows with your preferred instrument is a smart idea, as every single bow is different, even if they are from the same bowmaker. Even the hairs themselves differ, and there are many variables within the bow that can interact with the violin in different ways. Different timbres may be produced from the same violin when different bows are used. Part of the magic of choosing is trial and error.

Rosin

Rosin is a solid type of treated resin that is taken from (mostly coniferous) trees. When applied to the bow hair with a rubbing motion, it forms a powder that coats the hairs and creates enough friction for the bow hair to grip properly to the strings of the violin.

There are many different types of rosin available to purchase for your violin. The rosin will differ from brand to brand according to the ingredients used, and some rosin may be more suitable for specific bows. As mentioned above, the hair of the bow can differ, so when purchasing rosin, make sure to ask which type is most suitable. The rosin can vary from hard to soft, and may come in many different colours, depending on the ingredients. Darker rosin will often be stickier, giving the bow more grip, whereas the lighter rosins can be less so. Although a dark rosin may complement one string, it may be too coarse for another, so keep this in mind when purchasing your rosin.

Something to think about when buying rosin is that it does shed powder from the bow. As the violin is played, the combination of the string vibration and the movement of the bow hair will cause excess powder to fall from the bow, landing underneath the strings beside the bridge, and also on the lower portion of the fingerboard.

The rosin can be removed by using a dry, gentle duster that will not damage the varnish on the violin. This is best done immediately after playing, as the rosin can build up over time and harden, which creates a sticky coating on the violin which is harder to remove. When this occurs, it is possible to buy a gentle instrument cleaner from a music shop that specializes in string instruments. If you are a beginner, do not be tempted to rub it with plain water, or regular wood cleaner – This can cause a lot of damage to your violin, so avoid this at all costs.

Your local music shop, string instrument retailer or luthier will have good recommendations for what type of rosin you should use. Ask him/her about what would work best with your bow, and tell them what kind of tone you want. Do you like a warm sound, or a brighter tone? This will depend a lot on your strings too, but there are different types of rosin that can accentuate different sounds in your playing, so don’t be afraid to ask!

Strings

Before venturing into the string section (no pun intended) of this article, it is important to note this caveat – Sound is subjective. Every attempt has been made at describing the different qualities in the sounds produced, however, there is nothing that can describe sound accurately. It is a subjective thing that a musician will have to hear for themselves, however, there are some key differences in the strings, how they behave, and yes, how they sound.If you are a beginner, it is fairly easy to find a set of good, reliable strings to start off with. Strings come in a few different categories: , metal (‘steelcore’), synthetic, and gut (referred to as ‘catgut’ in the past, although these are actually made from sheep intestine). Here is a brief description of each. Bear in mind, however, that there are many different types of strings within these categories, and they can come in different gauges:

Metal strings are a relatively standard choice amongst violinists who play in band settings, or in folk music. These strings also work well with electric violins. A popular choice for beginners, as they stabilize very quickly and tend to stay in tune. The tone will generally be clear and uncomplicated.

Gut strings tend to have a mellower tone that works (usually) very well with authentic instruments, so if you are the proud owner of a beautiful, older violin, you may want to give these a try. Not the most popular choice for beginners, as they are difficult to keep in tune, but certainly a very nice, rich tone when put on the right violin. Gut strings will also need some breaking in with the bow, something that isn’t as much of an issue with metal or synthetic strings.Gut strings can come wrapped in metal too, which are referred to as ‘gut core’ strings.

Some gut strings may sound a little dull if they don’t match the violin very well, however, many will have very pleasing overtones that will give notes a richness and dimension that would be hard to come by in the metal strings. Gut strings will tend to bring out the natural sound of a good instrument, and would be a good choice for advanced player who is not intimidated by having to retune regularly, and replace the strings more frequently.

Synthetic strings are the most popular string choice for most violinists. These strings are made from synthetic materials and composite fibers, and are a good option for a player who wants a warm and rich tone, without committing to the more challenging (and pricey) gut strings. These strings offer stability as well as power. There are many brands of synthetic strings that will give the player a very strong, rich tone, if correctly matched to the instrument.

A good set of synthetics can float around the 70-80$ mark, although it is possible to get cheaper sets that are of a decent standard.These strings will also settle quite quickly. They will take a little ‘playing in’, but you can expect a certain degree of stability from most brands of synthetics. A good choice for any level. Stable and long-lasting enough for beginners, yet warm and rich, with pleasing overtones for more advanced players who don’t want to use gut.

The tuning of strings will be discussed in the last section of this article. Remember that the strings are not interchangeable with each other-They are all different sizes, so the string packets will be labelled ‘G’, ‘D’, ‘A’ and ‘E’ accordingly. Try not to mix them up, as each string is designed with the specific note in mind. You will certainly know if your E string is where the G is meant to be, but for a beginner, it may be slightly more difficult to tell the difference between an A and a D string, so make sure to keep them separate, especially if you are replacing all your strings at the same time!With your violin facing you, the G string will be on the left, followed by D, then A, and the E on the far right of the fingerboard.

If you have put your strings on and the pegs are pushed properly in, yet the violin is going dramatically out of tune regularly, there are measures you can take to prevent this. If the pegs of the violin are slipping frequently, and you are keeping it in a normal room without too much temperature fluctuation, it is possible to buy peg-stick for your pegs. The peg-stick, when applied to the pegs, will provide more grip, and prevent them from slipping out of tune.If this problem persists, take your violin to the luthier to ensure there isn’t anything else going on.

