Finding a new instrument can be overwhelming—there are a lot of options out there! To help simplify the process for you, we’ve compiled four of the most important things to remember when choosing a beginner violin.
1. Know What’s Important
Two of the biggest factors in choosing a violin are the construction and the sound. The price range you’re shopping in determines which quality you should be looking for when assessing instruments. While more expensive instruments perform well in both areas, quality of construction should be your main concern with instruments under $300. Most entry-level instruments will have similar sound quality, adequate for a new player. Unfortunately, it’s quite common for these entry-level instruments to have cosmetic defects or be structurally weak. Thus, quality of construction should be the biggest factor in your decision at this price point.
To make sure you’re getting an instrument with good-quality construction, you should check the materials used. Ideally, the violin’s top should be spruce, the back should be maple, the fingerboard should be ebony and the bow should be wood or fiberglass, never plastic. Check out this article on the woods used to make a violin.
2. Find a Good Retailer
The second thing you can do to ensure you’re getting the best-quality instrument in your price range is to choose a good retailer. A good retailer won’t sell anything that is not up-to-par where quality is concerned. If you do end up with a problematic instrument, they’ll make it right. You can save yourself a lot of hassle by choosing to work with a seller who weeds out the worst specimens for you.
When choosing a retailer, you should make sure that they are a reputable company and have good try-before-you-buy and rent-to-own programs. Trade-in programs and financing options are two other things that can be nice to have available. You should also make sure that you understand the company’s return policy, shipping charges, and any warranties or guarantees they might have.
An online company that has a try-before-you-buy program is important because it allows you to send the instrument back if you don’t like it for any reason. Choosing an instrument is a highly personal process, and you should be able to try multiple violins to find the one that suits you perfectly.
You also should find a retailer with a good rent-to-own program. Buying a violin outright is certainly an option, but it’s nice to be able to pay monthly to build equity towards the ownership of the instrument. This alternative is great because you can return the violin at any time if necessary, and you can build ownership over time for a future upgrade.
3. Don’t Limit Yourself
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you’re a beginner, you have to start with a low-quality instrument. People who start learning on a nicer, intermediate-range instrument have more success. The reason for this is that when an instrument feels and sounds good, it will be more rewarding, inspiring and motivating to play.
As a long-time teacher, Michael Sanchez of Superior Violins has found that the odds of someone sticking with violin is much higher if they start on a nicer instrument. Violin is already a rather difficult instrument to play, and an inferior-quality instrument only makes learning harder.
There are two situations where a starting with a higher-quality instrument may not make sense: if you’re buying a fractional-size violin for a child who will outgrow it, or if you are not entirely committed to the idea of learning to play violin. In the latter case, keep in mind that getting a nicer instrument could be the deciding factor in whether someone sticks with violin. Be sure to at least look into a higher-quality option, and consider the possibility of rent-to-own so you can start on a nicer instrument.
4. Use Superior Violins
Superior Violins is the perfect place to purchase a new instrument. We have excellent violins that we personally look over, play, and quality check. We set them up ourselves, so they come to you completely ready to tune up and play. We have instruments in every price range, as well as bows and broad selection of accessories. Our try-before-you-buy, rent-to-own and trade-in programs are excellent (ask us about them), and we have great payment plans and financing available.
Superior Violins is a personal business. We place a high value on customer service, attention to detail and customer satisfaction. We want to make sure that our customers end up with an instrument they love, no matter their age, level of experience or budget.
After all, your playing is Superior Violins’ passion!
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Why do we love the violin? Let us count the ways! Here are just five of the many reasons to be passionate about this wonderful instrument.
1. The Violin Has a Rich History
Over the course of a few hundred years, the violin has undergone many changes to become the instrument we know today. It descended from the viol family of instruments along with the viola, cello, and (arguably) double bass. How extensive was its evolution? In the mid 1500s, the violin’s earliest ancestors had just three strings!
