Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Lee Frelich
  Dec 22, 2005 23:27 PST 

Well, I am off to practice my violin. I have to get ready for the ENTS
concert next October. Pretty soon I will exhaust the available etudes and
there won't be anything left with higher levels of technical difficulty to
study. Once you can do 3 octave arpeggios in all 24 keys, 2 octave scales
on one string, and every type of double stop, chord, and harmonic in all 8
different bowings, what else will be left? I will have to start studying
the repertoire.


Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Robert Leverett
  Dec 23, 2005 04:54 PST 

   Your last paragraph impressed the pizzazzers out of me although I
didn't understand a word you said. But then I don't need to since Monica
can translate for me. Monica, Monica,where are you? BTW, she's thinking
about securing a greater space for the ENTS concert next year. There is
a room at Smith College that she thinks would be most appropriate. I
think it is their recital hall. It seats over 100 people.

   Back to the violin. What are the 8 different bowings? I probably
shouldn't ask the question on this tree list, but what the heck. Now
that I'm partnered with professor Monica Jakuc, I'm trying to go beyond
just simple appreciation of classical music, which I've always had, to
understanding more about its history, its many complex structures,
modern trends, and much more about the instruments and their individual
development histories. I'm even committed to trying to like some of the
contemporary classical music, although I confess that most of it still
sounds more like noise to me than music. However, going back into time,
there's no problem at all. Monica has gotten me thoroughly hooked on the
sound of the fortepiano, although I still like the clarity of the modern

    With respect to the history of the violin, on several occasions
you've spoken to the types of wood that have been used in making
violins. Just for the record, could I ask you to review that with us?
What can be substituted for what? I once thought that whatever species
of spruce Stradivari used, that was it. There could be no substitutes
without loss of sound quality. Then I read that our own red spruce could
be substituted with no loss in quality. I think in one of our
conversations, you took the substitution issue much further. Our new
members might enjoy that discussion thread. So what is it that makes a
great violin, Herr Professor?

Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Lee Frelich
  Dec 23, 2005 07:52 PST 


The wood of the violin is hard maple on the back and sides (usually the
curly maple with the tiger-like stripe) and spruce on the front (ring width
about 1 mm works best). There are several types of maple that can be used
from the Carpathian Mountains, and in the new world, sugar maple makes
great violins. Walnut, apple or pear, and other hard woods have been used
and make decent violins. Norway spruce has been used in Europe, but any
fine-grained spruce can be used such as red or white spruce. Although good
wood and the right type of wood is essential, the shape of the interior
of instrument, the gradation in thickness of the wood throughout the
instrument and the interrelationship of the parts is also very important in
producing a good sound. Instruments where the wood is too thick have a
dull sound, as do instruments made of all spruce, whereas all maple
instruments are shrill sounding. The combination of maple and spruce yields
the mellow tones on the lower strings and brilliant steely sound in the
upper register.

Regarding the bow, it is made of pernambuco, a tropical hardwood. This wood
has just the right elasticity to allow one to do the 8 bowings I
mentioned--detache, grande detache, martele, sautille, saltato (also called
spiccato or flying spiccato), ricochet, slurred staccato, and arpeggio
(yes, these are mostly French words). Pernambuco allows the bow to bounce
for the spiccato, ricochet, and arpeggio strokes, while still allowing a
steady bow for the grande detache, which is a whole bow stroke with
continuous contact with the string.

I will let Monica tell you what three octave arpeggios, double stops,
chords, and harmonics are and explain the system of 24 major and minor keys
(including G-flat which is so despised by violinists because it just can't
be made to match the tuning of the instrument).

BTW I did think of some more difficult things I could try such as three
octave scales in double stopped thirds, scales in fingered octaves, and a
four octave G-major scale (the latter if I figure out a way to make my
fourth finger slightly longer to reach the top two notes). Maybe these
carry things to the point of rediculousness. Although....the Sibelius
violin concerto does have a very fast slurred staccato scale in double
stopped thirds, which I have seen every violinist bomb royally in concert
and on recordings, except for Heifetz and Sarah Chang. It is more or less
expected that this passage will be screwed up, but they keep trying. I will
demonstrate it for you next time we meet (but don't expect it to sound
better than a cackling chicken).

Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Darian Copiz
  Dec 23, 2005 09:54 PST 


There was an interesting article in Smithsonian magazine a while back on
pernambuco and how these trees need to be managed carefually -
apparently there isn't anything else that can quite match its properties
that make it ideal for making bows.


Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Monica Jakuc
  Dec 24, 2005 12:53 PST 

Dear Lee,

I will continue to educate my sweeetheart in the technical jargon of

Meanwhile, I enjoyed your descriptions of wood.

Is Alaskan Sitka spruce better than the other spruces you mention? I
think Steinway uses it for soundboards.

I do know that European instrument makers favor would from the Bohemian
forest, though some of that is being poached at alarming rates. I'm not
sure why that wood is better: age, growing conditions, climate?

Have a happy holiday,

Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Edward Frank
  Dec 25, 2005 17:27 PST 


Do you have any opion on the submerged wood ideas for stradavari violins?
Here are a couple of links for people wanting to browse:
and here:

There seems to be both suporteres and naysayers for the idea. Basically is
say that the Stradivari violins were made from wood that had been submereged
in water for long periods of time. This submersion lightened the wood by
removing some solubles.   Another ponts at the types of varnish he used in
the violins - in addition of course to fine craftsmanship.

