How to Improve the Sound of Your Violin

Improve your Violin Sound by Adjusting the Bridge!

You can do much more than finding the best strings for your violin. Most violinists should learn to ADJUST the POSITION of the BRIDGE to find the best sound.

There are three things you can do to the bridge to improve your violin’s sound!

I. ROCK the TILTING BRIDGE back to make the FEET FLAT on the belly;

II. MOVE THE BRIDGE CLOSER TO THE SOUNDPOST;

III. MOVE THE BRIDGE CLOSER TO THE BASS BAR;

Here are some pictures of where the soundpost and bass bar are inside the violin:

Soundpost position-vertical behind bridge

Soundpost cross-section

Please follow the instructions below on an inexpensive $50 violin!

WARNING: DO NOT do the following with an EXPENSIVE VIOLIN!

Take expensive violins to a specialist at the violin repair section of a well know music store please.

I. TILT THE BRIDGE BACK TOWARDS YOU SO THAT THE FEET ARE FLAT ON THE BELLY (the front of the violin). This is by far the most common cause of a deteriorating sound from your violin. It is caused from the turning of the tuning pegs which pull the strings and the top of the bridge forward. As a result the bridge will tilt on its feet. The vibrations of the strings will not transfer fully to the violin. The remedy is very easy to execute and should be done at least once a month:

  1. Put the violin in your lap with the scroll facing away from you;
  2. Place your thumbs at the feet of the bridge and your middle fingers on the other side of the feet. You place your index fingers above the bridge: your left index finger on the bridge between the G and D string and your right index finger on the bridge between the A and E string.
  3. Now GENTLY ROCK THE BRIDGE BACK TOWARDS YOU as you press the bottom of the violin against you. The feet of the bridge will want to come back from a tilted position. When the feet are seated flat then they will not want to move any further back. Note that you will need to move against the pressure of the strings pressing on the bridge. However, to correct a tilted bridge does not need you to loosen the strings.

II. MOVE THE BRIDGE CLOSER TO THE SOUND-POST:

  1. Before you do anything, I recommend that you put a small strip of paper tape at the current position of the bridge so you can return it to its original position, if you want to.
  2. Look through the f-hole which is on the right side (E-string side) of the bridge and as you look behind the right foot of the bridge you will see a post which connects the front of the violin to the back of the violin. This is called the Sound-post.
  3. Check that the edge of the Sound-post is 2mm to 4mm behind the right foot of the bridge. The focus and volume of the sound varies according to this distance. A lot of Sound-posts are installed too far away from the bridge. As you cannot easily change the position of the Sound-post, I recommend that you change the position of the bridge.
  4. To change the position of the bridge, you must first loosen the strings slightly just enough to allow you to move the bridge. Do not loosen the strings too much as many soundposts are not fitted tightly inside the violin and may fall over. Only move the bridge 1mm closer to the soundpost and then retune the strings. As you try the violin you will notice that it is now more focused, louder and brighter. With trial and error you can find the perfect position of the bridge. You will know if you have moved the bridge too close to the soundpost when the sound starts to lose some of its resonance or ringing quality.
  5. If you don’t like the new sound, you can always move the bridge back to its original position to obtain your original sound.

III. MOVE THE BRIDGE to the left so it is CLOSER TO THE BASS BAR: This can improve the tone and balance of the strings.

Firstly, the TONE can be made warmer by moving the left foot of the bridge over the bass bar because the lower frequencies of each string are amplified by the bass bar. This is a very useful way to fix a violin which is too bright or shrill on the E and A strings.

Secondly, you can make each string’s volume the same by moving the bridge to the left or right to give what is called a BALANCED tone or sound.

  1. Before you do anything, I recommend that you put a small strip of paper tape at the current position of the bridge so you can return it to its original position.
  2. Look through the f-hole which is on the left side (G-string side) of the bridge and you will see the Bass-bar running to the right of the f-hole. The Bass-bar is a 277mm bar of wood attached under the front of the violin belly.
  3. The goal is to have some of the left foot of the bridge on top of the Bass-bar.
  4. Loosen the strings slightly just enough to allow you to move the bridge to the left. Only move the bridge 1mm closer to the Bass-bar and then retune the strings. As you try the violin you will notice that it is now more focused, louder and fuller on the G string and the D string in particular. With trial and error you can find the perfect position of the bridge.
  5. You will know if you have moved the bridge too far when the E string and the A string start to lose their volume and tone. A compromise is needed so that you can find what we called a “balanced” sound across all the strings. What this means is that all the strings are of equal volume, tone and quality.
  6. Re-position the strings on the bridge: if the bridge has moved only 1mm then you do not need to re-position the strings. However, be aware that the E string may now be too low and lose some of its ringing quality. A bridge protector can be placed over its groove to raise the E string height or you can place the string on the right of its groove to raise the E string. If necessary, you can do the same with the other strings. You may not need to put in new grooves as the strings themselves will do this over time as you constantly retune the strings. Just for your information, the distance between each string on the bridge should be 11.5mm.
  7. If you don’t like the new sound, you can always move the bridge back to its original position to obtain your original sound.
  8. ENJOY your better sounding violin!
  9. Advanced warning! This can be highly addictive, so do practice all of this on several cheap violins. Try to resist the temptation to constantly adjust the bridge unless it is a cheap violin.

Which Violin Wood sounds the best-European? Chinese?

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 )

– 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.