By the 19th century, thanks to the famous violin maker Antonio Stradivari, the violin’s unique shape and proportions were established. Many of Stradivari’s violins are still played today, and are regarded as some of the greatest instruments ever created.
2. Playing the Violin is a Full-Body Challenge
Playing any stringed instrument poses a great challenge to both body and brain. It forces the musician to develop acute fine-motor skills, dexterity in the fingers, a precise ear for pitch and intonation, and a free flow of information across both hemispheres of the brain. Along the way students of the violin also establish advanced muscle memory, quick responses, strength, consistent accuracy, and mental as well as physical stamina. These attributes help them flourish in other activities as they learn how to apply these skills to other areas of life.
3. The Violin Has Been Loved by Some of the Greatest Minds in History
The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein had a deep love for music and the violin, even crediting his musical studies as the inspiration behind his greatest theory. Einstein said, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.” Playing the violin teaches in all areas of life.
4. The Violin Touches Hearts
Because of the deeply emotional sounds the violin can produce, the instrument can be a door to the performer’s heart and passion. The positioning of the violin on the musician’s shoulder allows it to become part of the performer–violin and violinist become one. This gives a unique ability to express musically whatever feelings the violinist wants to produce. Played well, the violin is an instrument that touches hearts and speaks directly to its listeners.
5. The Violin is Portable
Lastly, portability is always helpful when playing an instrument. As long as temperature and humidity are kept reasonably stable, you can take your violin anywhere. Even on airlines the violin fits safely in the overhead bin as a carry-on item, allowing the violinist to keep their precious companion always by their side. Unlike musicians who play large instruments, violinists never have to miss an opportunity to share the joy of music with others. As composer Robert Schumann once said, “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts—such is the duty of the artist.”
Do you also love the violin? Tell us why in the comments section.
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The Purpose of the Pegs
The pegs on a violin are the pieces of wood (usually black) that stick out from the pegbox at the top of the instrument. The pegs are held in the pegbox by a pressure fit (friction), and the tops of the strings are wound around them. The peg tensions the string as it turns, changing the pitch of the string. The typical tuning process involves using the tuning pegs to change the pitch of the string in large increments, then using the screws on the tailpiece to change the pitch in small increments. The small screws located in an instrument’s tailpiece are called fine tuners.
When to Use the Pegs
You should use the tuning pegs (instead of the fine tuners) if the pitch of the string needs major adjustment. This is common if you’ve just purchased a new instrument or strings, or if you haven’t played your instrument in a while. A string can also go loose if a tuning peg slips. Obviously, if your instrument has no fine tuners, you’re always going to use the pegs for tuning. The good news is that it’s fairly easy to add fine tuners to your existing tailpiece, or to install a new tailpiece with integrated fine tuners. The latter is preferred because it better preserves the sound of your instrument.
Peg and String Anatomy
If you hold your violin so the top is facing you, this is how the pegs correspond to the strings: lower left peg = G string; upper left peg = D string; upper right peg = A string; lower right peg = E string. As you move clockwise around the pegs, the strings get smaller and their pitch goes up.
How To Tune a Violin with the Pegs
- Grasp the neck of the violin with your right hand (if you’re tuning pegs on the left side of the pegbox) or your left hand (if you’re tuning pegs on the right side).
- With your free hand, grasp the peg of the string you need to tune your violin.
- Holding the instrument tightly, turn the peg toward you to loosen the string. You don’t want the string to completely unwind or be floppy, but most of the tension should be relieved.
- Now turn the peg away from you to tension the string again. While you turn, put a little pressure on the peg to push it into the pegbox.
- As you turn the peg, simultaneously pluck the string with the thumb on the hand holding the neck. This lets you hear the pitch of the string and get it close to the right pitch.
- With an electronic tuner, get the string as close to the correct pitch as you reasonably can. It’s usually best to tune the string just a bit flat (low) and take it the rest of the way up with the fine tuner. (Tip: There are lots of free tuner apps you can download for your smartphone. Our favorite is called IMS Tuner Lite.)
- Lastly, use the fine tuners to get the pitch exactly right.
