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The violin is comparatively louder than a guitar.

This is a surprising fact, given that:

  • the violin instrument is generally smaller than, say, a typical classical or folk guitar,
  • both use strings.

In other words, how can such a small instrument as a violin be so loud? Is the fact that the strings of a guitar are pinched compared to the bowed strings of a violin the main and only reason?

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    How can one 12 -inch piccolo be heard over a 96-piece symphony orchestra plus a piano and two harps, not to mention the ten or more brass instruments and about 60 string players? Triangle ditto? Your question is founded on a false assumption. Several. – Marquis of Lorne May 2 at 11:14
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    So that deaf people can hate them too....? – B. Goddard May 2 at 11:45
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    Try comparing a guitar with pizzicato violin. – dalearn May 3 at 19:15
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    It isn't. You are making a blanket statement that simply is not true. I think any attempt to answer it would be chasing a red herring. You need to compare apples to apples. I've never heard a plucked violin be louder than a plucked guitar. The bow means energy is continually being added so it will sustain longer. But peak volume can be greater for the guitar. It also depends on frequency since the ear responds to low freq differently than high freq. There are so many diffs how do you know what you are comparing? – ggcg May 4 at 20:20
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    @ggcg Indeed. I wonder if this question is asked after comparing a guitar and a violin in real life from nearby. I have attended unamplified solo classic guitar concerts that are loud enough to entertain a 2000-seat hall, where a symphony orchestra would need a battery of violins. As to size, is a piccolo not loud? Is a contra-bass very loud? Yes, a single pluck cannot transfer that much energy, but how about a lot of plucks in a piece with a lot of notes? And how about jamming with say three fingers over all strings at once? – Roland May 7 at 21:26
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Without researching the matter (and thus preserving Internet Tradition), I'd say that it's because the input energy to a guitar is a single pluck whereas a violin is bowed giving a continuous energy transfer. Pizzicato violins are not as loud a bowed.

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    On the other hand, when striking a guitar with a pick you can also impart a fairly powerful impulse, compared to the relatively constrained motion used on a violin. I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that when the same amount of work is done on either instrument, the guitar will have a louder note onset and faster decay while the violin will have a more modest onset but consistent sustain. The total amount of sound energy produced would be similar in both cases. – Max May 2 at 9:53
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    I suppose the obvious test would be whether playing a guitar with a bow makes it sound louder than plucking it. (FWIW, while there are plenty of videos online of people playing guitar with a bow, unfortunately none of those I've seen so far really provide a good loudness comparison.) – Ilmari Karonen May 2 at 14:12
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    I do know from experience that playing a double bass sounds much louder when using the bow than when plucking. Plucking puts a large amount of sound energy in but for a small amount of time, then the sound decays. Bowing puts in perhaps a smaller amount of energy but this continues and there is no decay. – ttw May 2 at 14:41
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    @IlmariKaronen no, guitar played with bow is not louder, because a) the strings are aligned in a way that makes it impossible to properly apply bow pressure b) the guitar's bridge is not very suitable for picking up the transversal motion that a bow induces. – leftaroundabout May 2 at 16:04
  • From my experience playing with violin and guitar instrumentalists, I think that's the correct answer. I don't know how loud a bowed guitar sounds, but a pizzicato violin sounds very quiet compared to an acoustic guitar. Violin players use pizzicato whenever they want to think about tones "aloud but to themselves" (check something related to the use of given tones, fingerboard positions, etc.) Also if you listen to a guitar + violin duo (à la Reinhardt + Grappelli, for example), the result is pretty balanced. Here in Madrid we have one of such duos performing so they prove this regularly... – Alex Lopez May 4 at 7:42
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You are asking for loudness, not volume, correct? Volume is refering to physical properties (i.e. the amplitude of the sound waves), whereas loudness is the perceived volume which can differ a lot from the actual SPL (sound pressure level), althoug the SPL is still a major factor.

The loudness is also dependent on frequencies and bandwidth of the audio signal. One other factor, which can play a significant role, is your ears. With age some form of hearing loss occurs. Some people hear certain frequencies much louder than others. I, for example did a hearing test and found out that I perceive a 2 kHz signal as loudest compared to other frequencies at the same SPL.

When I play my electric guitar without an amp, I clearly perceive the higher strings to be much louder than the lower strings. But I have a calibrated decibel meter and I have just run a test: it showed the same dbA value for the lowest and highest string (I know that dbA is different from db SPL but for the sake of this argument, the difference does not play a great role in this situation.) This clearly proves that perceived loudness is highly subjective and it all happens in our brains.

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  • Yes, this. Same thing with light - green light seems "brightest" to human eyes because we're most sensitive to it. Guitars play in a lower register than the violin - those higher notes we're more sensitive to and perceive as louder. Like standing at talking distance from a tenor singing a C5 fortississimo and an oktavist doing G1 the same. You'd want earplugs for the tenor, certainly. – J... May 2 at 19:47
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According to this post, higher-pitched sounds seem to the human ear to be louder than lower-pitched ones. In general, a violin is going to be playing in a higher register than a guitar.