Ed Frank
Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Lee Frelich
  Dec 26, 2005 15:04 PST 


I don't think Alaskan spruce is any better than other spruce as far as wood
quality. However, since it is a really big tree compared to other spruces,
it is more likely that one could obtain a large piece of spruce from those
trees. The piano sounding board is huge compared to a violin (although
maybe not compared to a cello or bass violin, although most instrument
makers use two-piece tops, negating the need to find a huge tree).

Re:  Wood and musical instruments - Violins   Lee Frelich
  Dec 26, 2005 15:22 PST 

I think we don't really know how Stradivari treated the wood. We really
know little about him--we don't even have a portrait.

There have been a number of fine violins over the centuries that rival
Stradivari's, and the most important component seems to be careful
craftsmanship. The market was flooded with fine violins during the 1700s,
and demand for high-priced carefully made violins fell during the 1800s, so
violin makers responded with cheaper violins. Now there are so many people,
and the Strads and Guarneris cost millions of dollars due to their history,
so there is once again demand for great violins, and makers are responding
with great instruments that cost $10,000-30,000, which is affordable for
musicians in symphony orchestras.

The Hill brothers of London, who have seen several hundred Stradivari
instruments in their repair shop, think that the wood was mostly chosen for
its appearance, and Stradivari chose wood with more prominent stripes when
he had an instrument commissioned by a rich or prominent person. The Hill
brothers think that new wood is just as good as old wood, and they have the
world's premiere repair shop.

I do agree with Nagyvary (professor from the website you listed) that a
number of great violins have hard shiny varnish. A bright red instrument
known as 'The Ruby' that belonged to Pablo De Sarasate during the late
1800s is such a case. On the other hand the Huberman Stradivarius, named
for its famous owner during the early 1900s, the Polish violinist Bronislav
Huberman, was stolen during a concert in Carnegie Hall, and was used in a
bar for 50 years, and due to cigar smoke, is now a dull brown, but still
sounds great. I have heard it several times recently, since Joshua Bell
owns it. It was the instrument used in the movie 'The Red Violin'.


Wood and musical instruments... drum sticks
  Dec 27, 2005 07:00 PST 

Having performed as a snare drummer in a Scottish bagpipe band, I have found
maple to be the most common and preferred wood for pipe band drumming sticks.
Most if not all such sticks seem to be made in England/Scotland and the maple
may be imported from the Canadian forests.

The complexity and speed demanded by the Scottish-style of drumming requires
a wood that is light but hard and has a good ring or timber to the sticks.
Better makers and sellers will weigh each stick, in grams, paired-up, and then
matched by the tone or timber of the sticks... they do have a telltale "ring"
when struck on the skull next to an ear.

By contrast, DCI-style of drumming requires a heavy and dense wood and often
oak or hickory is the preferred wood, in order to achieve volumes required in
outdoor venues.

Rhythm and rock drummers also use oak and hickory, but sticks that are
slimmer and lighter, by comparison.

In orchestral and concert band drumming the sticks are typically maple and
may be very thin and light.

Many other domestic and exotic wood species have been used for various styles
of drum sticks...Anatomy of a drumstick

The anatomy of snare, tenor and bass drums is obviously quite different,
however, most use maple for the drum shell, and the attention made to the design
and manufacture can be similar to that paid to the design/mfg. of string
instruments and pianos.

didjeridu... five years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Sydney and
listening to an Aboriginal music group. The didjeridu has a haunting tone but
quite a versatile instrument.

A couple of links that ya'll might find of interest, as there is no limit to
the specific applications of wood, from around the world.

RE: Wood and musical Instruments - violins   Monica Jakuc
  Dec 27, 2005 08:24 PST 
Dear Lee,

It seems that you don't think Bohemian forest wood may be more special
than other wood. But what about issues like spacing of annual rings? I
think the spacing of rings makes a difference in the ultimate
sound-producing qualities of the wood, although I don't think I could be
specific about how the differences would translate.

RE: wood and musical instruments... drum sticks   Monica Jakuc
  Dec 27, 2005 08:31 PST 

Dear ENTS,

This musical instrument thing is great fun for me. I loved going to the
website and reading about the didjeridu.

And also about African blackwood. Different trees have different
qualities to offer us musicians.

A few months ago, I ran across a quote that was used as an inscription
on Ruckers harpsichords:

"I was once a tree; though alive I was silent; now, though dead, I sing

RE: Wood and Musical Instruments - Violins   Lee E. Frelich
  Dec 27, 2005 10:04 PST 


No, Bohemian wood isn't any more special than other woods, but it was
available to a lot of instrument makers. You can find trees with different
ring widths in any region. Even in warm climates where deep soils
predominate, you can find trees with smaller rings in mountains, on sandy
areas, or rock outcrops.

Also, even though wood with 1 mm rings widths is preferred for violins,
there are exceptions. Maggini made violins from wood with 2-3 mm rings, and
even now that his instruments are 400 years old, they are still in demand
for their powerful and mellow tone.

Grancino made violins with wood from the base of spruce trees, with a
marbled pattern in the grain. My violin teacher had one and I played it a
few times. The Grancino instruments sound as good as any Stradivari.

All these exceptions show that it is a combination of craftsmanship and
wood that really determines the sound (the choice of wood is for acoustic
and especially esthetic purposes), and there are just as many or more good
craftsmen and good wood available today as previously. If I had a few
million dollars, however, I would still get a Stradivari violin, because of
its history. They have all been played by many great musicians over the
centuries, and that gives an instrument special qualities too, the same
special qualities as old trees that were present for historical events.