How to Judge if a Violin has a Good Tone
by Peter Zaret
In a violin a “good tone” is a complex mixture of qualities that blend together to create a pleasing sound. Some of these can be evaluated objectively (power, clarity, balance, evenness) and some are very much a matter of judgement and personal taste.
“There are hundreds of adjectives that describe the tone of a violin: warm, lyrical, rich, clear, deep, smooth, brilliant, “and on and on. The most important one though, is power. A good violin will be loud.” (From my article, How to Choose a Violin.)
Power is measurable in concrete terms. In other words: decibels. Decibels are facts. So much of judging the tone of a violin is subjective, but decibels are facts. If two violins are played exactly the same next to a decibel meter the meter can tell you which one is louder.
Also from my article How to Choose a Violin: “Over and over I ask these hypothetical questions: Why do you think an orchestra has 35 violins and 3 flutes? The answer is the flute produces the power of 10 violins. Have you ever seen a violin drown out a piano? Have you ever seen in a violin concerto, the soloist drowning out the orchestra? A violin can never be too loud. It is the only instrument in the orchestra (other than the viola) where the tone comes out of a hole three inches from the left ear and aimed directly at the ear. It sounds much louder to the player than to the audience.”
As quoted in my article on Quest for Power: “The lordly violin and its less illustrious relatives in the string family are in trouble. As today’s concert halls grow more cavernous, it becomes increasingly difficult for a solo violinist to project his sound above a thundering orchestra and out to the most distant seats. And even if he does, many stereo hi-fi addicts contend that the sound is only a pale echo of the ‘electronically enhanced’ concertos that they can conjure up in their living rooms…(From Time Magazine, December 20th, 1966.)”
Power is obviously particularly significant for classical players but what about violinists who perform in other genres such as jazz, bluegrass, country, celtic, etc.? These folks are probably going to electronically amplify their instruments so how important is power to them? My answer is that power still matters. It is a matter of reserve. If you are completely confident you can be heard you relax and play better. When the instrument has intrinsic power you don’t have to work as hard to pull sound out of it. When the sound is well balanced (further discussed below) you don’t have to expend extra effort to adjust for disparities.
Although there are many qualities to a good tone power is the most important.
It is very important that the tone of a violin be clear. A fuzzy unfocused tone will not carry and makes the player have to work too hard to get a good sound out of the violin. A fuzzy, wooly tone might sound loud enough under the ear but it won’t go very far. In addition, it makes bowing harder. A fuzzy note drops off much faster than a clear and resonant note. This makes bow changes, articulation, and smooth moving from one note to another more difficult. Any difficulty in one area has an effect on another area. For instance, if you have to concentrate on articulation, you are distracted from your intonation, rhythm, etc. A fuzzy quality in the tone when playing very softly will practically disappear. A clear tone will make the player have to work less hard and concentrate on other things, like making beautiful music.
It is important all 4 strings have the same volume and all the notes on the strings have the same volume and quality. If a violin has one weak string it can be a big problem. You either have to play louder on the weak string or softer on the other strings. Once again we have the problem of power, (of lack thereof) if you have to weaken the other three strings to compensate for one weak string. In my entire life I have never heard of a violinist struggling NOT to be heard. (Actually, if you are a poor player this sometimes comes in handy. Hiding in the back of the second violin section can sometimes save a job!) Quite often with a good violin either the D string or the A string will be a little weaker than the other three. A weak E string or a weak G string would be far worse. A violinist plays more on the G string and the E string than on the middle strings. The virtuoso music is written this way as it is very difficult past fifth position or so on the middle strings to play with any real intensity or flair as the bow will tend to hit other strings. Of course the only way to hit the really high notes is on the E string. If this area is no good, my suggestion is to get another violin.
Quite often even on a good violin there will be one or two weak notes or a wolf tone. Once again this presents a problem for the violinist to make the tone even enough to make the phrase work. The player doesn’t want some notes that surge or some notes that practically disappear. On a good violin with the traditional bass bar you tend to have a wolf tone on the B natural or C natural above A 440. This is particularly prominent higher up on the G string, but also a problem on the D string (third and fourth finger in third position, and first finger and second finger in first position on the A string). Another problem area is the F natural and the F sharp in the first position on the E string. I will never forget playing Beethoven’s second Romance with an orchestra. It is in the key of F major, (a bad key for the violin). The only way to start the piece is in first position with the first finger on the E string. This note is usually (and the F sharp) weak and very difficult to bring out. Adding to this problem is the F natural is close to the nut of the violin and hard to stop the string. The performance went well but I had to spend a lot of time working on this. Obviously it would be ideal if all the notes on the violin sounded the same. I recently heard a very famous violinist with a very famous violin give a recital. Every time he hit the C natural above A 440 the tone became thinner and weaker.
A powerful tone that is strident, edgy and brassy without depth is not to be desired. Quite often a student violin or a small viola have these qualities. Generally speaking, a student violin with the traditional bass bar will be bright and brassy sounding in the lower register. On the other hand if the tone is warm and deep on the G and D string the A and E strings will tend to be weak and wooly. My new bass bar makes the G and D string warmer and richer but at the same time makes the A and E string more brilliant and powerful. I must add, I do not regraduate most student instruments unless the top and back are extremely thick â€” roughly 50% thicker and stiffer than is normal. The essence of my patent is I discovered how to build up the bass of the violin by adding wood to the bottom part of the bass bar away from the surface. Therefore the violin becomes deep and rich in the lower register yet bright and brilliant in the upper register. It is also structurally more solid than the traditional way of building a violin.
