How a violin’s f-holes influence its sound

Air accelerates quickly through long, narrow openings, powering instrument’s lowest notes

Suzuki violin

SHAPING UP  The design of a violin’s f-holes can have a slight effect on the instrument’s lowest notes, influencing the power of the sound.

Takeshi Kuboki/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

How a violin’s f-holes are shaped can influence the instrument’s lowest notes.

MIT scientists, along with a Boston-based violin maker, analyzed how air moves through a violin’s f-shaped holes and through the round, half-moon and C-shaped sound holes of violin ancestors from the 10th to 16th centuries. Air accelerates more quickly through the long, narrow f-shaped holes than through round holes, allowing violins to put out more powerful sounds at lower frequencies. The finding, published online February 11 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, suggests that the shape of the violin’s holes may have evolved to create slight gains in acoustic power.

Based on calculations of airflow and experiments, the team found that an instrument with f-shaped holes should have twice the acoustic power of one with circular holes. That corresponds to about a three-decibel difference —easily distinguishable by the human ear, which can pick up on 0.5 to 1 decibel changes.

Even slight differences in f-hole length appear to affect the acoustic power of the instrument. The calculations could explain why Amati violins, which have shorter f-holes and less reverberating power, are preferred in small chamber ensembles while Guarneri violins, with longer f-holes and more resonating power, are favored in larger ensembles and concert halls, the scientists say.

They note that this analysis looked at the influence of f-hole shape on the violin’s lowest notes, which is only a small part of the violin’s overall acoustics.  

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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