Pegs are slipping and not staying put
This is often caused by pegs that aren’t fitting tightly enough. Try putting more pressure inward on the peg to push it further into the pegbox. The primary cause for slipping pegs is that over time, the pegs can become polished by the frequent rubbing on the pegbox. To fix this, buy some 000 (triple zero) steel wool, and use it to buff the smooth, glassy areas on the peg back to a dull finish. This will restore the friction and reduce slipping.
If that doesn’t work, you can try a product called “peg dope”. It’s a liquid that you apply to the pegs that keeps them from slipping.
Pegs are hard to turn, or don’t turn smoothly
Don’t push in so hard as you turn the peg; it’s probably jammed too far into the pegbox. You may even need to pull the peg out slightly as you turn it. If that doesn’t fix the problem, you have two options. First, try pulling the peg all the way out then use a pencil to apply some graphite to the spot on the peg where it contacts the pegbox. You can also buy commercial peg lubricant products that accomplish the same thing.
The fine tuner won’t tighten or loosen any more
When a fine tuner is out of travel, it’s time to re-center it and retune. Start by setting the fine tuner to near the center of its adjustment range (or cheat it out from the center a few turns). Tune the string with the corresponding tuning peg, then use the fine tuner again.
I can’t get the string in-tune with the peg, and I don’t have a fine tuner
Tuning with pegs can be tricky. It usually works best to tune up to the desired pitch instead of down. Try loosening the peg slightly, then tighten it up to the desired pitch. You may have to do this several times, down then back up again, until you achieve the correct tuning. Like anything, tuning with pegs takes some practice to master.
With this advice, your pegs should always turn freely and stay put!
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Many violin players find choosing strings for their instrument confusing. The selection of strings available is huge and can be overwhelming. We’ve put together an overview of the types of violin strings in use today, and their pros and cons. We’ll also introduce you to our favorite, most-recommended sets and tell you what you can expect from them.
Types of Strings
Steel strings are often used by fiddlers, who value their brighter sound and durability. They tend to be more affordable than other types of strings, and lower-end instruments commonly come from the factory with steel strings. They’re not as stretchy as other types of strings, which means they don’t have to be tuned as often when new and work better with fine tuners.
Steel strings work wonderfully for smaller-sized instruments, fiddling, electric violins and outdoor playing.
Pros: durable, not very stretchy, affordable
Cons: tinnier sound, not as lively a response as other materials
Synthetic strings are the go-to strings for the modern classical violinist. They tend to have a good response (they react to the bow well) and a warmer sound than steel. Because they are stretchier than steel strings, they have to be tuned frequently when new and don’t work as well with fine tuners.
Pros: warm tone, good response
Cons: pricier, don’t tune as well with fine tuners
Gut strings are not commonly used on modern instruments. They are indeed made out of animal intestines (yes—yuck). Gut strings are often used for playing period music, usually baroque. They have a warm, mellow tone prized by people who want an authentic period sound.
Pros: Good for period music, very mellow tone
Our Favorite Strings
Helicore: These steel strings are durable and affordable, with a nice tone. Great for fiddlers!
Dominant: Possibly the most popular synthetic strings. They are a great set for all skill levels. Not too bright or too dark.
Pirastro Obligato: These synthetic strings are the best for warming up the tone of a too-bright violin.
Evah Pirazzi: Synthetic strings with great brightness, volume and clarity of tone. We recommend these for instruments that tend to be too dark sounding.
Keep in mind that putting the right set of strings on your instrument will improve the sound, but can’t fundamentally change it. Just as putting whipped cream on a bad pie won’t make it yummy, even the best strings can’t fix an instrument with poor sound.
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When was the last time you took a good look at your bow? It’s much more than just a skinny stick you drag across your strings. The bow has a rich history that spans more than 400 years, a history that reveals what a fine work of art and science it has become.
The history of the bow can be divided roughly into three stages of development: the baroque bow, the classical bow and the modern bow.
