Spruce Wood And The Acoustics of Violins

There are countless variables that affect the quality of music created by a skilled violinist and his or her violin. It is the talent, skill, and artistry of the violinist that seems most important. But how the violin is made, and of what materials, matter a great deal as well.

The great names in European violin making – Antonio Stradivari of course, but also Maggini, Stainer, Ruggieri, Amati, Guarneri, and Klotz come to mind – largely had one thing in common when crafting the fine violins produced in their shops: the wood used to craft their instruments. Therefore those woods defined the instrument from the beginning. It was that spruce and maple wood were the most available material to work with.

The argument that these two types of wood, which make up the bulk of any fine instrument, are the be-all to end-all in violin making is almost certainly flawed. The design and crafting of the instrument, as well as how they are played, may have conformed to the natural strengths of spruce and maple. If all a violinmaker had available in northern Italy was birch and oak, might violins (as well as fine cellos, and violas, etc.) look a bit different and sound a bit different – and be considered the norm?

That last question cannot really be answered. Suffice it to say that maple is revered for the soundpost, and spruce (in particular, European spruce or Picea abies) for the soundboard of body of the violin. In technical terms, the highest-grade violin spruce has a low density and what’s described as “a very high specific modulus of elasticity.” This amounts to “a small angle of microfibrils in cell walls, combined with a structure with a majority of axial cells, resulting in a high axial-to-shear and axial-to-transverse anisotropy (different properties that go in opposite directions),” according to a summary of research reported in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (“Acoustical properties of wood in string instruments soundboards and tuned idiophones: Biological and cultural diversity,” Iris Bremaud, Vol. 131, January 2012). This anisotropy affects the soundboard (spruce) vibration modes in ways that produce the sound we consider to be most desirable.

The woods used by Stradivari, et al. in the 15th century happened to have had a climate element to them: decades of colder temperatures in Italy, Switzerland and Germany led to slower growth of the spruce trees. In particular, the woods used in Cremonese violins are believed to have superior tonal expressiveness and projection, thanks to the density of the cold-grown spruce trees. It’s the wood’s vibrational efficacy and the effective production of sound that distinguish this rare and highly valued family of violins from others.

There are specialists who know how to identify old spruce trees that will make good violins (too many branches equal too many knots, for example). Finding the right trees is merely the starting point – and to be clear, those trees might be 400 years old – in the long process of creating the music that great violins and violinists give to the world.

The History of Standard Tuning – Who Standardized It, Why, And When?

Violin strings are typically tuned by setting the A string to 440 Hz. It’s a scientific metric applied to a tool of art, which in itself might seem odd. But just like pointillism was an optical tool used by Impressionistic painters, and physiology is essential to dancers, players of fine violins as well as all other instrumentalists need to be in tune. The hertz (Hz) unit of frequency, which measures the traveling wave (oscillation) of air pressure is one way to ensure a violin concerto in Vienna sounds the same in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, and everywhere else.

But who set that standard? When? Why? The history is murky – violinmakers didn’t play a role, as violins, violas, and cellos are fairly adaptable to all circumstances – but it has a parallel in time zones and cross-continental railroad travel that began in the 19th century.

Prior to the 19th century time varied from village to village and country to country. But with the railroads, it became more important to have coordinated schedules for arrivals and departures. This is when standardized time zones came to be.

The analogy to musical standard tuning finds its forensics in old pipe organs and old tuning forks. Organs in Germany that were built prior to 1600 had the A above the middle C varying between 377 Hz to 567 Hz, roughly a half note above and below the current 440 Hz standard.

What changed this was the rise of the star composer-musicians Handel and Mozart, who themselves and their scores traveled farther than their predecessors in the 17th and 18th centuries. They favored a standard pitch of about 422-423 Hz. This was followed by improved building methods of concert halls that satisfied larger audiences in the 19th century, which coincided with the development of new and better instruments. To achieve “high, brilliant pitches at climaxes” (according to Lynn Cavanagh, A brief history of the establishment of international standard pitch a=440 hertz), which worked better in these bigger venues, wind and stringed instruments were built to a higher pitch standard.

It took the French to codify this, according to Cavanagh. “In 1859, a French government commission made A=435 Hz law in that country,” she writes. Still, British musicians didn’t exactly comply, nor did piano makers in North America, as they argued that room temperature rendered the French standard irrelevant.

Again, it was a technology, radio broadcasting, which drove an international agreement in 1939. Europe was in catastrophic turmoil during that period, so it’s interesting to note that consensus on the pitch of the A was at least achieved then. Today, it’s possible to get the standard pitch for the violin’s G, D, A, and E notes online and through phone apps.

Given all that happened in Europe in the 20th century, consider how some of those centuries-old German, French, British and other pipe organs may well hold a stubborn adherence to different, non-standard tuning. They might not fit musical tones a modern world but they give us a glimpse of what musical pitch was long ago.