This is one of the most popular questions for people interested in the violin. There are no doubt supporters on both sides of the equation, and tests have been setup in the past trying to answer this question, such as the double-blind violin test, which we have included the link to below. But in most cases, there seems to be something fundamentally misleading in the question itself – which violin(s) are you comparing? Jump to conclusion >
This article is meant for the general violinist/student who is looking at getting an instrument for everyday use. And here, we also assume by violins, we mean properly made violins, and not violin shaped objects (VSO). So to put it in plain language, asking the question “Are old violins better?” is similar to asking “Are old cars faster?” Where the “better”, in most cases, are referring to the tonal quality and performance of the violin, rather than historic value, just like “faster” in a car. And the answer to both questions is “well, sometimes”, or “maybe, but not always”, because it depends which violins or cars you are comparing. Let’s take a closer look at the topic.
Going with the car analogy, if you are comparing an old Ferrari maintained in top condition, compared to a new entry level sedan, although I’m not a car expert, I think there’s a good chance the Ferrari may be faster. Similarly, for violins, if you are comparing a masterpiece from Stradivarius or Guarnerius maintained in excellent condition, there’s a good chance that the classic Italian masterpiece is going to be better than most modest new violins. However, that does not mean all old violins are better than new violins. It depends on which old and new violins you are comparing.
It will be hard, and quite impossible to compare all violins ever made. But we can compare the same violin to itself when it is old and new. To do that, we need to understand what happens when a violin gets old. Simply put, two things change as a violin matures – the material (wood), and the interaction of the violin wood as a result of becoming a musical instrument, where the former has a stronger effect on tone than the latter. We will explore each here.
Wood itself, is naturally moist when it is freshly removed from a tree. The wood needs to be dried, naturally, for it to become good tone wood. By naturally, it basically means, as little intelligent deliberation as possible for making it try faster. Examples of such deliberation may include baking, exposing it to lots of sunshine, or putting it in an environment that is unnaturally low in humidity. These deliberations damage the wood structure as it dries, and the process lessens the tonal quality of the wood. Extreme examples will show that the wood will crack as a result. The most natural way to try good tone wood is to let the wood dry by natural wind, in the area/climate it was harvested from. This process takes about 10 years. This is the first part, where the wood matures.
The second part is where the wood gets made into a violin. In the process of making a violin, many layers of varnish (colour and coating) are added to the wood. Different varnish tries at different rate, but generally, all of it will be tried and integrated into the wood in a 1 – 2 years. And the act of playing and practicing on the violin as an instrument also has effect on the tonal property of the wood. In fact, this is observed across various audio equipment. One example is headphones. If you talk to an audiophile about headphones, they will tell you that a headphone takes time to warm up or “burn-in”. And this is done by simply using it, i.e. playing music on the headphones. What this does is that it makes the headphone diaphragm more responsive, especially to the frequency ranges that it is most often used for. And in human terms, the sound becomes more “open and transparent” and it is like “removing the veil” from the sound. This is the same case for violins, where the wooden sound box functions as the diaphragm, and will benefit from the “burn-in” process. Similar to headphones and other audio equipment, this process does not change the fundamental tonal property of the instrument. It opens up the sound a little more, but won’t make it sound “completely different”. If you listen to a violin previously played lifelong by a master or composer, if listened and compared carefully, you can feel, as a musician, that the tunes they played most often sounded especially “good”. And this is part of the reason why.
Joshua Bell talks about a violin having its previous musicians imprint on it.
So an old violin is always better, right? If we are comparing the same violin, and the old violin is maintained in excellent original condition, then the old violin will most likely have better tonal quality. But if the sound box has been damaged or cracked, there’s a good chance the original new violin will sound better. This is because a properly made violin should have been made from dried tone wood (naturally dried for about 10 years) to start with, and as discussed, the “burn in” effect is a relatively small incremental gain, and not a fundamental shift from the sound signature.
Now that we understand what happens when a violin matures, we are in a better place to answer the original question in the post “Are old violins better?” To make it more clear, we will try answering it from the general violinists’ perspective, and re-phrase it to “Should I buy new or old violin?” This comes down to available budget and value. If your budget is unlimited, then by all means choose your heart’s desire, be it new or old. But for most of us out there, it would good to consider the following factors:
- do I want to spend more on the quality, or the historic value of the instrument?
- does the instrument require a lot of cost for maintenance?
- do I want an instrument established by predecessors or do I want to make my own story with it?
“What if I want to spend on the quality and ease of maintenance of a new violin but want the appearance of a historic instrument?”
This is very understandable, especially for classical musicians, as we all have an appreciation of the historic legacy of art, if not we wouldn’t be here. We at wilisonstrings.com make antique styled violins. In fact, you can send us photos or drawings of your ideal instrument, and we can commission a violin/viola for you with that style.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article and found it helpful. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about the violin, and we will try our best to answer your questions.