The Baroque Bow
“Baroque bow” is a generic term for a wide range of early bows used during the baroque period (approx. 1600-1750). It doesn’t describe a specific model or type, as bows of this period were not standardized and every one was different. Baroque bows started out quite short compared to today’s standards, which made them well suited to the rhythmic, non-legato dance music of the time. Early baroque bows also had a removable frog (called a clip-in frog) that tensioned the hair when attached.
As interest grew in cantabile (“songlike”) playing and composers began to call for a smooth, connected notes, the baroque bow grew longer. With this increase in length came changes in construction. A frog with an eyelet and screw gained popularity. The angle of the stick and the head became steeper as the height of the head increased, which allowed a more even and sustained tone across the length of the bow. Probably the most noticeable change, however, was the transition of the stick from convex (curving outward) to slightly concave.
The Classical Bow
The term “classical” (or “transitional”) bow is not quite so broad a term as “baroque”, though it still refers to a variety of bows of the classical era (approx. 1750-1830). Though the changes were not as dramatic as in the baroque era, the popular music of the time prompted modifications to the bow. Structural issues were resolved and design contributions from various bow makers resulted in a stronger bow that could meet the demands of the new, virtuosic music.
Around the turn of the 19th century, the bow’s evolution was largely complete and the era of the modern bow began. A man named François Xavier Tourte is responsible for perfecting the design that has been the standard of bows for the last 200 years. Tourte’s innovations included using premium pernambuco wood and utilizing complex mathematics to define the dimensions of the stick.
The Modern Bow
The modern bow has changed very little since Tourte perfected his design. The modern bow is the epitome of a versatile tool, as it can play legato passages with evenness and good tone, yet can also perform demanding articulations like spiccato, ricochet and sautillé.
Never forget that bows were created and altered to meet the demands of the current style of music. Though a modern bow will do justice to any style of music, a bow designed in a given era will perform the music of that era with the greatest authenticity. We highly recommend playing music with a period bow if you ever have the chance—it’s an incredible experience!
Explanation and demonstration of historical bows:
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Violins and violas are beautiful, fragile works of art. Cared for properly, they can last for generations. Abuse them, and they can be damaged in short order. Some things you shouldn’t do are obvious: dropping it, taking it in the tub with you or using it as a baseball bat. Other things are not so obvious, but no less damaging to your instrument. Here are seven tips to avoid damaging your violin, viola or bow.
1. Avoid extreme heat
Instruments hate to be hot. Leaving yours in a hot car, or worse, in direct sun, can permanently damage it. Varnish can melt in extreme heat, and rising temperatures can dehydrate the wood and cause the body to crack.
2. Clean off sweat
Instrument varnish is not impervious to its environment. Even getting sweat on your instrument can damage the finish. If you tend to sweat while playing, drape a cloth over the end of your instrument to protect it from sweat. When you’re not playing, don’t tuck the instrument under your arm in such a way that the finish touches your skin.
3. Clean rosin residue
As you play, rosin falls off your bow and builds up on the strings, fingerboard and top of your instrument. The strings and fingerboard aren’t hurt by rosin buildup, but rosin left sitting on the top of the instrument will fuse with the varnish. If this happens, the only way to remove it is to take the instrument to a luthier for professional cleaning. This problem is easy to prevent: just take a soft cloth and dust your instrument before the rosin has a chance to build up.
4. Fix a fallen soundpost
The soundpost serves two vital functions in an instrument: it transmits vibrations from the top of the instrument to the back, and it supports the top. The strings push down on the bridge of your violin or viola with 20 pounds of pressure. The soundpost helps keep the top from flexing or collapsing under this pressure. If the soundpost falls out of place (you’ll hear it rolling around inside), there is a chance the top of your instrument could collapse or crack over time. Bad news.
5. Keep cleaning simple
With the wrong substance, polishing your instrument can ruin the finish. Polish shines your instrument in one of two ways: with an abrasive that removes a thin layer of varnish, or with a wax-like substance that sits on top of the varnish. An abrasive polish can completely remove your instrument’s finish over time, and a waxy polish can build up and ruin the varnish. All you should do to clean your instrument yourself is to wipe it down with a dry, soft cloth. For deep cleaning, take it to a luthier.
