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a friend of mine is playing violin, and she explained to me that she can hear if she plays a false note because the string doesn't resonate well

i find it very counter intuitive based on what i know of physics and harmonics (very few actually), i would have think that when she pull the string at one point, it "creates" a new string, shorter than the whole one, and with it's own harmonics. So, whatever the size of this substring is, it should sound well (I'm not speaking relatively to the other notes of the music, but the note on its own)

instead, she showed me that if she pull a random point on the chord, and play the string, when we listen carefully we can hear the sound beeing kind of empty, or rough (sorry i never speak of music in english, i don't have the vocabulary). Instead, when she plays one of the notes of the tonality, the string sounds better, it's like there are more harmonics in it

how is it possible ? it's an electric violin so it has little or nothing to do with the "box". Does that means that you cannot tune your violin to whatever tonality you want ? like instead of a C, you would want something a quarter tone above, it would sound bad ?

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    A violin player will know better but maybe a bit of sympathy with the other strings (which are in tune) ? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympathetic_resonance
    – Tom
    Jul 3, 2021 at 13:19
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    Regarding the last question, that's obviously not the case given that concert pitch has varied throughout history and places en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch
    – fqq
    Jul 3, 2021 at 13:20
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    Culturally, music tuned up a quarter tone (or other microtones) actually does sound off. This may be tolerable for 12TET music (e.g. Deltarune's battle theme "Rude Buster"), but the 5TET used in gamelan slendro scales is probably why I've never liked any gamelan music (or even any music in gamelan style).
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 3, 2021 at 14:37
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    @Dekkadeci - have to disagree. Orchestras world-wide have different 'concert pitches'. So what you say means some orchestras sound off, as they're not at, say A=440Hz? An awful lot of pop stuff from '60s on was slowed/speeded, to get a better tempo - that would automatically make them sound off, too? I think those blessed with AP might notice, but why would that mean they 'sound off'?
    – Tim
    Jul 3, 2021 at 14:52
  • @Tim - Yeah, I once listened to a rendition of "Root Beer Rag" that was tuned less than a semitone up from its usual key of C Major, and that sounded distressingly off. I actually suspect that the "Root Beer Rag" tuning case is deceptively common, and that I'd therefore find your "awful lot of pop stuff from '60s on" to all sound off. I strongly suspect those without AP can detect off tuning, too, as I've seen multiple complaints from arrangers of "Rude Buster" that they had to change the tuning away from A440 with difficulty.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 3, 2021 at 15:01

3 Answers 3

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Since it is an electric violin, what you're hearing is likely sympathetic resonance with the other strings through the bridge. This effect is taken advantage of by the Hardanger fiddle, which uses sympathetic strings strung underneath the main playing strings.

You could test this by tuning the other strings down a semi tone and see if that changes the "in tune" sound of the fingered notes on the in tune string.

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  • two very interesting informations thanks ! hardangerr fiddle, and tuning the other string down a semi tone. I mark it as the right answer, because it gives me a way of testing the theory, but all the answers where pointing out the same idea of sympathetic resonance so it's not to say the other answers are wrong, at all
    – hugogogo
    Jul 4, 2021 at 10:01
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I think you're right to be suspicious of this idea! For a start, if we're talking single notes, there's no such thing as a 'false note' in absolute terms - Each reference pitch and temperament of a given fixed-note scale will have a given set of 'true notes', and every pitch would be 'true' for some combinations of scale, reference pitch and temperament.

If you are confident that you did observe a strong difference, then as per Tom's comment, one explanation might be sympathetic resonance with other strings. Even then, those resonances wouldn't necessarily create a pattern of 'true' notes, for the aforementioned reason that what's 'true' depends on the reference pitch and temperament. If you're supposed to be playing in equal temperament, string resonances will lure you astray.

Of course resonances of the 'box' are another possibility, but perhaps you're right that that's not a consideration on an electric violin. You might be hearing resonances of the bigger 'box' - the room you're listening in!

The tone of a real-world string does change as it is stopped to shorter lengths, because of things like the width becoming proportionally greater compared to the length, although you'd expect that to be a progressive effect as you move up the string.

Another possibility is that your friend simply has a good sense of pitch and plays more strongly and confidently when she knows she's in tune!

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  • so, the best explanation so far seems to be the sympathetic resonance ! one way to look further would be to "shut down" the other strings (maybe put some tissue under it), and see if i can hear a difference when playing different notes on the string, i'll try that next time i see her. I'll also check your penultimate proposal, a progressive effect while moving up the string
    – hugogogo
    Jul 3, 2021 at 17:49
  • Violinists generally are not playing their notes in ET—as opposed to an instrument with a more fixed sense of pitch, violinists’ fingers are able subconsciously adjusting tuning systems on the fly to what will sound most in tune, and ET is frequently not. Sympathetic resonance does play a significant role in tone, and is an important tool in a violinist’s pursuit of intonation—it’s widely taught in violin pedagogy. Jul 4, 2021 at 13:15
  • @ElizaWilson certainly true that continuous pitch instruments have the ability to adjust for best tuning on the fly, but what's most in tune with the rest of the ensemble might not necessarily correlate with what gives you the best sympathetic resonance with other strings on the instrument. Jul 4, 2021 at 23:12
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There are several ways to intonate a note on a violin. A basic way of intonation is to listen to the "ringing" notes. That is the notes which resonates with the open strings. An example: play a D on the A string (third finger on the A string). If that note is exactly one octave above the open D string it has a resonance which violin players call a "ringing" sound. If you play it slightly flat or sharp the "ring" or resonance disappears. The note D also gets resonance from the G string provided you have tuned the violin in pure fifths. It is called Pythagorean intonation.

As far as I can see that is what the OP is talking about in this question. So what I wrote above is the answer to the question, but since I mentioned that there are several ways to intonate a note on a violin I think it is fair to elaborate on that.

Therefore here is an elaboration on other ways of intonating on a violin:

Expressive intonation which is playing the sharps very sharp and the flats very flat. That is typically done when playing leading notes, like a very sharp C♯ leading up to D. Another way of expressive intonation is playing blue notes in blues really blue. You can play them as blue as you want.

Then there is "just intonation" when playing double stops. Like play a C♯ on the A string together with the open E string. Then you will realize that this C♯ needs to be slightly flat in order to get a well sounding third in just intonation. As opposed to the C♯ you would play as a leading note up to D.

There is also equal temperament (ET). This is typically done if you play in unison with a piano.

A violin player usually plays with a mixture of those types of intonation.

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    thank you for this answer, very instructive ! i'll ask more to my friend about that, especially the two last ways of intonating a violin :)
    – hugogogo
    Jul 4, 2021 at 10:02
  • @hugogogo you are welcome. Jul 4, 2021 at 13:50

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