What makes a good violin?


"What makes a good violin?" I believe every violin enthusiast has their own standards, but like a beauty pageant, there are universal standards for what constitutes "good." 

What makes a good violin fiddlover violin shop

Eight basic scoring criteria for violin

In the International "Triennale" Violin Making Competition Antonio Stradivari held in Italy every three years, there are eight clear criteria for evaluation, as follows:

  1. Technical Level of Work
  2. Set Up
  3. Quality of Varnish
  4. Overall Style and Character
  5. Quality of Timber
  6. Strength of Tone
  7. Balance Between Strings
  8. Playability

The literal meanings of these criteria are quite clear, but like any competition, there are deeper layers to understanding what makes a good violin. We must delve deeper into these evaluation criteria to understand what truly makes a violin exceptional. Half of these criteria can be considered the "cause," while the other half are the "effect."

The "cause" comprises Technical Level of Work + Quality of Timber + Quality of Varnish + Set Up, while the remaining four are the "effect." The birth of a good violin is significantly influenced by these initial four factors, with the weight of their impact on a violin's quality distributed as follows:

(Materials 50% = Quality of Timber 40% + Quality of Varnish 10%) + (Craftsmanship 40% + Set Up 10%)

The former represents the materials, while the latter represents the skill of the luthier. This implies that half of a violin's quality is determined by the materials (including the quality of components), while the other half depends on the craftsmanship of the luthier. A skilled luthier can select the finest materials from thousands of pieces of wood and expertly pair the top and back plates. Correct material selection provides the foundation for craftsmanship to shine.

One crucial rule in the competition is that each violin must be made by a single luthier using the internal mold method.

In simple terms, creating a good violin isn't difficult: it involves selecting excellent materials and then skillfully crafting them with dedication and patience. However, this meticulous process is laborious and slow, making mass production unfeasible.

One key aspect is that each violin must be made by a single luthier. However, in the face of the logic of industrial mass production, such inefficient production methods are not the solution. Some have suggested using production lines to manufacture violins efficiently.

Many violin-making techniques are not secrets. By breaking down these processes and assigning them to well-trained assembly line workers to focus on each component, high-quality products can be produced in large quantities. Strangely, however, mass-produced European violins, while aesthetically pleasing and well-finished, still can't match the sound quality of luthier-made violins. Why is this?

A violin is a musical instrument, and its function is to be played. Applying the logic of mass woodworking to violin making results in products that meet specifications but lack the complexity of the human touch. It's difficult to pinpoint a single factor that determines the quality of a violin, just as rain isn't solely caused by sufficient moisture. However, removing the factor of "made by a single luthier" seems to strip the violin of its soul, leaving it with a dull and lifeless sound.

Mass-produced violins serve the purpose of promoting music education and lowering the initial barrier to entry for learning music. Unfortunately, due to asymmetrical information or the influence of certain vested interests, consumers' judgments and values may be misled. Moreover, the visibility of true traditional handcrafted violins is quite low. Therefore, consumers have no way to compare the differences between luthier-made violins and mass-produced ones. Consequently, consumers often end up choosing the "relatively good" violin among many mass-produced options, which is rather tragic.

To purchase a good violin, one must first understand how to evaluate one. In addition to observing and listening extensively, reading books on violin making can also be helpful. 

While it may not guarantee a significant improvement in one's ability to test violins after reading, filling in knowledge gaps and reducing information disparities is beneficial.

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