New study identifies key design features that boost violins’ acoustic power

Some of the most prized violins in the world were crafted in the Italian workshops of Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri—master violinmaking families from the 17th and 18th centuries who produced increasingly powerful instruments in the renaissance and baroque musical eras. These violins, worth millions of dollars today, represent the Cremonese period—what is now considered the golden age of violinmaking. Now acousticians and fluid dynamicists at MIT, along with violinmakers at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, have analyzed measurements from hundreds of Cremonese-era violins, identifying key design features that contribute to these particular violins’ acoustic power, or fullness of sound.

The team acquired technical drawings of Cremonese-era violins from museums, collector databases, and books, as well as X-ray and CAT scans of the instruments. They compared the dimensions of various features from one instrument to another, as well as measurements of acoustic resonances across instruments.

The researchers found that a key feature affecting a violin’s sound is the shape and length of its “f-holes,” the f-shaped openings through which air escapes: The more elongated these are, the more sound a violin can produce. What’s more, an elongated sound hole takes up little space on the violin, while still producing a full sound—a design that the researchers found to be more power-efficient than the rounder sound holes of the violin’s ancestors, such as medieval fiddles, lyres, and rebecs.

The thickness of a violin’s back plate also contributes to its acoustic power. Violins carved from wood are relatively elastic: As the instrument produces sound, the violin’s body may respond to the air vibrations, contracting and expanding minutely. A thicker back plate, they found, would boost a violin’s sound. The researchers found that as violins were crafted first by Amati, then Stradivari, and finally Guarneri, they slowly evolved to more elongated f-holes and thicker back plates. Via New study identifies key design features that boost violins’ acoustic power.

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