A new project by FC-Fertans 2019

Idea and coordination: Bärbel Bellinghausen (Vienna) and Andreas Hampel (Hamburg). Template design: François Denis (Angers)

What structural parameters determine a violin’s sound? A hands-on experimental approach. Twenty violin makers each make an instrument on the basis of the same outline

In this project we are investigating the possibilities of comparing violins with one another. It is usually not very helpful to attempt a comparison among two or several violins by different makers if one wants to find out something about the influence of specific structural parameters on their sound. Most violins vary considerably in terms of the model they follow, and thus differ widely in terms of inner volume. In our experimental series of violins, however, we can build “sibling” instruments on the basis of the same template while keeping an exact record of the differences among them. These are instruments that can truly be compared with one another. 

The experimental layout is similar to the situation one might have encountered in a 17th- or 18th-century Cremona workshop where many workers were in constant dialogue with one another, building instruments on the basis of the same template conceived by the master. All instruments in this experiment are crafted by master violin makers at the top of their form. They follow the same model, but with small differences that can be precisely traced. In ONE FORM TWENTY VIOLINS we keep an exact record of the steps taken by each participating violin maker. 

We are lucky to have in our midst one of the most prominent experts in classical construction principles of the violin: François Denis, author of the book Traité de Lutherie – Les petites raisons des arts et du violon; The violin and the art of measurement. For our experiment, François Denis has designed a template based on classical principles. Since late 2018, twenty violin makers have been working intensely on this model with the purpose of achieving optimal sound results. The paths toward that goal are as diverse as the makers themselves. 

At the end of the experiment we will organize try-out sessions with several eminent soloists to evaluate the instruments’ sound. All those attending – teachers, students, violin enthusiasts – are invited to come find out for themselves what the instruments are capable of. Musicians and violin makers are invited to subjectively categorize the instruments according to their sound qualities, and they will be able to note how they correspond with the structural data. For instance: “Do I prefer a violin with a high arch? Or a violin with a pronounced countercurve in the arch? Do large F-holes have a positive effect on sound? Do all violins with a certain type of arch have a warmer, darker sound?”

The experiment does not pretend to provide all the answers regarding the acoustics of the violin. Indeed, violin making will always remain a fascinating science because it deals with a quasi-infinite combinations of structural parameters. Nevertheless, in dialogue with all those who attend the sessions, we may be able to reach a certain degree of consensus while making our own judgments. Each individual’s opinion can remain subjective, since objectivity in terms of sound is impossible to achieve.

The experiment will therefore not culminate by ranking the 20 instruments, but we hope that all participants will be glad to have gained valuable personal insight. The 20 violins will be brought together under one roof for the first time when we meet for our work week in Fertans in France in June 2019. Then, on 22 November 2019, the twenty instruments will be presented at the Vienna University of Music and the Performing Arts.