By Melody Xu
Illustration by Alli Lorraine
There’s a story that my violin teacher used to tell me.
It’s about a composition officially known as the Violin Sonata in G minor by the talented Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini. A brilliant piece, split into four movements, it’s known for its complexity in sound and difficulty in playing, but it is not those qualities that made it stand out to me. Instead, it’s the story behind it. Apart from its official title, it’s also known amongst musicians as the Devil’s Trill.
Allegedly, Tartini has made a deal with the Devil, his soul in exchange for servitude. One of those nights, he had commanded the Devil to play his violin and the sounds that had escaped from the musical instrument had left him enchanted, enthralled, enlightened. He was so captivated by the unworldly sonata that the Devil performed for him that Tartini immediately tried to capture what he had heard into a composition of his own. Although it ended up being his favorite and best sonata, Tartini later admitted that what he had composed paled in comparison to what he had listened to. He wrote that if he had been forced, he would give up everything, destroy his own precious violin and forsake music forever, rather than have to give up the feelings and emotions that the Devil’s music had invoked in him.
I have always been moved by this song and the story behind it. How can an instrument, made of wood and a few strings, produce a sound so vibrant and unique that it could move a man to such lengths? Music certainly has the ability to move people in ways that cannot be described, cannot be put into words, but the violin was something I held close to my heart. I’ve witnessed people crying over Violin Concerto in D Major by Tchaikovsky, getting goosebumps when they hear Violin Concerto in D Minor by Sibelius, and I’m certainly no exception to these visceral reactions.
It’s my general rule of thumb to open every black box (a system or object whose internal workings are a mystery to the user) that I find, and the violin served as a perfect example of one that had been delivered right into my hands. To understand the magic surrounding the instrument, the best place to start is to figure out how it’s made and how it makes noise.
So how exactly does the violin produce the sounds that it makes? When you place the bow lightly on the strings, where does the sound come out? The short answer is that when you draw a bow across the strings, they vibrate. These vibrations travel through the bridge and the sound post of the violin and then the sound waves travel through the air. Each violin produces different tones and qualities based on several factors, such as the type of strings, the placement of the sound post, the construction of the body of the violin, just to name a few.
Violins, like the other common instruments in the viol family like the viola, cello, and bass, have four strings that are tuned to produce different notes (from highest to lowest note: E, A, D, G). The strings are stretched from the tailpiece to the pegs of the violin right below the scroll, their ends tied down to allow standing waves to be formed. The string tension can be adjusted through its corresponding peg; increasing the string tension produces a higher note and decreasing it produces a lower note. The playing tension of a violin string usually ranges from 40 N to 89 N. The different notes that can be played on each string are produced through the manipulation of the length of the string. By placing left-handed fingers on the strings and “decreasing” the length of the string, the pitch will increase. This is the basis for violin playing but there are also factors that violinists cannot directly manipulate, including the material of the strings, which were originally made from catgut (the name, by the way, is misinformative because it is not made out of cat guts but more commonly from sheep or goat intestines) but are now usually made of steel, stranded steel, or other synthetic materials.
Moving slightly lower on the violin, the bridge is my personal favorite part. It has the important task of transferring vibrations from the string to the top of the violin. With all four strings bending (typically around 158 degree angles) and breaking down on it, it faces the challenge of standing against a combined force of approximately 89 N. Another part of the instrument, the bow, is composed of a ribbon of horse hairs and excites the strings, which produces the sound.
The largest part of the violin, the body, acts as the “sound box” to couple the vibration from the strings into the surrounding air, which makes it audible to our ears. The construction of this “sound box” varies from maker to maker and has a significant impact on the sound of the violin.
So now we’ve examined the major parts of the violin that impact the sound of the instrument. But what component sets a Stradivarius violin from one you could order for a hundred dollars off of eBay right now? One possibility lies in the acoustic ability of the violin, or how “powerful” the sound is.
A recent study conducted by MIT researchers and violin makers in Boston have examined hundreds of violins, using x-ray and CT scans to analyze and measure the dimensions and acoustics of each individual instrument. They found two features that impacted the power of the violin’s sound: the F-holes and the back plate of the instrument. The more elongated the F-holes and the thicker the wood of the back plate, the more sound the violin can produce.
What was brilliant about their study was that they concluded that while these designs have an impact on the instrument, any change in design in the violins were due to natural mutation or error in craftsmanship. Every piece of wood a violin maker cuts is different, so any attempt to replicate the same design would result in something that varied slightly each time.
In the end, I found the reason why violins were and are so cherished and special. Just like each musician is unique, with different styles and techniques, each violin that they hold is one-of-a-kind. A complex system of pieces come together to form something so beautiful that even the Devil himself to move a man to tears with its beauty.