Science and the Violin

Science and Violin Making

To suggest that violin making has a strong tradition would be a mild understatement.  Violin making, in comparison to the making of other instruments (for example guitars), is very conservative.  This is particularly true in the classical music profession.  The ancient makers of violins (Andreas Amati, Antonio Stradivari, B. G. A. Guarneri, del Gesù, etc.) have been idolized and their surviving instruments now fetch higher and higher prices at auction.  This has led to an increasing desire to replicate these works, and to value ‘ancient’ instruments.   There has been a desire to rediscover the ‘lost secrets’ of these makers, lost to the annals of time as the tradition of making was passed down from master to apprentice.  The theory here is: if we could just find those lost secrets, we can make instruments as those ‘great’ violins passed down to us.

The making of the family of fretless is framed within the context above; traditional making.  This is where there is a divergence amongst the makers of stringed instruments.  There are those that believe science can benefit the understanding and making of instruments, and those that believe that there is no need of science in instrument making-indeed, it is at best a distraction, and at worst a defamation.

What is Science, Really

Science is the modelling of the world we experience.

Science attempts to predict how we will experience the world around us.  The ‘laws’ of science are rules which never fail in their ability to predict what will happen in certain situations.  Implied herein is the need for what we want to observe to be measurable.  An example of a scienctific model of our observed world: the laws of gravity accurately predict, without exception, the behaviour of, say, a weight dropped from a height.  The laws predict that the object will fall, in a straight line, at a certain acceleration.  These laws creates a mathematical model which can be use to predict the behaviour of the world around us.

The development of science, is the development of the mathematical models, and how one model, or set of math equations, is related to another model.  Science is the capability to predict the outcome of a specific situation.  If we pluck a sting, can we predict the frequency (musical note), it will produce.  If we can take what we know about the string and relate that to the note that will be produced we have a mathematical model.    For this to be effective, we must know when we can use these mathematical equations and when they no longer apply: maybe our model works for steel but not plastic, for example.

It is only science when it is applied to the measurable, when it is accurate, consistently predictive, and when the limitations are well understood.

Science, does not explain what we experience, it only interprets and predicts.

A Role for Science

With the understanding of science outlined above, there is a role for science in instrument making.   The modern science of the day has been applied to violins for as long as the concept has existed.  I see a role for science in describing (characterizing) the instrument as its being made, and once its finished, and in understanding the relationship between these.