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Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, Texas A&M University – Violin Accents

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Joseph Nagyvary of Texas A&M University demonstrates the different vowel tones possessed by many high-end violins. 

Joseph Nagyvary is a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University. He has conducted research into the construction and tonal quality of Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins for more than 25 years. He was the first to prove that the tonal quality of such violins was the result of treatments designed to protect the instruments from worm infestation.

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Dr. Joseph Nagyvary – Violin Accents

The violins made three centuries ago by Stradivari and Guarneri can evoke an emotional response like no other musical instrument. One reason for this might be that their sound possesses some key components of human speech such as vowels and consonants. Just what exactly these vowels would be was the subject of my recent scientific publication.

For this project, we recorded several Guarneri and Stradivari violins, one of them played by Itzhak Perlman, along with the voice of Metropolitan Opera soprano Emily Pulley who sang all vowels of the European languages in a musical scale.

First the voice samples were analyzed and visualized by computer programs in two ways. Their harmonic content was depicted in the form of spectral graphs that reveal the changes of sound energy with increasing frequency, and then a phonetic representation of the soprano vowels was created in the form of a 2-D map. This was followed by the same acoustic and phonetic analysis for each note of the violins, and the results were plotted and mapped against the soprano vowels.

The graphs revealed that the famous violins have in their individual notes a distinct set of vowels, but only two from the Italian language: the i and the e (as in si and se). It might be surprising to violin aficionados that the famous Old Italian sound has a strong French accent with many varieties of the vowels u,  as in vue, the eu, as in peu, [audio sample provided], and the é , as in thé.  The English a, as in bat, is also frequently encountered.

I assume that the great masters intended to impart a degree of individuality with an assortment of vowels, which also could have served the purpose of quality control. The ability to translate the elusive sound into visual images might change the way violins are evaluated, and could help students to improve the quality of their tone production.  

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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