Violins ‘sing’ in multiple languages

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When creating violins, the Italian masters Stradivari and Guarneri tried to impart specific vowel sounds to the instruments, but new research shows only two of the vowels were in their native language.

Joseph Nagyvary, professor emeritus in biochemistry at Texas A&M University, says of the various vowels he identified in their violins, only the “i” and “e” were in Italian. The others were more of French and English origin.

His findings published in the current issue of Savart Journal, a scientific journal of musical instrument acoustics, have the potential to change the way violins are made and how they are priced.

“I expected to find more Italian vowels, what experts call the ‘Old Italian’ sound actually has the mark of foreign languages,” Nagyvary says.

Nagyvary has held for decades that the great Italian violin makers, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù, produced instruments with a more human-like tonal quality than any others made at the time.

To prove his theory, violinist Itzhak Perlman recorded a scale on his violin, a 1743-dated Guarneri, during a 1987 concert appearance in San Antonio. For the comparison, Nagyvary asked Metropolitan Opera soprano Emily Pulley to record her voice singing vowels in an operatic style.

“It has been widely held that violins ‘sing’ with a female soprano voice. Emily’s voice is lustrous and she has the required expertise to sing all vowels of the European languages in a musical scale,” Nagyvary says.

“I analyzed her sound samples by computer for harmonic content and then using state-of-the art phonetic analysis to obtain a 2-D map of the female soprano vowels. Each note of a musical scale on the violin underwent the same analysis, and the results were plotted and mapped against the soprano vowels.”

The research showed that the sounds of Pulley’s voice and the violin’s could be located on the same map for identification purposes, and their respective graphic images can be directly compared.

“For 400 years, violin prices have been based almost exclusively on the reputation of the maker—the label inside of the violin determined the price tag,” Nagyvary says.

“The sound quality rarely entered into price consideration because it was deemed inaccessible.  These findings could change how violins may be valued.”

Source: Texas A&M University