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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Why Violins Have F-Holes: The Science & Historical past of the Renaissance Design

Earlier than elec­tron­ic ampli­fi­ca­tion, instru­ment mak­ers and musi­cians needed to discover new­er and wager­ter methods to make them­selves heard amongst ensem­bles and orches­tras and above the din of crowds. Most of the acoustic instru­ments we’re famil­iar with right now—guitars, cel­los, vio­las, and so on.—are the results of hun­dreds of years of exper­i­males­ta­tion centered on solv­ing simply that prob­lem. These hol­low wooden­en res­o­nance cham­bers ampli­fy the sound of the strings, however that sound should escape, therefore the cir­cu­lar sound gap beneath the strings of an acoustic gui­tar and the f‑holes on both aspect of a vio­lin.

I’ve usually received­dered about this par­tic­u­lar form and assumed it was sim­ply an have an effect on­ed holdover from the Renais­sance. Whereas it’s true f‑holes date from the Renais­sance, they’re much greater than orna­males­tal; their design—whether or not arrived at by acci­dent or by con­scious intent—has had comment­ready keep­ing pow­er for superb rea­son.

As acousti­cian Nicholas Makris and his col­leagues at MIT introduced in a research pub­lished by the Roy­al Soci­ety, a vio­lin’s f‑holes function the per­fect technique of deliv­er­ing its pow­er­ful acoustic sound. F‑holes have “twice the son­ic pow­er,” The Econ­o­mist stories, “of the cir­cu­lar holes of the fithele” (the vio­lin’s tenth cen­tu­ry ances­tor and ori­gin of the phrase “fid­dle”).

The evo­lu­tion­ary path of this ele­gant innovation—Clive Thomp­son at Boing Boing demon­strates with a col­or-cod­ed chart—takes us from these orig­i­nal spherical holes, to a half-moon, then to var­i­ous­ly-elab­o­rat­ed c‑shapes, and ultimate­ly to the f‑gap. That sluggish his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment casts doubt on the the­o­ry within the above video, which argues that the Sixteenth-cen­tu­ry Amati fam­i­ly of vio­lin mak­ers arrived on the form by peel­ing a clemen­tine, per­haps, and plac­ing flat the sur­face space of the sphere. However it’s an intrigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty nonethe­much less.


As an alternative, by an “analy­sis of 470 instru­ments… made between 1560 and 1750,” Makris, his co-authors, and vio­lin mak­er Roman Bar­nas dis­cov­ered, writes The Econ­o­mist, that the “change was gradual—and con­sis­tent.” As in biol­o­gy, so in instru­ment design: the f‑holes arose from “nat­ur­al muta­tion,” writes Jen­nifer Chu at MIT Information, “or on this case, crafts­man­ship error.” Mak­ers inevitably cre­at­ed imper­fect copies of oth­er instru­ments. As soon as vio­lin mak­ers just like the famed Amati, Stradi­vari, and Guarneri fam­i­lies arrived on the f‑gap, how­ev­er, they discovered they’d a supe­ri­or form, and “they def­i­nite­ly knew what was a wager­ter instru­ment to repli­cate,” says Makris. Whether or not or not these mas­ter crafts­males beneath­stood the mathematics­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples of the f‑gap, we are able to­not say.

What Makris and his crew discovered is a rela­tion­ship between “the lin­ear professional­por­tion­al­i­ty of con­duc­tance” and “sound gap perime­ter size.” In oth­er phrases, the extra elon­gat­ed the sound gap, the extra sound can escape from the vio­lin. “What’s extra,” Chu provides, “an elon­gat­ed sound gap takes up lit­tle area on the vio­lin, whereas nonetheless professional­duc­ing a full sound—a design that the researchers discovered to be extra pow­er-effi­cient” than pre­vi­ous sound holes. “Solely on the very finish of the peri­od” between the Sixteenth and the 18th cen­turies, The Econ­o­mist writes, “may a delib­er­ate change have been made” to vio­lin design, “because the holes sud­den­ly get longer.” However it seems that at this level, the evo­lu­tion of the vio­lin had arrived at an “opti­mal end result.” Makes an attempt within the nineteenth cen­tu­ry to “fid­dle fur­ther with the f‑holes’ designs actu­al­ly served to make issues worse, and didn’t endure.”

To learn the mathematics­e­mat­i­cal demon­stra­tions of the f‑gap’s supe­ri­or “con­duc­tance,” see Makris and his co-authors’ pub­lished paper right here. And to see how a con­tem­po­rary vio­lin mak­er cuts the instru­males­t’s f‑holes, see a care­ful demon­stra­tion within the video above.

Notice: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this publish appeared on our website in 2016.

Relat­ed Con­tent:


Josh Jones is a author and musi­cian primarily based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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