Why do new violins need a break-in period?


New violins require a period of playing time to reach their optimal state, and this is a consensus among all violinists. But why is this break-in period necessary? Let's explore the secrets behind it.

Table of Contents

Playing the violin at a family party Fiddlover Violin Shop

Inspiration from a violin teacher

Recently, I visited a violin teacher whose primary job is to teach beginners how to play the violin. I brought two new violins with me - the Fiddlover Q003 violin and the Q020 violin. The Q003 violin costs $659, while the Q020 violin costs $1249. I wanted to learn from her about the differences between these two violins.

Luckily, she was very enthusiastic and willing to help me test these two violins. As she began to play, I was completely immersed in her performance. Listening to a violin being played up close is a wonderful experience, but I couldn't make a detailed distinction between the two violins. I felt that the Q003 had a clear, bright sound, while the Q020 sounded warmer and fuller. Unfortunately, I couldn't clearly distinguish the quality between the two violins.

She told me that both violins were new and needed a period of playing time to fully bring out their potential, and they had to be played correctly, otherwise, it would affect the sound of the violin. The Q003 violin is very suitable for beginners or people with some playing experience. Its sound is good, but more than 70% of its potential has already been realized, so there is not much room for improvement. However, the Q020 violin has a lot of potentials to be developed, but it requires a period of break-in time to achieve it.

This surprised me, but I also felt very confused. I had heard before that new violin needed to be played for some time, but I thought this might just be a psychological feeling, like how we feel less comfortable in a new house compared to an old one. I thought it was just a feeling and not the actual condition of the violin itself.

She noticed my confusion and took out the violin that she had been using for three years in her performances. It was a cheap violin that cost only $300 (she used it for fear of damaging her main violin during performances), but it had a very good sound, a very beautiful sound. She told me that this was the best state that a new violin could reach after being played in.

This sparked my interest, so why do new violins need a break-in period?

The violin is constantly under stress

In this article, stress refers to the pressure of internal interactions caused by external forces or other external factors within an object.

Dr. David Hunt found in 1996 that vibration can cause a decrease in the damping coefficient of wood, leading to longer resonance times. While this does provide evidence of changes occurring, I believe the reason for this is that violins are constantly under stress, which includes three types of stress: stress in the woodstress on the violin's structure, and stress from external factors.

Stress in the wood

When making violins, wood that has been air-dried for a longer time is preferred by luthiers. The reason for this is simple: the molecular structure inside new wood is very active, and the shorter the time since it was cut, the more active it is. Therefore, the stress inside the wood is greater.

The materials used in violins only need to be stored properly, with the passage of time and proper storage in a dry and oxygen-free environment, the internal molecular stress of the wood will gradually decrease, and its acoustic performance will become better and better.

The wood used in making violins is generally aged for 5 to 10 years. During this time, the wood is no longer in the period of vigorous molecular activity, but still in the period of molecular activity, and the stress generated by the free movement and compression between molecules is still significant. In the case of antique violins, after hundreds of years, the molecular activity inside the wood is very weak and close to exhaustion, resulting in much smaller stress and closer to the acoustic peak of the wood. Therefore, if a new violin is played and broken in for some time, the internal stress of the wood will be reduced, and the acoustic performance will improve.

Stress on the violin's structure

Fiddlover's violin undergoes more than 130 processes and is made up of over 70 wooden pieces. During this period, it is inevitable that stresses will occur in the violin's structure due to the manufacturing process, the violin's structure, and human factors.

The violin is constructed by assembling various components such as the top plate, back plate, rib, scroll, fingerboard, etc. During this process, there are inevitably stresses present between different parts, and even within the parts themselves due to the structural design.

In layman's terms, stress between different parts refers to the inevitable interaction force between different parts because the violin is assembled by bonding different parts together with glue. For example, there is bound to be a kind of interaction force at the contact part between the top plate and the rib. It is easier to understand the stress generated by the structure within a specific part, and the most obvious part is the rib. The rib material is processed into the required shape by means of forced deformation under external force and high temperature in a short period of time. Therefore, there is a great amount of stress generated inside the material, and the magnitude of this stress is directly proportional to the angle of bending. The greater the angle of bending, the greater the stress produced. I have conducted such an experiment before. I placed the bent waist rib on a flat board and traced its shape onto the flat board with a pencil. After leaving it for four to five hours and observing it again, I found that the shape of the bent waist rib had changed significantly compared to four to five hours ago. The large amount and rapidity of the deformation of the rib indicate the large amount of stress inside the material.

The process of restoring deformed wood is the process of gradually eliminating stress. Due to the rib being glued to their respective corner blocks, they cannot be restored, so the stress generated by the bending process will be retained inside the material for a long period (this "long period" may be several decades or even over a hundred years).

Due to their different positions, the stress directions generated by each part of the violin are also different. The stress direction on each rib is also the direction in which each rib will be restored. When the rib of a violin is completed, stresses in various directions are also generated on the rib.

Stress from external factors

The tension generated by the four tightly stretched steel strings is approximately 30kg, and this tension is transmitted to the top plate through the bridge, with the top plate bearing pressure of approximately 10kg. The sound of a violin is produced when the player uses the bow to create friction with the strings, causing the strings to vibrate. This vibration is transmitted to the top plate through the bridge, and then it is spread throughout the entire instrument by the bass bar and sound post, resulting in resonance, which is ultimately released through the F-holes. (If you want to learn more about the principles of how a violin produces sound, you can read "How does your violin produce sound?")

During this period, the force and angle used by the player, the tension of the strings, and the state of the sound post, bridge, and bass bar will all create stress on the violin, and this is also the most direct reason that affects the sound of the violin. Many violins used by famous musicians for some time will become much more valuable, not only because of the celebrity effect but also because during this period, the violin is constantly adjusted and broken in, which not only involves the violin itself but also reflects the musician's understanding of music and pursuit of sound quality. Therefore, whether a new violin has been set up by the manufacturer or not, adjustments and breaking in should be carried out according to the situation during the use of the violin to achieve the best possible state.

The optimal state is the balance

In the end, I believe that regardless of whether it is due to pressure or other reasons, a new violin needs a period of break-in time to reach its optimal state. However, this cannot override the value of the violin itself, as inexpensive violins, no matter how well they are broken in, will ultimately never surpass a truly great instrument.

All these efforts are seeking a state of balance. Only when a violin achieves true balance can it have a stable performance.

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