Lecture: History of Violins (Listen and Read)

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Lecture: History of Violins
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Okay! Let's continue our discussions of music instruments.
Musical instruments have evolved over time,
being tweaked in design or in different materials in order to create the richest sound and greatest acoustical properties.
Professional musicians in particular are very specific in how they want their instruments.
They want their instrument to be able to deeply express the intent of the composer and player,
which would in turn create a more enjoyable experience for the audience.
However, many audience members at orchestras or band concerts
don't really know how important the instrument itself is to a good performance.
Think about it.
At the last concert you attended, what was going through your mind when you applauded?
Was it how the lyrics blew you away?
Were you showing appreciation for the skill and technical finesse that must have taken years of practice to be perfect?
What about the violin?
Some people may feel excited because it looks like their own instrument,
and have hope that their own strings could one day produce a melody with such skill.
However, what happens if the same musician plays a melody on another instrument?
One which isn't well tuned, or that's been weathered by improper care.
Think about this..
What if they played the original with genuine catgut strings,
and the second version was played on metal coil strings?
I'm sure you can imagine what would sound richer, truer to the intent of the player.
But why would one instrument sound better, even if they appear the same?
Well, let's look at an intriguing case, about an amazing line of violins made in Northern Italy.
They originated from the city of Cremona, between the late 1600's and early 1700's.
Now, those violins were considered to be the best in the entire world.
The sound they produce, their aesthetic, the way they can be held, it's nearly perfect.
However, the violin-makers back then weren't more skilled than the ones today.
In fact, today's violin-makers can replicate Cremonese violins pretty much perfectly.
Dimensions, string tension, how sanded down the fingerboard was,
no detail was left out.
However, the replicas still can't live up to the sound quality of the original.
Why is that?
Well, for a while people thought that it was the varnish being used to seal the wood,
and that the Cremonese violins had special varnish that made them sing when played.
Chemical analysis showed this wasn't so.
They used ordinary furniture polish.
So! Recently, a scientist took a shaving from one of the old, priceless violins
and discovered something interesting.
The wood has a unique density pattern.
From that, today's violin makers were able to further perfect their own designs and replicas.
Yes! Eunice?
But what was so special about the wood's density?
Density is determined by how trees grow.
Old trees that live in areas with dramatically changing seasons
will grow quickly in the springtime, and slow down drastically in the fall and winter.
Early, fast growth results in slightly more porous wood.
Later, slow growth on the other hand, is much denser and less porous.
From this change in growth, trees will show rings in their center.
When cut down, darker wood is dense, lighter wood is porous
and the change is called density differential.
So! Variation in the wood's density will affect the sound that an instrument can make.
The sound will become a bit muffled in porous wood.
When scientists took a close look at the shaving piece from the Cremonese violin,
they found no differential.
The density of the wood was almost exactly the same throughout.
Meanwhile, modern violins often had a great difference in density variation,
which would create lovely staining patterns across the wood.
Interestingly, Northern Italy is not in the tropics,
and should have a fairly strong change in seasons.
During the time when Cremonese violins were made,
Europe was going through a mini ice age,
a period of years where the summers were significantly cooler than normal.
Now, because of this, trees grew at about the same rate throughout the year,
resulting in a density differential that was relatively small.
Okay! But how would someone replicate that kind of environment?
Well, they didn't grow a bunch of trees in a greenhouse.
Instead, a scientist found out how to process wood to force the properties to resemble Cremonese wood.
He exposed it to a type of fungus, a mushroom.
Normal fungus decomposes organic matter,
breaking it down into mulch and eventually dirt.
This particular species will only eat away at certain layers of wood, leaving others alone.
Using this fungus, the scientist was able to artificially remove unwanted layers,
and lower the density differential.
This technique allowed violin-makers to create violins that more closely resemble the rich sound that Cremonese violins can make.
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