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A Foundation for Understanding Sound


Inside-the-Shop are informative articles written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop


A Foundation for Understanding Sound

I'm not sure who asked the question. I think it's some esoteric Buddhist riddle young grasshoppers are asked. The answer "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"  

The answer is, of course it does. A sound is, like everything else, exactly what it is whether we witness it or not.

What does this have to do with violins? More than you might think.

The thing missing in the forest is a conscious mind able to interpret sound. In the case of a violin, a conscious mind with the ability to hear is taken for granted. But what's often missing is the knowledge to make valid interpretations.

I'm always amazed by how many instrumentalists don't know, really, what they hear. They interpret pitch. They know it's a violin. But where the limitation becomes painfully clear is when it's time to search for a new one. When money is on the line.

The lack of objective definitions throws all the "fuzzy feel goods" into turbulence. And the search is on for whose opinion they can trust rather than learning how to judge what they hear. If they're lucky enough to find a trusted and honest guide, they may find an instrument that will keep them in fuzzy bliss for years to come. If not, they'll be looking again before long, still unsure of themselves.

In 1981, after 9 years of learning to make and repair violins, I found myself in much the same boat. Just open for business, I had all this knowledge swirling around my head but no objective point to rally from. After a couple of disastrous soundpost adjustments, touring the worst sounds I could find, assisted by musicians, I decided to lay ground rules by reducing it all to essentials. To this day it's the foundation all my knowledge of sound is laid on.

I condensed it down to 3 hierarchical essentials




RESPONSE comes first because no matter how great the actual sound is, if it doesn't respond well to the bow your frustration will be unending. When you’re playing a Bach sonata, reaching for the rich textures woven into the crisp precision and swift musical currents, you’ll end up with a blurred mushiness that will have you wondering what’s wrong with your playing. Response is your first consideration.

Test it with staccato, spiccato, legato: every type of bowing you know. Fast and slow. You're looking for the bow to instantly grab the string into action…no delay at all. Test every string in every position. The most typical area for response problems is in the high positions on the G-string (on violas and cellos it’s the upper positions on the C-string). If everything else is fine you can probably work with it. But if in general the instrument has response problems, eliminate it from consideration immediately.

EVENNESS should be your second concern in evaluating an instrument. If you have good response, a good sound, but unevenness, you'll be compensating for the weaknesses against the strengths continually. All the subtleties and dynamics you’ve worked to master will be lost between the flaws you have to play around. If you care about your music it will be impossible to relax when you play. Always anticipating bringing the weaknesses and strengths to some middle ground. Evenness is worth the search.

Test for evenness with scales that cross from string to string. All 4 of them. Listen to differences in volume, fullness of sound, and in quality of tone. One string may be nasal and thin; another may be full and rich. If you play a scale and cross from the D to the A-string, and the A booms out, test to find if the D-string is weak or the A-string strong in relation to the rest of the instrument. An uneven instrument is a struggle, although sometimes a very good musician will be able to work around it. But preferably not.

VOICE is the bottom tier of my system. But once you've brought together a group of instruments that have passed the first 2 tests, you're ready to judge the finale. This is what everyone wants to skip to at the very beginning. Don't be lured. But make no mistake, this is where you want to end up. Here is where it becomes a subjective issue. Taste. Some people like a dark sound. Others bright and edgy. What you like will determine where you go from here. But one helpful hint to hear voice better is to listen to the instrument like you would the vowels of the alphabet. A E I O U. It's a good place to start and will give you an automatic arena of familiarity. Say them to yourself in the most exaggerate way you can. Listen to yourself and determine if the sound is focused in the front or back of your mouth, your nasal passages, or deep in the chest. Indulge yourself. Embarrass yourself. But do it.

You may need to listen to and play a dozen instruments or so before you start to hear distinct differences, but once you do you will always be able to hear it. And your skills will continually develop from this acorn. I'll revisit each of these areas in more detail in future messages, but for now start listening to every violin around you. Get together with your friends and experiment, play each other's instruments. Enjoy the remarkable array of sound within your grasp. And remember, your instrument once made a sound in the forest when it was still locked in a falling tree.