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I have heard from some of my friends that when you have "fresh" violin, they sound different(presumably, worse) than after playing on it for some time(e.g. half a year). Is this statement true? If so, how does it work? I would imagine that sound of instrument such as violin is influenced mainly by the wood and the strings. Since we're not really talking about strings wearing out, I'd guess that wood ages, but that wouldn't require playing on the instrument. Effect of vibrations on the wood?

Is this a myth, and if not, what is the reason of the change?

EDIT: Thanks for the great answers! I'm really glad that this question received attention and that you took your time to answer it. However, I am really interested in facts, not anecdotal evidence. While your experience is surely valuable, I prefer to base my knowledge on some evidence - hence I would ask that your answers are backed up with some scientific evidence, or at least a suggestive research and external references.

Edit2: I've accepted the most complete answer. Should someone find other convincing resources, feel free to answer this question.

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    Great question! It's not a myth as far as I know. This applies to all the violin family instruments. – Shevliaskovic Jul 11 '16 at 11:25
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    Acoustic guitars do this as well. Just ten years causes a dramatic change in the sound of a solid wood acoustic. – Todd Wilcox Jul 11 '16 at 12:23
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    Yes, I had heard that "green guitars" (newer ones) don't sound as good as ones that are older. I was told by a musical friend that it was because the wood actually dries out more, and the drier the wood the better the sound. I use a ninety-six-year-old violin that my great grandfather bought from a Sears catalogue in the twenties. It's a great instrument, but I can't compare it to how it sounded before (although I have been told by an "expert" that it is a very nice instrument). – General Nuisance Jul 11 '16 at 17:40
  • There's some interesting reasoning from Yamaha on the ageing process [though of course they want to sell their 'artificial ageing ' so there may be some bias] - yamaha.com/about_yamaha/research/are – Tetsujin Jul 11 '16 at 18:52
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This is a heavily-researched, and (sadly) highly inflammatory topic. There are some people who swear it takes 50 years for the varnish to reach a stable structure & stability; there are others who say it's due to the wood itself aging and "settling" in at the cellular level.

I'm not aware of anyone who's had the time and the cash to put a couple brand new instruments into a closet, wait 10 years, and play them for the first time. So the "play the instrument" vs. "temporal aging" debate remains untested from a scientific point of view. <-- if anyone knows of a study like this, I'll happily retract this part of the answer.

Wood is funny stuff. The source species, growth rate (annual ring size), sheet quality, etc. has all sorts of effects on the final sound.

I recently bought an 1842 cello w/ wonderful sound. But during my search, I played some 1-yr old instruments with better sound and better responsivity than 80-yr old ones. It's really one step away from dark magic when trying to figure out how an instrument becomes a good one or a bad one :-)

EDIT: reference papers

So, ok, I LMGTFM (...for myself :-) ) . Here are a few reports.

This one suggests that adding fungi can improve tone quality.
Here's one of many which claim that pro violinists can't tell the difference between new axes and Strads.
Here's a brief study of shapes and f-hole sizes . Presumably this is part one of a longitudinal study of aging. And finally, a study showing thatvibrating a guitar doesn't change its sound quality.

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    I suspect a carbon fiber cello probably retains it's tonal characteristics much better than wood ;) – Wayne Werner Jul 11 '16 at 15:39
  • @WayneWerner No doubt :-) . I've actually wondered whether a carbon fiber axe couldn't be designed with a high-resolution stiffness map in 2 dimensions for both the top and bottom plate, thus eliminating wolf tones, enhancing every desired overtone, etc. Then again, I also thought about installing a few dozen soundposts with piezo-activated tensioners :-) – Carl Witthoft Jul 11 '16 at 16:09
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    @WayneWerner yup. My carbon fibre cello (Mezzo-Forte) is definitely resistant to temperature / humidity influences (I once took it out of the parked car at freezing temperatures right into a very warm and humid blues club – no problems at all, didn't even go out of tune). Still, I can't say I always get the same sound with this cello – the bow has also a huge impact; hair tension, rosin consistency, string contact etc.. – leftaroundabout Jul 11 '16 at 16:49
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    This is a heavily-researched[...] topic. - do you have some specific research in mind? I won't lie that I would be more than glad to get some scientific data, since anecdotal examples aren't representative. – MatthewRock Jul 12 '16 at 8:24
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    "Heavily researched" but there are no studies? ;) – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 12 '16 at 11:43
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I've noted this myself, actually. As an anecdotal example: when I was younger I was lucky enough to get an antique German violin, heavily discounted due to damage, but it looked a lot worse than it was and my teacher knew someone who could restore it. After restoration, it was gorgeous, but it still sounded "stiff", for lack of a better word - no depth to the sound, not letting me get much subtletly out of it in terms of variation in volume. After a few months, though, I could hear a difference, and after a couple of years it was amazing. Some of that will be my skill improving, but that can't account for the timbre of the sound - rich, resonant, beautiful. My teacher commented on it, and said it was normal for violins to have this period of "settling in" - most notably in new violins, but also in older ones that have experienced a change - like this one, that had been re-lacquered, amongst other things. (She used to be lead violinist for the city symphony orchestra, so I tended to take her word on all things violin.) Since then I've also noted that a violin tends to sound a touch worse with a full set of brand new strings.

I'm not sure on the cause, but between my observations, my teacher's comments, and some educated guesses, I can point to a few factors.

My violin was already an antique, so it's unlikely to be anything solely relating to age, although that may play a part. My theory (which is mostly guesswork) is that it's to do with anything that's absorbing, damping, or altering the vibrations in the violin.

