Research offers sound advice to violinists

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The Independent Online

Science Editor

Practising on your violin regularly not only improves your virtuosity, it improves your violin.

Researchers at South Bank University in London have discovered there is a scientific basis to an old adage among musicians that the regular playing of a stringed instrument enhances its tone.

David Hunt and a colleague from the university's school of engineering and design set out to test the folklore by using small beams of spruce - a wood commonly used for sounding membranes. For two days, they set their model systems vibrating continuously at a natural frequency of 10 cycles per second - below the lower limits for human hearing.

Writing in the journal Nature today, they concede that "sound quality is subjective" but believe that a couple of scientifically measurable variables can serve as a good proxy - the stiffness of the wood and its tendency to damp the sound or vibration.

After their two-day session vibrating the spruce beams, they found that when the air was humid, the continuous vibration increased the stiffness of the wood and decreased its tendency to damp the vibrations. This result accords exactly with the properties thought desirable for good sound quality.

The explanation may be that continuous vibration of the beams - or stringed instrument - squeezes water molecules out of the places where they do most damage to the musical properties of the wood.

Hence, they conclude: "Although for the best care of a musical instrument, both high and low humidities should be avoided, the results suggest that at intermediate or high humidities, the sound quality can be improved by regular playing."