Take the 2-minute tour ×
Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I am very new to the violin. I have broken a string just once - and it was while attempting to tune it.

The string breaking was rather surprising and powerful - I'm glad my face was not too close.

So, to avoid a similar incident while playing the violin, I'd like to know when would it be ideal to replace a violin string before it gets too weak.

A little search got me this site: http://www.howtodothings.com/sports-recreation/how-to-know-when-to-replace-violin-strings which lists some options:

  • I should listen carefully - if the string sounds wrong, it is probably because it is already weakening.
    • My problem with this is that I don't have a very well trained ear - I probably would never be able to notice this.
  • Watch for wear on the strings.
    • Is there a good reference image out there? I'm not entirely sure how a weary violin string should look like.
  • It becomes hard for your finger to move it across a string due to the wear.
    • I don't have much faith on my fingers.

Are there other clues? Particularly some that don't involve my ears? Is there, perhaps, some kind of timeframe?

share|improve this question

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I remember breaking my first string :) Almost hit my eye.. And I was super afraid to tell my parents.. (I thought I broke the whole instrument because I believed that the string was as much a part of the instrument as the neck or fingerboard)

I'd like to address your question by answering a few you didn't explicitly ask..

1. Why do strings break? Obvious answer: when the string can no longer stretch to accommodate the level of tension placed on it. There are two primary factors that go into a string breaking:

  • The string's tension threshold: whenever tension is applied to something, its threshold is deteriorating. The more the tension, the faster this threshold lessens (think of pulling on a laffy taffy, and how it takes less force to rip it as you stretch it out). As stringed instruments place constant tension on the strings, the strings will naturally break at a lower threshold over time. As strings initially have a higher threshold than desired (as it affects tone), the time it takes to lower it to the desired threshold is called "breaking in" the strings, which you will often see described in string catalogs.
  • Tension: the string will break when it has reached the threshold described above. It theoretically can't break without some sort of tension, no matter how low the threshold (gravity is technically a source of tension, although it's quite insignificant when it comes to really small masses). In addition to physical items (pegs, bridge, etc) that provide tension, temperature plays a very important role in tension. A higher temperature causes the string to expand and the tension to lessen (as the string is technically longer), while a lower temperature causes the string to shrink and creates more tension.

2. What can I do to not break a string? The most common way to break a string is to simply turn the peg too far. To avoid this, there are two things you can do:

  • Tune down first when using the pegs: Tension often builds up based on various factors including changes in temperature. It's very possible that you're right at the threshold, and the string snaps as soon as you turn the peg even slightly higher. By tuning down first, you 'reset' the tension a bit and get a better feel for both the amount of tension on the string and how close you are to the threshold.
  • Use fine tuners: if you don't already have fine tuners, I'd highly recommend you get them. Whenever you're not too far away from the correct pitch, fine tuners make it easy to get a more precise pitch and reduces the risk of overshooting and breaking the string.

3. How do I know when to change strings? Using an objective method, the only two ways I can think of for knowing when to change a string is either when you can see the string wearing translated as sharp/rough spots on the string, or after you've already broken the string. But when we get into the more subjective area, there are a few ways, all which come with time and experience.

There are essentially two ways to tell that you need/want to change strings: the tension feels weird, and the strings don't provide the sound you want (anymore, or they never did in which case you'll want different strings anyways).

For both of these, you'll need to be in a place where enough of your playing has become second nature, and you're exploring more advanced stuff.

In order to be able to tell when the tension is wrong, you need to have been playing for long enough where it's just something you notice. It'll be most notable (in your left hand) when shifting and crossing strings.

Responsiveness and tonal quality are things that require you to know the sound of a violin and specifically your instrument very intimately. The responsiveness is essentially how easily the string responds to your bow. This is a quality that varies by strings and deteriorates over time. When you the strings are responding the way you want them to (and you are in a place where you know what responsiveness you want/how to achieve it), then it is time to change strings.

Tonal quality/timbre is generally measured for violins in spectrum that ranges from warm/rich (produced more when strings are wound with gold) to bright/clear (produced more when strings are wound with silver). The tonal quality varies from instrument to instrument, and also from string to string. This is why it requires you to both know your instrument very well, and then also to know/have experimented with different strings. In retrospect, I don't think I could was even in a place to consider these until I had been playing for 7 years, with four on the same instrument. A few things to take into consideration when looking at tone are the instrument (wood/varnish/shape), bow(wood/shape/hair), and string (core/wound/gauge/tension). Essentially, when you stop getting the tone/response you want from your strings (and it's not your fault), then it's time to change strings.

Further Reading:

Let me know if you have questions about anything I said :)

share|improve this answer
    
Really nice answer. +1 from me. –  Dr Mayhem Mar 10 '13 at 5:15
    
Usable for players of other string instruments –  VarLogRant Mar 10 '13 at 20:45

Here are three things that will clue you in when you need to change your strings.

1. How long has it been since you last changed strings?

If you play your violin for about 30 min to an hour every day, you will probably need to change your strings about once a year. Of course this will vary based upon the quality of the strings, climate, how you care for the instrument, how well you can tune it, etc. However, as a rule of thumb, a set of strings should last a beginning student about a year.

2. Do the strings look/feel strange?

As the strings age, you will notice dark spots forming on the strings. They will eventually start turning your fingers black when you play, and eventually they will even begin to unravel. If they becoming noticeably worn, you should think about replacing them. If the outer metal wrapping looks/feels loose, you definitely need to replace.

3. How do they sound?

I know you weren't looking for tips on hearing, but that's what will actually give you your first clue that your strings are getting old. The easiest thing for you to hear is the "ringing" that should accompany you playing your third finger on the D, A, or E strings. When properly tuned, you will make the G, D, or A string vibrate and cause a pleasant ring. As your strings age, they will begin to go false and that ringing will gradually go away.

Hope this helps.

share|improve this answer

In eight years playing violin I never learned a good way to tell when it was ready to replace. So when they snapped, I would replace them.

If they start to lose a bit of brightness in tone, then they are on the way out, but could still be good for months.

share|improve this answer

First off, often there's no real way to tell, because the weak point in the string could be anywhere - not necessarily between the bridge and neck. I'll change strings whenever I see a point that appears to be "going", but I'll still get some that snap at random times. Get used to it, it's hardly pleasant but I haven't lost an eye yet and I've been playing for almost 20 years ;)

However, when I have seen strings that have needed to be replaced, there's generally two main physical signs that manifest:

  • The string develops a kink, perhaps just a minor one, but one that's definitely noticeable when you run your finger across it. This is often due to the string's core buckling while the outer one (for now) stays relatively in tact. When you see this, replace it.

  • The outer thread of the string begins to unravel, exposing the core - an easy one to spot, but watch out for it because if you leave it then shift positions quickly across it, it can cause a nasty cut. Experience talking here, not pleasant!

Of course, sometimes you can hear audible symptoms too - despite what I read, I've yet to see a common pattern in how this happens, aside from saying that the audio quality changes, and not for the better. I've heard the same type of strings from the same manufacturer get duller, brighter, develop a buzz, a rasping sound, pretty much everything. (In one particular case, the rasp on my D string got so bad I could barely play a proper note, but visually the string looked fine.)

If you're a beginner, these audible signs will be harder to spot, so preferably get someone more experienced to check before you change over the strings for no reason. However, physical signs are easy to spot yourself - just give the strings a quick regular check.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.