Can you tell how a violin will sound just by looking at it? Maybe. What if you knew what wood it was made from? If it had a European spruce top, would it be a better sounding violin? What about Chinese violins which use Chinese wood? Can they sound as good as European violins? If you have wondered about these things please read on and explore with me how the wood used to make a violin can definitely guarantee a better sound. I will begin by outlining the three components which combine to make a great sounding violin:
Firstly, the WOOD that is used according to some violinmakers, is the most important reason for good sound, all other things being equal (which they never are).
Secondly, there is the CRAFTSMANSHIP of the violin maker, which in the opinion of others is the most important ingredient. One violin-maker, even claims that he can make a good sounding violin from any sample of spruce and maple. I have read enough of other violin-makers opinions to know that this statement is not true. Wood is just as important as the skill of the maker.
Thirdly, all violins require a SET-UP involving positioning the sound-post inside the violin, the shaping of a bridge and nut to the correct height, width and fit on the body.
In this article I am only talking about the wood that is used, and I plan to talk about the making and set-up of violins in future posts.
Regarding the WOOD used it is useful to know that the TOP of the violin is made from SPRUCE and is called the belly or the sound board. The BACK, the sides and the neck of the violin are made from MAPLE. The most important part of the violin for sound is undoubtedly, the spruce top or belly of the violin which is called the soundboard. The maple used elsewhere does effect the sound also, but in a complementary way.
Stradivari was very particular which individual spruce tree his spruce top came from. In his day, in the 17th century, all the finest violin makers like Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri etc. from Cremona (Italy) used spruce trees cut in the European alps and rafted to Venice and then brought to Cremona. This spruce is a specific species called picea abies. When and from where the tree was cut was very important. “WHEN it was cut down was very important! It had to be cut down within the last quarter of waning moon (end of waning moon phase) in the wintertime after the growing period of the tree has stopped” and the sap flow was low (www.best-eurospruce.com/3.html). Because of this it was called moon-spruce. WHERE it was felled was very important also: 1. the spruce had to come from was the European Alps which is shared by Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria;” 2. The tree had to face “the northwest slope of a mountain in altitudes from 1000 meter/3500 feet up to the limit of vegetation!” Here is an example of this:
Here are some more guidelines:
– the age of the tree effects the sound as more mature trees have a greater flexibility and resonance. You can tell the age of the tree by the close grain throughout the top. If the grain changes from close grain to wide grain, it is probably a younger tree. A mature trees can be as old as 300 years to achieve this consistent closeness of the grain width!
Below is a picture a good close grained top:
The picture below shows close grain in the centre but it the width of the grain varies significantly towards the edge:
– the spruce needs to have close, clearly visible grain lines which indicates that the spruce came from a high altitude where there is not much growth in the wood from year to year. This is why the grain is closer together. Trees from a higher altitude are stronger and more flexible when bent. As a result, the wood will return to its original shape when flexed due to its slow growth resulting in the close grain. The sound will therefore be more resonant due to the wood’s springiness.
– European tonewood is often thought to produce a better sounding violin. This is often true but not just because the wood is better, it is also because it costs more to buy so greater care is taken in the making of the violin and the setting up of the soundpost, bridge and strings. So, some spruce from the mountains in China can produce a good sounding violin if the spruce tree is at high altitude with slow growth and close grain! However, it is very unlikely to be the correct species of spruce so the sound will be different to the classic violin sound. There are at least 11 species of Spruce in China from which violins could be made and none of them are “picea abies”: (info from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spruce )
- Picea brachytyla Sargent’s Spruce. Southwest China.
- Picea farreri Burmese Spruce. Northeast Burma, southwest China (mountains).
- Picea likiangensis Likiang Spruce. Southwest China.
- Picea neoveitchii Veitch’s Spruce. Northwest China (rare, endangered).
- Picea purpurea Purple Spruce. Western China.
- Picea wilsonii Wilson’s Spruce . Western China.
- Picea asperata Dragon Spruce. Western China; several varieties.
- Picea crassifolia. China.
- Picea koraiensis Korean Spruce. Korea, northeast China.
- Picea meyeri Meyer’s Spruce. Northern China (from Inner Mongolia to Gansu).
- Picea retroflexa. China.
– spruce must be aged (let lie after felling) for 15-20 years before it is used to make a violin (not artificially dried in a kiln). However, most if not all beginner violins are made with wood that is not aged. Why aren’t all violins made from aged wood? Unfortunately, demand is outstripping supply, so many violin-makers in China are using wood from trees that are not even aged one year after being felled. The violins will look the same but the sound will be very different. With wood that is not aged, there will be a tight sound which lacks resonance and harmonics. Instead there is a harshness or squeakiness to the sound. I have found this to be true in the last few years as the sound quality of beginner violins has fallen dramatically. I am told that new wood will produce a sour smell, but the varnish can have such a strong smell that it is hard to smell the wood.
In conclusion, great care must be taken to obtain the best wood to make a musical instrument as demanding as a violin. In reality, however, when purchasing a violin we have no idea when the wood was cut or where exactly in Europe or China it comes from. The only way we can tell the altitude is by the closeness of the grain. The correct species of spruce is called “picea abies” which comes from Europe. The 0ther 34 species of spruce are probably used in most of the violins which are made in mass quantity today. So the sound will be different to the classic violin sound.
For those who are interested in more information about what spruce trees produce the best tonewood for violins please read the following information found at http://www.best-eurospruce.com/4.html
“Carpenters and luthiers had recognized that wood that was cut under certain conditions, differs from wood that is not cut using the old traditional rules:
- The best trees grow on the northwest slope of a mountain on altitudes from 1000 meter/3500 feet up to the limit of vegetation.
- The best trees measure ca. 50 centimetres/ 20+ inch diameter and is around 300 years old due to its slow growth at high altitudes (that’s when a tree hits it’s peak).
At these altitudes a tree grows around 1 millimetre/ 0.4 inch each year in radius = distance from the grain lines. Using a little mathematics it comes out to ca. 20 grain lines/inch.
- Cut down within the last quarter of waning moon (end of waning moon phase) in the wintertime after the growing period of the tree has stopped (low sap flow). For this reason the spruce is called “moonspruce.”
- Let this tree lie as it is in the forest for stabilization – including it’s branches and bark – until a first step of drying is done by nature and the cut tree tries to start to grow again after the end of wintertime (this is nowadays no more possible due to bark beetle plague).
- Then bring it down to the mill, get split logs out of it and cut these into tonewood. Air-dry the milling results.”
Regarding this traditional method the old violin masters like Stradivarius etc. said that moonwood has several advantages to non-moonwood. This wood is more resistant against moister changes and it is stiffer: some analysis say that it seems to be ca. 15% denser than a comparable piece of non-moonwood and it feels like long-time stored wood that has reached a stable state. According to some luthiers, a 1-year-stored moonwood top feels and compares to a 15-year-stored non-moonwood.