Did Leonardo da Vinci invent the violin?

Did Leonardo da Vinci invent the violin?

There isn’t a shred of evidence suggesting he did.  Still, the idea comes around every few years, perhaps because it seems fitting that one of the great artists of all time created one of the most enduringly beautiful musical instrument designs.

Leonardo Signature

Leonardo did design a number of new instruments, and made improvements on several existing ones. He invented the viola organista – an organ with mechanically bowed strings in place of pipes. He played lira da braccia and lyre, was reportedly a gifted composer and improviser, and his investigations into sound and vibration foreshadowed future scientific discoveries. All of which to say, Leonardo was spectacularly over-qualified for the job of violin-maker. So it’s not impossible he sketched out something we would now call a violin.

He may even have started building one, but then got distracted and left it unfinished, like so many of his other projects. Or perhaps he met an itinerant luthier, and on impulse tore the sketch from his notebook and gave it away – never imagining the kid would end up in Cremona and meet a guy called Amati, who would run with the idea.

This is pure fantasy. No one knows who made the first violin. The first known examples come from Andrea Amati’s workshop, and are dated decades after Leonardo’s death. So why bring up a half-formed myth in this first post on Violin Science?

Because I’ve been thinking about evidence lately – about what it takes to convince someone, or a whole culture, or just myself, that something is true. If a Leonardo drawing of a violin were discovered and authenticated, his involvement in the instrument’s origins would suddenly become plausible. As it is, violin historians have spent untold hours going through libraries and archives and otherwise scouring the by-ways of Northern Italy in search of evidence about early violins. Thanks to them, the story of the violin remains Leonardo-free.

Historical research has helped answer many important questions about the  violin, but it is ill-suited to addressing the very basic ones: How does the violin produce sound? How do we perceive that sound? Can violin sound be measured? Historians can tell you what has been said or written on these subjects in the past – and this can make fascinating reading. But if you want the questions answered at a fundamental physical level, then scientific research becomes necessary.

It is an odd fact about the violin world that, while historical research holds a respected place at it center, scientific research has long been relegated to the fringes. Whatever the reasons for this, a result is that many of our core beliefs about violin sound are not backed by credible evidence. This doesn’t mean they aren’t true – only that arguments about their truth can never really be settled.

Consider, for example, these five statements:

  1. Violins improve with playing. The longer and the better they are played, the more they improve.
  2. Any competent violinist can separate new violins from old, simply by playing them.
  3. The best Old Italian violins may seem quiet under the ear, but in a large hall will out-project seemingly louder new instruments.
  4. Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu violins have recognizable voices that distinguish them from one another, and from instruments by other makers.
  5. There is something about the sound of the best Old Italian violins that has never been reproduced elsewhere or since.

I suspect that many players, makers, and dealers will find themselves nodding their heads in agreement with all the above. I myself spent decades nodding in agreement. If you had asked me for evidence, I would have recounted experiences (my own, and those of trusted clients and colleagues) that seemed to leave little room for doubt. I would have pointed to the enormous body of anecdotal evidence that fills violin books, magazines, and more recently, the internet.

I would have said that these five statements are, after all, quite reasonable. Many things get better with age: red wine, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar. Shoes, cars, and pianos all require a “break-in” period. With violins, this just happens to extend over hundreds of years. As for that special something about Old Italian instruments, how else to explain why virtually all top players since the 1800s have chosen Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu violins as their concert instruments?

Old Italian sound, I assumed, has something to do with the properties of old wood, or perhaps the effects of long-term vibration on its micro-structure. Or else it’s the varnish – the great, lost Italian varnishes that somehow suppress the harsh overtones that bedevil new violins. It could also be the influence of a thin particulate layer between varnish and wood, or the way the wood itself was treated – soaked in brine, perhaps, or buried in manure. And maybe it’s true that wood grown during a mini ice age and harvested while the moon is new has qualities that cannot be otherwise obtained.

So many theories, so little evidence. But in the end, who needs evidence? Violin-making is an art, and works of art must be judged subjectively. Stradivari was a genius, like Bach and Leonardo. No-one would ask for scientific evidence to confirm that a drawing by Leonardo is more beautiful than anything I could come up with. You either see it or you don’t. Stradivari’s elevated conception of violin sound, his visionary reinterpretations of the designs he inherited, and the sheer force of his personality all make themselves felt to the sensitive listener. You either hear it, or you don’t.

Or so I would have argued. Then I began consorting with scientists. Scientists seem to neither believe nor disbelieve these kinds of arguments. They prefer to test them. After some initial resistance, I saw the sense in this and began participating in scientific research. About four years ago I became involved in a series of experiments designed to test how players evaluate instruments, new and old. Thus began one of the most exciting, stressful, confusing, liberating, unnerving, and exhilarating periods of my professional life.

As a result, many things I once believed – including all five of the above statements – no longer seem credible. In future posts I will try to explain why. I will try to lay out the evidence as fairly as possible. You may or may not be persuaded, but allow me in these blogs to make my case. Call it Violin Science.

Leonardo’s signature courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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