Violins & Voices (part 2)

Violins & Voices (part 2)


A few years ago a client of mine from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra came in for an adjustment and asked about a prototype electric violin she saw sitting on a cabinet. I told her about the Digital Violin, then went to my computer and played back a sample recording made on it. It was the opening solo from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto played, I told her, “by a good violinist.”

I had done the demo often – playing first the raw output from the instrument, then the same thing filtered through an electronic emulation of Guarneri del Gesu violin. If you’ve ever listened to the unmodified sound of a solid-body electric violin, then you know the buzzing, colorless sound it produces. And yet a few seconds into the “raw” version of the Tchaikovsky, my client said, “Is that Ilya Kaler?” When I asked how on earth she knew, she answered immediately: “The sound.”

The sound? It barely sounded like a violin, let alone the one I built for Kaler – but then I remembered that he had been guest concertmaster with her orchestra the previous year. Clearly, she had recognized not his sound so much as his playing gestures – all the technical and musical inflections that add up to a recognizable “voice.”

A great violinist once told me that violinists all sound alike these days. In the old days, he said, you could immediately recognize the sounds of artists like Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman, and Menuhin. This is complaint commonly voiced by players and critics alike. Out of curiosity I asked if he thought he could, while blind-folded, tell which of his students were playing at a masterclass. “Yes, of course,” he said. It is tempting to conclude that violinists are better at telling each other apart than they sometimes pretend to be. But in fairness, I am probably taking the complaint too literally. What was meant is that, while there are a great many accomplished violinists in the world today, there are very few distinctly original voices.

The last post raised the question of why we find it easy to tell each other apart by our speaking voices, but rather difficult to tell violins apart – at least in blind listening tests. “Old Italian sound” does not seem to be something we recognize in the way we recognize, for example, an Irish accent. Why not?

An obvious difference between the violin and the voice, is that with the latter, “player” and “instrument” are completely integrated. You can’t take Clinton’s vocal apparatus and ask Obama to make a speech with it. On the other hand, a gifted mimic can use his own vocal apparatus to imitate both presidents well enough that you would at very least know which was which. This suggests that, broadly speaking, we recognize each others’ voices more by the way we use them than by their innate tonal characteristics.

A violin can of course be used by any player. Ask Pinchas Zukerman to play Itzhak Perlman’s violin, and most people will agree that he sounds pretty much as he always does. While it is possible to imagine Zukerman using his own Guarneri del Gesu to imitate Perlman’s playing, it is harder to imagine him using it to imitate Perlman’s Stradivari. What would that even mean? All this suggests that the recognizable attributes of violin sound are more related to how the player uses an instrument, than to the instrument’s innate tonal characteristics.

Most musical instruments can be looked at in terms of two separate systems, an “oscillator” and a “resonator.”  The oscillator provides a signal that varies in pitch and amplitude more than in timbre. This signal is then “colored” by the resonator. The bowed-string and the vocal chords both act as oscillators, while the violin body and the various resonating chambers in the vocal apparatus (lungs, throat, sinuses, mouth) act as resonant amplifiers.

There is, however, an enormous difference between the vocal tract and the violin body. People can freely modify the placement of their vocal resonances – and do so with every change in vowel. A violin is made with wood, not flesh, and so it resonances, or “modes of vibration” are relatively fixed. In this it more resembles a room than the human voice.

A room’s acoustical characteristics are entirely determined by its modes of vibration. These can be modified only by physically changing the room – for example by rearranging the furniture or removing a carpet or opening a window. Similarly, a violin’s modes of vibration can be modified by moving the soundpost, trimming the bridge, and any number of other adjustments. Just as a single person changing position in a room will somewhat alter its acoustics, so changing the way you hold a violin will somewhat affect its acoustical behavior.

It is, however, the relative stability of the violin’s resonant structure while it is being played that is important here. Our perceptions are highly sensitive to changes, but tend to ignore or “tune out” things that remain constant. We notice the sound of a refrigerator mainly when it turns on or off. This happens not just with relatively simple background noises, but with highly complex acoustical constants, such as the acoustics of a room.

Physicist Gabriel Weinreich calls it the “culvert effect.” If you enter a highly resonant passageway while speaking with a friend, conversation may suddenly become unintelligible. Very soon, however, the brain seems to separate the fixed acoustics of the space from the highly dynamic, continually changing signals that make up spoken language. Conversation again becomes possible.

It is reasonable to assume that when listening to a violin, our auditory system focuses less on the unchanging acoustical characteristics of the violin body than on the continuously changing signal produced by the violinist (i.e., the music). If a player switches violins, the difference in sound may at first be noticeable – even dramatic. But the ear soon tunes-out the new acoustical constant, and focuses again on what the player is doing.

Just as the ear adapts itself to the acoustical environment, violinists adapt themselves to individual instruments. Good players soon find a way to project their own “voice” using almost any violin. There are, however, limits to what both players and listeners can accommodate. Not all rooms make good concert halls, and not all violins make effective musical tools. Just what makes a “good violin” is a question that has perplexed scientists for centuries. Recent research is providing some surprising answers, and these will be the subject of future posts.

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