6. Let your bow relax
Your bow stick needs time to relax. Leaving it too tight for too long can cause the stick to lose its camber (curve), which will spell the end of its springiness. Unless you want to play nothing but pizzicato, give your bow some rest.
7. Ignore bow hair loss
If your bow needs to be rehaired, don’t play with it! Typically, you’ll lose more hair on one side of the bow than the other, which creates an uneven pull on the stick when the bow is tightened. Too much of this uneven pull will warp the bow stick. You’ll know your bow needs a rehair if it has less than half the amount of hair it had when new.
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When you play your instrument, did you know you’re holding a masterpiece made up of about 70 individual pieces of wood? They’re not even the same type of wood–those 70 pieces can represent as many as six different wood species. The use of different woods for the various parts of an instrument is essential for good playability and sound, as certain parts require certain properties. Read on to find out about the types of wood used in instrument making.
Top or Belly
The wood of the top (or belly) of the instrument is often considered the most important wood in the whole instrument. It must be strong to withstand the tension of the strings and resonant to transmit vibrations from the bridge to the air inside the violin. Because of these requirements, spruce is the most common wood for the top. Spruce is lightweight and resonant, longitudinally strong, and laterally flexible–all characteristics that make it perfect for an instrument top.
Back, Sides, Bridge, Neck and Scroll
Maple is the most common wood for the back, sides, bridge, neck and scroll. Maple is not quite as resonant as spruce, but its greater strength is important for the structural integrity of the instrument. The pegbox is one example of where the strength of maple is needed. A violin’s pegbox is a hollowed-out space with thin sides–perforated with multiple holes–that must remain stable under constant pressure and tension. Not just any wood will do in this application!
Bass Bar, Soundpost, Blocks and Linings
These two critical pieces strengthen the top and transmit vibrations between top and back. Resonance is very important here, so spruce is usually the preferred choice.
Notice in the picture that the sound post is lined up underneath the right leg of the bridge, and the bass bar is directly underneath the left leg of the bridge. This setup is important for optimal sound production.
Regarding the blocks and linings, spruce or willow is commonly used for the inner structural supports of stringed instruments. These blocks and linings call for a strong, non-brittle wood.
Here is a video of the process of creating the creating the sound bar, inserting the sound post and more.
The fingerboard is almost always made of solid ebony, a wood prized for its density, strength, resistance to warping and deep black color. On very inexpensive instruments, the fingerboard is sometimes made of other types of wood painted or stained black. This black facade wears away over time and reveals unsightly lighter wood underneath. Also, fingerboards made of woods other than ebony (or even plastic) can warp and wear unevenly, causing buzzing noises and other problems.
Tuning Pegs and Chinrest
The tuning pegs and chinrest (on a violin or viola) are made of a sturdy and visually pleasing hardwood, usually ebony, boxwood or rosewood.
The tailpiece is commonly made of a hardwood (such as ebony, rosewood or boxwood), resin, or metal. The tailpiece is one of the few components of a violin-family instrument that can be made acceptably of a material other than wood.
Other Violin Structure Materials
Violin-family instruments have been made of wood for the last 500 years, and for good reason. Wood is a unique material for its strength, flexibility, beauty, and most importantly, its resonant properties. While instrument makers have been experimenting with other materials for many years, nothing has yet surpassed the look, feel, and sound of a wooden instrument. However, there are a few materials that are worth mentioning.
Carbon fiber instruments are very sturdy and visually striking. They are stable in extreme temperatures and humidity and hold their tuning very well. They can be louder than wood and have tone not unlike that of a traditional instrument. The difference in sound between carbon fiber and wood is not so drastic as the difference between electric and acoustic instruments.
Metal or stone instruments are unique, but they are really just a novelty item. While they might technically be playable, their weight makes them impractical.