Varnish

Varnish protects the wood of the violin, creating a barrier between it and the outside world! Although this is a functional addition to the violin, in that it helps retain the integrity of the wood, there are also several other things that happen – The sound is affected by the varnish. Varnish will slightly dampen the sound of the violin, and will have an effect on the sound produced. Varnish is applied as a liquid to the violin and left to dry and harden. The varnish can be oil varnish or spirit varnish – Some violins are also coated in propolis. It is very difficult to discern by looking at a violin what type of varnish has been used on the violin.

One should ask the luthier about what varnish has been used. The varnish can cause the colour differences you see in different violins. Although the wood type will also affect this, the varnish can make a violin look brighter or darker in colour, ranging from bright, orange shades to deep, dark brown shades. You can also observe some almost reddish hues in some instruments.

The dark lines that run around the violin edges are what is known as ‘purfling’. This is not varnish, however, it is a clue as to the level of quality of the instrument. Purfling in a high quality violin is inlaid. If these lines look as if they are painted onto the wood of the violin, this is not likely to be of very high quality.

Bridge

A well-cut bridge will have a huge effect on the sound that the violin produces. The bridge is the wooden piece that holds the strings up between the tailpiece and the fingerboard. The bridge supports the strings all the way along the instrument. Although the bridge looks like it is very securely fastened to the violin, it is actually held up only by the pressure of the strings themselves.

It is very important for a new violinist to understand that the bridge is only held up by the strings, as it is quite common for beginners to loosen all the strings (or take them all off to change them) only to find that the bridge has fallen down! Most new violinists will be aware of this, however, it is important to note if you have just bought the violin and haven’t gone to a lesson yet.

Bridges are usually made from maple, and they come in various different heights. A luthier will often adjust violin players’ bridges if the player thinks it is in the wrong position, or maybe it is too tall and needs to be filed down to make it a little lower. The distance from the highest (E) to lowest (G) string at the bridge is usually 34mm across.

The bridge also serves to dampen the sound that the violin produces, as well as supporting the strings of the violin. Where the bridge is positioned will affect this greatly. The bridge should generally be lined up with the horizontal lines across the f-holes of the violin.

The bridge should have the tapered edge facing the fingerboard, and the flat edge facing the tailpiece. The bridge will also look lower on one side, usually. This side should be on the right, as the E string will rest on this section.Most bridges have small grooves in them for the strings to sit in.

The E string groove may be reinforced due to its thinness – As the string is so thin and the pressure on the bridge so great, it can tend to eat into the bridge a little. Some strings also have small covers on the bottom end, beside the ball/loop. These covers can be slid up to create a boundary between the string and the bridge.

The legs of the bridge will sit on top of the soundpost and the bass bar, which can usually be seen by peering inside the f-holes. The soundpost is crucial for the violin’s sound. If the soundpost ever falls, it is advisable to bring it to a luthier as quickly as humanly possible!

Setup/‘Opening up’

There are many factors that can also affect your violin’s ‘voice’. As well as the potential need to ‘play in’ or ‘open up’ some violins, the humidity and temperature it is surrounded by will also affect it. Air pressure can cause your violin to go through some changes.

This is why many people are very cautious when travelling with a violin – As well as the potential for breakage due to handling (never put your violin in the hold of an airplane unless there is absolutely no alternative), the changes in pressure can cause your violin to go through some changes which can really damage it. If you have to bring it on a plane, it is advisable to loosen the strings a little to give it some leeway.

The pegs may expand and contract, resulting in slippage, and string breakage/loosening. The setup of the violin itself will be very important, as any adjustments made can drastically affect the sound it produces. This can include how the bridge (as discussed above) is positioned, as well as how high or low the bridge itself is, which will affect the action of the instrument.

Your music shop staff or luthier will be able to advise you on how to set these things up, and most good music shops will make sure that the strings are properly put onto the violin and tuned. If you are a beginner, it may be worthwhile to invest in a tuner to make sure your strings are in tune.

This is something that you will eventually learn to do by hearing an A note played and then tuning everything else by ear from the A, but when you are starting off, it can be helpful to have a tuner. This is especially useful if you don’t have a piano in the house to reference the A note.

A violinist or your own violin teacher will be able to help you tune your violin. If you are a total beginner, and you have a violin that is totally out of tune, it might be best to bring it to a violinist to tune up. If you tune the strings too high (higher than the pitch intended for the string itself), you run the risk of snapping the string. This does get easier in time, and you will develop the ability to tune as you progress with your lessons.

As discussed above, the weight of the tailpiece will be a factor in the sound produced by the violin, as well as the choice of strings, the amount of rosin on the bow (as well as the bow itself), and how comfortable the chinrest and shoulder rest are. The ergonomics are important to consider! You may have the best sounding violin, but if it is set up in a way that makes it uncomfortable to play, you will not get the best sound possible from it.

Shoulder rests come in many shapes and sizes. There are some types that are firm, with legs that slide on to the sides of the violin, and keep the violin elevated away from the shoulder/collarbone area, and there are some types that are soft, that fasten by attaching to the base of the violin and onto one of the corners with elastic.

The important thing is to make sure that your violin is set up so that you can enjoy playing. If you are a beginner, a teacher will be able to instruct you on how to hold the instrument and the bow properly to ensure that you are avoiding any unnecessary pain or discomfort.

Learning from a professional teacher is a great way to make sure that your hand position and posture is correct while playing. There are a number of issues that can arise from a failure to master the proper posture, so it is a good idea to avoid this from the beginning by getting some advice and instruction.

Most of all, enjoy your journey with your new instrument!

 

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