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CLASSICAL 101 | How Can Violins Sound So Sad?

By Anya Wassenberg on July 25, 2019

Can you listen to Jules Massenet’s Meditation from Thais for Violin and Piano without breaking into tears? Or perhaps it’s the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35 that makes you weep? There is no doubt that there is something about the achingly sweet sound of the violin that makes it the ideal means of expressing sorrow and sadness.

But, what is it exactly? Researchers across the globe are looking for the answer, and it seems to come down to the instrument’s capacity to create sounds that connect with the same elements that express sorrow in human speech.

There is a solid body of research that supports the premise that musical instruments that can express sadness are those able to generate the kind of sounds that human beings use to express sadness in speech. The features that scientists identified from human speech are mumbling, a dark timbre, and low pitch — a kind of emotional coding for sadness that we all seem to respond to.

A new study from the University of Oxford, however, suggested that pitch bending, or being able to manipulate timbre, pitch, articulation, and other factors, maybe another important factor overall in determining how expressive an instrument can be. Pitch bending is the ability to begin a note at one pitch and then vary it by a small interval, and it’s another feature of human speech. Other studies suggest that low physical energy, an element of sadness itself, is the essential ingredient. Taken all together, it becomes clear that both music and speech use the same techniques to create the impression of sadness and other emotions.

If sadness in musical instruments is related to human speech, that relationship is built into the violin itself.

On another — yet related — front, a team at the National Taiwan University studied early violins made by Amati and Stradivarius, including the 1570 Andrea Amati violin and the 1560 Gasparo da Salo violin, along with six Stradivari violins, and others from the period. The basic design of the violin has changed little since Amati began making instruments in Cremona, Italy in the 16th century. For Baroque instrument makers, the human voice was the model for music-making. As violinist Francesco Geminiani (born 1687) acknowledged in his book, The Art of Playing on the Violin, his art was, “giving the instrument a tone that shall in a manner rival the most perfect human voice.”

The Taiwanese researchers used speech analysis techniques to study the resonance of the violins, comparing them to 16 vocalists, eight female and eight male, who sang English vowel sounds. What they found was that the Amati instruments closely resembled a male singing voice in the bass or baritone range. The violins made by Stradivarius were closer to the sounds made by tenors and altos, with specific features that may account for the legendary brilliance of Stradivari instruments.

We can’t know exactly what was going on in Amati or Stradivarius’ heads as they crafted their masterpieces, but the resemblance to human vocalization was most probably deliberate. As one of the researchers noted, “The early violin was not a solo instrument but an accompaniment to songs and dances. It is conceivable that Andrea Amati may have wanted to build a string instrument that could imitate human voices to blend into such music.”

Did they intend it to be so expressive in the darker ranges of human emotion? We can’t know that for sure, but the instrument’s dark timbre lends itself to emoting sadness.

A 2004 study observed what is called an MMN (mismatch negativity) response — i.e. the brain ‘notices’ the difference between two consecutive types of stimuli — when the same melody was played by a violin and a flute. While the violin was deemed to sound sad, the flute was associated with happiness and upbeat emotions. Further studies incorporated brain imaging, and the results suggest that our brain processes musical timbre in the same way that it processes emotions, linking the two elements even more strongly.

In the world of science, a better understanding of how musical instruments — and music itself — are linked to emotions can offer insights into psychology, music therapy, and other applications, confirming the essential nature of music as part of the human experience.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
Follow me
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