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  • This points out one of the main problems with the original question in the first place. I cannot believe it got so many votes and the accepted answer says absolutely nothing useful. + 1 – ggcg May 4 at 20:21
  • Thanks! I was also tempted to include something regarding the effect of multiple strings creating sound vs. one string creating sound and/or the fact that a violin is traditionally a melodic instrument vs. a guitar can be either melodic or harmonic, but that's all anecdotal. – John Doe May 4 at 22:27
  • It's such a bad question. It begs an answer that isn't true based on physics. I recently answered one regarding the high and low pitch strings of a piano that was likewise a red herring. I'd like some proof that the OP statement is actually true. – ggcg May 4 at 22:54
  • They're marked as a new contributor, so they may not have familiarity with music. As such, the question may simply be based on a faulty assumption. – John Doe May 5 at 19:31
  • I am sure there are many faulty assumptions. New or not we don't know if the person is only new here and otherwise knowledgeable of physics or acoustics. In general one can word a question so that it isn't a red herring regardless of their proficiency in a set of subjects. They could have asked whether or not their perception of volume is known to be true universally, if there are known studies about this. There are so many variables and the opening statement is provided as a self evident truth. If someone can provide measured values that would be GREAT! – ggcg May 5 at 20:35
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The idea, that the the size of an acoustic instrument is an indication of its loudness is somewhat astonishing. It simply effects (based on trustworthy physical laws), that is maximum resonance frequency is in a different range. So violas are typically likely less loud than violins.

As hinted in my comment, the material of the string can't be neglected either in respect to color of tone and volume, as the pure guitar-based comparison of nylon and steel strings shows.

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    Yes. (The real reason viola is less loud than violins, however, is that half the players in the section only pretend to be playing, while the other half keep it down to hide their bad intonation...) – leftaroundabout May 2 at 11:26
  • This is wrong. See music.stackexchange.com/a/77480/9480 . – Ben Crowell May 2 at 14:35
  • @BenCrowell: Your comment (and presumed downvote) lacks specificity, your referred answer is also not beyond discussion. – guidot May 3 at 12:17
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How loud an instrument sounds is not determined by its size. It's determined by the amount of coupling between the string (or whatever is generating the tone) and the air around the instrument.

Compare an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar: They are both of the same size, they both may use exactly the same strings (though they prefer different gauges). But one is loud enough to sing along (the acoustic guitar) while the other can hardly be heard unless you plug it into an amp. The difference? The electric guitar is basically a solid slap of wood that's purposefully way too heavy to vibrate significantly. As such, the vibration energy stays in the strings for a longer time, giving the instrument a much longer sustained sound than the acoustic guitar does. The acoustic guitar, by contrast, is built such that the thin planks of wood vibrate along with the strings, so that the vibrations can actually be turned into sound waves efficiently. The acoustic guitar has a much, much higher coupling between the strings and the surrounding air than the electric guitar.

Of course, this coupling is a continuous scale. You can find guitars that are louder (stronger coupling), and you can find violins that are quieter (weaker coupling) than other instruments of the same sort. But the violin has seen very intensive use as an orchestra instrument where a certain amount of volume is a must. And a strong coupling is not a problem for a violin because energy is constantly being supplied by the bow: There is no need to sustain a sound for a while. The guitar, on the other hand, is a plucked instrument, and as such the amount of available energy is fixed. The longer a note sounds, the quieter it gets. And the stronger the coupling is, the quicker the note will fade away. Which is not what most guitarists want: When they were able to reduce the coupling by relying on electric amplification instead, they almost immediately reduced the coupling to effectively zero in order to get a good, long sustain.

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  • An interesting demonstration of the relationship between volume and sustain can be observed in some handbell pieces where players ring a bell and then, on a later beat, touch the bell very lightly to a padded table. This actually causes the volume of the bell to increase momentarily, though it will greatly reduce the sustain. – supercat May 4 at 15:43
  • Use a bow on an acoustic guitar and the neighbors will call the cops. – Mazura May 4 at 17:14
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If you want to reduce the amount of sound a violin makes then move the soundpost. If you want to drastically reduce the amount of sound then remove it altogether (but be careful of the bridge falling down if you do that).

OK, not a serious suggestion to try on a good violin but it makes the point that the quality and amount of sound a violin makes is determined by the way the instrument is "set up" and in particular the positioning of the soundpost.

According to Wikipedia:

The position of the sound post inside a violin is critical, and moving it by very small amounts (as little as 0.5mm or 0.25mm, or less) can make a big difference in the sound quality and loudness of an instrument.

For non-violinists, the soundpost is a small wooden dowel which is placed (not glued) roughly under the bridge. When the strings are tuned (i.e. tightened) this applies pressure to the soundpost and it performs acoustic coupling with the back of the violin transferring additional sound energy.

A guitar doesn't have a soundpost and hence produces less sound.

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    This is not really correct. The soundpost is a feature of the instrument structure which allows a much thinner, weaker top. The difference is the entire structure, not just the soundpost. – Graham May 2 at 12:11
  • Both is not correct. The soundpost is a feature that changes the transversal bowed-string motion into usable altitudinal motion of the top. It does not magically make an instrument louder per se, specifically it would not make a guitar louder, rather the other way around: without the sound post, phase cancellation would make the violin much quiter than it should be. music.stackexchange.com/questions/23613/… — So, giving the sound post as the reason why violin is louder makes no sense (though it's true that removing it would quiten the violin). – leftaroundabout May 2 at 15:59
0

Resonance. Range and bow help too.

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