  • Fresh strings aren't used to being under tension, so they need to stretch in a bit - which is why you have to re-tune more often for the first week or two (or so it seems to me).
  • Various parts of the violin aren't solidly fixed, but are simply held in place by tension or friction - the bridge and pegs, for example. The bridge in particular plays a very important part in transmitting vibrations to the body of the violin; I know from experience that even a hairline crack in the bridge can have a noticeable effect on the sound. I reckon that with new strings (or on a new violin) the bridge is still moving very slightly as the violin vibrates until it settles into a stable position.
  • The body of a violin flexes subtly; you'll notice that variations in temperature and humidity can affect the sound (I remember having to re-tune midway through a concert because my violin had gone from a cold car to a hot concert hall too quickly). The tension of the strings is likely to cause an imperceptible flex in the violin, and this will change as the strings stretch in and the various parts settle.
  • Fresh strings don't have that slight coating of rosin in front of the bridge yet, so the bow doesn't grip them in quite the same way. In general, the better the grip, the clearer the tone - clean horsehair sliding on clean strings produces a sort of hiss, so if your strings are new you'll get this slight interference in the tone.
  • This is a bit of a stretch, but anything that vibrates may have a degree of inelasticity. In terms of the physics, that means that as the violin vibrates, some of the energy is converted to sound, but some is absorbed by the material of the violin to produce small physical changes. (This is true of anything that vibrates or flexes; it's why suspension springs give out eventually, for example - gradual metal fatigue due to repeated compression.) In a violin, it's possible that it causes subtle changes in the wood and/or lacquer (and the adhesion between them). This may cause a change in the character of the sound.
  • Thanks for the answer! Could you please back up your arguments with actual research, scientific papers or other references that make it more trustworthy? – MatthewRock Jul 13 '16 at 11:10
  • Sadly, I can't. Like I said, most of this is educated guesses going from things that are self-evident (new strings do stretch more, violin bodies do flex under tension, fresh strings are clean, etc). I'm not sure there is much science on the topic; as far as I know there's not much hard data (or agreement) on the specifics of how a violin's sound comes together. – anaximander Jul 13 '16 at 11:24
  • What worries me is that we might be focusing on wrong things unless we research the topic (Obligatory xkcd reference). Throughout the history many educated guesses turned out wrong, and the topic in here isn't obvious either; therefore I would really like to see some research. I don't mean that your answer isn't useful or invalid, but it would greatly improve its quality. – MatthewRock Jul 13 '16 at 11:30
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    I agree, I'd love some solid data on the phenomena. I don't have any, though, so hopefully my educated guesses could point some researcher in the right direction. At the very least, I think my answer is phrased to make it clear that these are just my theories, and not scientifically-supported fact. – anaximander Jul 13 '16 at 11:40
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If you use a heavy mute for a practise session on a good violin, the full sound of the violin will not recover right away afterwards but will take some playing without mute to do so.

What causes this difference? The most obvious candidate of course is the bridge itself possibly needing recovery from the pressure of the mute, but it might also be the bridge and other points in the violin which need to settle back to the original distribution of sound nodes and antinodes rather than the one with the strongdamper mounted.

It stands to reason that this recovery process may have some parallel in how long the full sound needs to develop when starting from a freshly assembled violin.

Sorry, I can offer no references for this observation: it's just personal experience.

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    No, it doesn't "stand to reason." – Carl Witthoft Jul 11 '16 at 14:40
  • Thanks for the answer! Could you please back up your arguments with actual research, scientific papers or other references that make it more trustworthy? – MatthewRock Jul 13 '16 at 11:10
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One major factor affecting tone is varnish, and a new instrument's varnish may undergo further change as it dries and crystallizes. The varnish imposes a filtering effect, dampening some partials of the tone, and may impart a mellowing upon the tone, especially of higher notes.

There is also the matter of the mechanical tension, which may settle to some extent. As strings are tightened, stress is distributed across the instrument, but time and the jostling of playing (particularly very animated and loud playing) may "shake loose" areas which were holding under friction, and this may change the tone by shifting the tensions and thereby altering the waveform of the instrument's vibrations.

Then there's the matter of strings -- any residue can affect tone, but metal strings in particular may oxidize when stored, dampening the brighter partials, may have oxidization rubbed away when played, and may become coated in both the natural oils of a player's hands as well as resin particles from the bow. All these can subtly alter the tone over time.

Lastly, temperature and humidity may affect any wooden instrument owing its performance to resonance -- moreso humidity. If a player plays an instrument more, its environment will be the room played rather than its case, and its humidity will include not only the room but also the warm breath of the violinist.

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    [i]Citation Needed[/i] – Carl Witthoft Jul 12 '16 at 18:53
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A violin is a complex structure and nothing is "rock solid". Both plates are very thin, as little as 3-5 mm. Ribs are only 1.5 mm thick or so. Animal glue can be deformed as well. But the worst problem is that the wood itself deforms with humidity changes and temperature changes, so some "initial tension" in a new violin is step by step eliminated in older violin thus it can resonate better. If you make some big repair, for example open violin and glue it again, glue a crack, restore varnish, change angle of the neck, change the bridge or soundpost, change the type of the strings, you put a new "tension" to the instrument and it affects the sound. Even sub-millimeter changes in bridge, soundpost, tailpiece position and dimensions may have a huge impact.

So basically every violin improves over time, if it is not kept in the constant temperature under a glass cover. But rapid humidity and temperature changes might crack it or harm its quality.

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