The instruments of a String Quartet are like a collection of car bodies

I remember a little while ago going to a Country Dance Budapest. This was a local dance, so it was all Hungarian music and dance. There must have been about 150 people in the dancehall dancing to a four piece band that comprised fiddle, clarinet, viola that played in the Hungarian Style, and double bass.

The music was wild and energetic, but the most amazing thing was that they were playing without any amplification. An English barn dance band would never be able to do this, they would get drowned out by the Dancers. So how did this band managed to play and be heard? It was simply the physical energy of the players. The fiddle player, a 30 year old woman, was playing so violently that by the end of the evening most of the hairs had come off her bow. She must have had to rehair her bow after every barn dance. She must have been a strong person too, I wouldn't like to pick a fight with her!

The viola player was playing on a viola with a flat bridge, so that the bow played All For Strings at the same time. Unlike when playing viola in a string quartet where the bow is played more or less horizontally. one string at a time, with the body of the violin in a horizontal plane, in Hungarian folk style the body of a violin is rotated through 90 degrees and the bowing is done vertically. Much more pressure can be put on the bow, all four strings are played at the same time, and the result is much much more sound. The clarinet was loud, but clarinets are very raucous instruments at the best of times.

When it came to the bass player, he must have been a weightlifter as well. He was all muscle and he was bowing and plucking the double bass to Death. Although a double basses is a big bit of wooden furniture, I did wonder if this instrument would survive the evening.

What about the strength of the violin itself. A violin is made of high quality wood,  but they are not exotic woods like the pernambuco used in a bow. The strength comes from the monocoque construction, rather like the strength in the construction of a modern car. A violin regularly gets a real bashing, rather like a rally car, whether it is being played with passion in a string quartet, with Celtic energy in a ceilidh band or bashed a barn dance band.

A modern car body is extremely strong even though it is only made of very thin metal, much thinner materials than used in car construction many years ago. Car bodies have curved panels and avoid completely flat panels. Curvature and completely closed structures provide strength that is not achievable in a flat structured system.

 It is interesting to compare a Spanish guitar with a violin. The front and back up the soundbox of a Spanish guitar is flat whereas the front and back the soundbox of a violin is curved so the violin structure is much stronger than that of a guitar. A guitar achieves its strength from using plywood for the front and back whereas a violin uses ordinary wood.  In addition to advantages in the vibration properties of a single piece of carved wood, this gives the violin the strength to last for many years. A Stradivarius violin can be worth millions of pounds even though it is hundreds of years old. Conversely, a valuable Spanish guitar will be a well made modern instruments and the guitar loses its value with age as it becomes less good, the converse of a violin which can improve with ageing.

 So, the body gains much of its strength from the curvatures of the front and back, some styles of violin making have very extreme curvatures. The front and back pieces are carved carefully from single pieces of wood, the strength of the curved section allowing the wood to be thinned down to a thickness that will vibrate well over the whole range of frequencies that the violin will be played at. To give added strength there is a soundpost, a bit like coal mining pit prop, immediately below the bridge of the violin.

The bridge is a vertical piece of wood which supports the strings and through which the vibrations of the string pass into the soundbox. Even when not being played, there is a vertical force through the bridge onto the soundbox and soundpost. The reason for this is that the strings go over the bridge at an angle, quite different to a classical guitar which has very different vertical force on the strings, the strings which stretch from tuners, over the bridge, to the connection at the other end of the instrument being almost in a straight line.

The neck the violin is a part sticking out from the soundbox where the violinist put their hand and does the fingering. When the musician puts their finger down on a violin string, what they're doing is altering the length of string that can vibrate. As they place their finger further and further up the instrument, it shortens the length of the string that is able to vibrate between the finger and the bridge. The shorter the string, the higher note.

 Each of the four violin strings is a different thickness and has a different tension. The lowest string, which has to vibrate the most slowly, is made thicker than the higher strings. The thicker a string, the heavier it is the lower the sound. The thicker the string the heavier it is per unit length, and the slower it vibrates and so the lower the note. The bottom string, the G String, has a central heavy core with round metal, perhaps aluminium or silver, and is relatively thick. The highest string, the E string, is a single bit of thin wire, perhaps with silver wound around the outside, and extremely thin, rather like a cheese cutting wire. This string is at the highest tension. 

So the higher the tension in the string, the higher the note and the lighter the string is the higher the note. One can buy strings of different weights that used a different tensions. Most musicians use what is termed an average weight string or an average tension string but some professional musicians will use more specialised strings to suit their particular instruments, to achieve the best quality of sound and the highest volume.

Volume is a very important consideration when playing in a String Quartet, where it is important for the instruments to provide enough volume of sound to fill a concert hall. Similarly volume is of paramount importance for a soloist who will be trying to make his instrument heard above the volume of a complete symphony orchestra that is accompanying him or her. Volume is less important in the Symphony Orchestra, where the musician is just one of a large string section. What is important here is to have a tone blends in with the other instruments and doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. An orchestral player playing on a violin that was used by a soloist would sound out of place and wouldn't blend in with the rest of the section.

Returning now to the neck of a violin, this is joined it into the soundbox, with at the other end the scroll and pegs that are used for tuning. As we discussed above, tension in the string alters the pitch of a note, so the pegs in the nut of the violin are used to alter the tension in the strings to get the pitch correct.

One interesting thing about pitch is that the standard A has changed through history. The standard for concert pitch A is currently 440 cycles per second. One or two hundred years ago the standard pitch was somewhat higher. One indication of a very old violin is that you will see that a new neck has been grafted in. The old was taken out of the body of a violin and the nut with a scroll and the tuning pegs was cut off and rejoined or grafted onto a longer neck which was then reattach the violin body.

 So back to talking about where a violinist does their fingering. We've got to the situation with the violinist holding their hands around the neck of the violin. The position of the hand is vital.  Get it wrong and the musician will be very restricted on how fast they can play, whether they can do for vibrato or not and whether they can successfully play high notes.

For an example of how not to play a violin just look at the hand position of the stereotypical American hillbilly fiddle player. The palm and heel of their hand will be against the neck of the violin with the hand bent back at the wrist. This means that he can only play the instruments in what is called first position, in other words  can play an open string and four fingered notes above it. String Quartet players typically play in six or seven positions, each position meaning that the hand is moved one note higher on the violin. With the hand flat against the violin neck this is impossible. Furthermore moving from string to string can only be accomplished dexterously with the correct hand position and the stereotypical hillbilly American fiddle player can't do this.

 Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that American fiddle playing it rubbish, it is very sophisticated at its best. If you look at the hand position of the good American fiddle players, the ones that go in for fiddle playing competitions that are held throughout the US, they will not play in the hillbilly style. The hand positions will be the same as that for a String Quartet player. They will have tremendous dexterity, and indeed for competition type music The Ultimate in dexterity is necessary. So when I say the stereotypical hillbilly American fiddle player, this is something not to be copied and when I say the good American barn dance fiddle player or the competition player, this is a style that any musician, be there a barn dance for a fiddle player or a String Quartet violinist, should aim for.