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The Incredible Physics of Violin Playing

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The violin is often considered the pinnacle of musical instruments interms of difficulty. In reality you do not need to be a musical prodigy in order to gain competence in this instrument, but rather must simply exhibit great patience and dedication to the art. However, the reason why this instrument is often regarded as so difficult to master actually comes down to pure science. The physics of the violin bow running across the strings are quite fascinating, and compared to the instrument’s other stringed counterparts they are quite complex. Let us explore the science of the violin.

 

In a fretted string instrument, such as a guitar or mandolin, tones are determined by a phenomenon called standing waves. Since a guitar string vibrates between a pair of nodes, the pitch (which is determined by the frequency of the string oscillation) is primarily affected by the mass density of the string (which is why the different strings have different gauges) or by the tension of the string. Since the string, whether plucked or picked as an open string or fretted by the player’s fingers, is fixed along two points, it will produce the same frequency no matter how it is approached. Though different approaches can produce variations in timbre – the frequency is guaranteed to be pretty much the same.

 

When a bow is used to attack the tight unfretted strings of a violin, the physical properties of the sound produced are entirely different from that of a fretted instrument and are far more complex. While a fretted instrument operates on standing waves, the bow of a violin pulls a string along and actually causes a “slip” that make s the string vibrate in the direction to opposite the bow’s motion. The result of this action is that the violinist creates a sawtooth wave. As a result, when a note is sounded on a violin, the player not only sounds the intended frequency of the note but also sounds many harmonics of the sound, which are integer multiples of the note’s frequency.

 

All of the well-known parts of the violin body also contribute to the final sound. The sound post, which is underneath the foot of the bridge, causes the bridge to convert the side-to-side motion of the bow to an up-and-down motion in the violin body. The instantly-recognizable “f-holes” of the violin – which are S-shaped and run along the top of the body – connect air inside the instrument with the air outside. They are responsible for the violin’s lowest resonance, which is the frequency at which it naturally vibrates.

 

Though the science of the violin is complex and we have just scratched the surface of this incredible instrument, you can contact us to learn all the intuitive skills and practice routines that will help a child learn how to gain the mastery in this art.

 

photo credit: magnuscanis via photopin cc