This is a quality that can be hard to define. I like to think of it as full bodied. In more concrete terms, it boils down to a good strong fundamental and many strong overtones. Contrast the lower register of a flute and the lower register of a violin. The flute is louder but the violin sound is more interesting and complex. (In my opinion, of course). The violin string produces more overtones than the flute. Let us say the flute tone is more pale as opposed to a good violin which is softer but has rosy cheeks. No offense to flute players. In a piece of chamber music, such as the Bach Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 a flute player can take revenge on the violin. I have found this out quite a few times! Mozart is said to not have liked the flute for this reason, although he wrote two absolutely gorgeous flute concertos.
It is hard to define the difference between a deep tonal quality and dark tonal quality. To me the viola has a dark quality in the lower register and the cello has a deep quality in the lower register, although the cello plays an octave lower than the viola. A dark sound would be a strong fundamental with not as many overtones as with a deep sound which has a strong fundamental plus good strong overtones. A good example of this would be a double bass playing the same note as a cello. The double bass would have a darker quality as the viols don’t have as much sizzle as the violin family. Let us say the G string of a violin and to a lesser extent the D string should have some of the qualities and characteristics of a cello and a viola. Certainly not too much, though. It should still sound like a violin. A good strong fundamental plus many overtones. If the G string has a weak fundamental it will sound tinny and brassy. The lower register of a violin must be deep and rich but it must sizzle also.
This is another hard one. If the violin sounds smooth under the ear it will tend to not carry well. It is more important to sound smooth to the audience than to the player. A violinist has to get used to a certain edginess under the ear that the audience doesn’t hear. This edginess is once again the preponderance of the higher overtones which is one of the components that gives the tone its richness. My old teacher at Juilliard, Joseph Fuchs, had an absolutely gorgeous tone that carried to the farthest reaches of the hall. When I first started studying with him, I couldn’t understand it. He sounded so great in the concert hall and on his recordings but up close he sounded scratchy and rough. I realized later, of course, he was super articulating much like an actor spits out the consonant sounds. P’s, T’s, B’s, etc. Up close it was rough and edgy but 30 feet away, it was smooth and rich
To me brilliance is synonomous with sparkling. A brilliant quality is very important particularly in the upper register. Virtuoso music tends to go up very high on the G string and on the E string. The higher you go up the tighter the string gets and the more brilliant the sound. Also as mentioned before, it is much easier to go high on the outer strings than the middle string. There should be a brilliant sheen to the tone even if it has a rich and deep quality. Once again the large mix of overtones combined with the strong fundamental. Heifetz had a rich tone â€” there was always a brilliant shimmering sizzle to it. He would occasionally crash down on a note, usually in the higher positions, that would shake me out of my chair!
Responsiveness means how easy it is to get the tone out of the violin. If it takes too much effort it makes other aspects of playing the violin more difficult. If you have to work too hard to get the tone out you must break away your concentration from intonation, rhythm, phrasing, etc. Generally speaking if a violin has a dark and wooly quality the responsiveness will be relatively easy, and if the tone of the violin is on the bright side the responsiveness will tend to be hard. A balance between the two is best. A violin with too easy a response can bring problems if you are nervous in a performance. The tone will tend to cradk and squawk. A little resistance can be helpful at times. On the other hand, in the larger instruments such as the cello and bass, the easiest response is most desirable. There is much more physical exertion with these instruments and an easy response is very helpful.
Speaking about nervousness and tension, that is one of the reasons quite often a violinist will start out a recital with a Sonata from the Baroque period. If you have a lot of rapid strokes of detache and martele it gets the muscles going in the bow arm. For the left hand the piece is usually in first and third position with a lot of open strings which helps to loosen the fingers. If you start off a recital with a slow tempo, with long bow strokes and the dynamic is pianissimo, good luck!
Edginess can also be defined as a lot of surface noise. In my opinion, if there is a good strong fundamental in the tone a good deal of edginess can be very helpful. The edginess is really a preponderance of higher overtones. The more overtones the better for carrying power. It is a fact, that the human ear picks up the higher overtones better than the lower ones. The soprano high C, or third finger in third position on the E string is the center of where the human ear hears best. That is a prime reason why the violin, which produces less sound than the viola, the cello or the bass actually carries better. Western Music usually puts the melody on the top and the accompaniment or supporting part on the bottom. Thus in almost any kind of string ensemble the violin will carry the solo part and the viola cello and bass will carry a supporting part. Edginess without a good strong fundamental will sound brassy and squeaky. However, with the strong fundamental it will help carry the tone and will not sound edgy and brassy 20 to 30 feet away. The tone from a distance will sound warm, rich and clear.
Resonance is another very important factor in choosing a violin. Without resonance the tone dies immediately after the bow changes direction. A gap between notes when playing legato passages is obviously very bad. If the tone dampens immediately after playing a short stroke such as spiccato or martele the musical phrase will sound dead and clipped. A nice resonant tone is ideal for a violin. However, too much resonance is also not to be desired. (It is better to have too much than too little though). Imagine a piano without dampers. One tone would overlap into another and another, etc. Since a violin doesn’t have dampers the tone dies on its own if the player doesn’t go to another note on the same string. Therefore if there is too much resonance you have the possibility of a piece of music that is entirely composed of double, triple and at times quadruple stops!