Electric Instruments are the greatest departure from a traditional instrument. The sound of an acoustic instrument is the product of an equation with many variables: the resonance of the body, the volume of air in the instrument, the f-holes, the strings, the bridge and much more. In contrast, the sound of an electric instrument is much simpler. Vibrations are picked up right at the bridge, with minimal contribution to the sound from the rest of the instrument. This makes for a much less rich and complex sound, one that usually requires considerable electronic trickery and effects to make it palatable. Because the body material and shape is acoustically irrelevant, electric instruments often have solid wood bodies contorted into unconventional, fun shapes.
Plastic parts on an instrument (with the exception of the tailpiece) is a sign of extremely low quality. Do not buy a violin with plastic parts (except perhaps as a child’s toy), as it will not sound or play properly. You’re far better off spending more to get a violin made of real wood. You’ll save yourself lots of frustration.
Knowing about the types of wood used in violins, violas and cellos will not only aid you in making a decision when shopping, but it will also help you appreciate the craftsmanship and care that goes into making instruments. The next time you see an stringed instrument, take a moment to admire the intricacy and natural beauty of its wood. You’ll be glad you did!
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Have you ever wondered about the color and finish of your instrument? We often think of our instruments in terms of their construction, hardware, strings and the like, but the beautiful, protective coating of our instruments is often forgotten.
And while many of us don’t give a second thought to the finish on our instruments, some luthiers value it enough to spend their whole careers perfecting their recipe and application of varnish. Some luthiers even believe that the “magic” of Antonio Stradivari’s instruments is in the varnish he used, and they’ve made it their life goal to replicate his formula. What do they know about varnish that we don’t?
First off, they know varnish is more than just a pretty covering. The finishing process serves to protect the wood of the instrument from its environment. Without it, the wood would be left directly exposed to contaminants like sweat, oils, moisture and dirt. Wood does not fare well in contact with such things, thus varnish.
Protection is not the only function of varnish, however–it also colors and beautifies the wood. Varnish doesn’t accomplish this in the same way a wood stain colors furniture, however. Instead, pigments added to the various layers of varnish color the instrument without penetrating the wood. This is why scratches reveal pale wood beneath the color. (On that note, if your instrument gets scratched, don’t try to stain the exposed wood! Take your instrument to a luthier, who can re-apply varnish and color to the area without damaging the wood.)
Every luthier has his own special process for varnishing instruments. No two methods are the same, and the exact steps and formulations are often carefully-guarded secrets.
A typical varnishing process (minus all the secret ingredients, techniques and incantations) begins after the body of the instrument is entirely constructed and glued together. The instrument has no fingerboard, tailpiece, bridge, tuning pegs or other hardware at this point. Often the very first thing to be applied to the instrument is a solution of tea or coffee that reacts with the tannic acid in the wood and begins to bring out some color.
Next is a clear “ground” coat that penetrates and protects the wood, forming a barrier that prevents the varnish from soaking into the wood. Historically, this initial coat contained high levels of minerals and was made of organic glues and gums, among other things.
After the ground coat, the luthier will begin to apply the color coats. The pigment can be high-quality artist’s oil paints, or natural substances like plant root ground fine and mixed with oil. In order to color the instrument, the pigment can either be applied directly to the instrument and followed with a thin coat of clear varnish, or mixed in with the varnish itself. The decision is driven purely by aesthetics, as both approaches are effective yet they produce a slightly different look.
Once the luthier is satisfied with the color, he or she will add a couple more coats of clear or very light varnish to seal and protect the color coats. This enables the luthier to polish out any brush hairs, bugs, or other debris from the surface without disturbing the color coats.
Varnish and Value
Though microscopically thin, varnish has a pronounced effect on the sound of the instrument. A good varnish is hard enough to protect the instrument from damage, yet soft enough to allow the wood to resonate. A varnish that is too hard will dampen the vibrations of the wood, keeping the instrument from sounding its best. Think of a ballerina trying to dance in a suit of armor.
The trade-off between durability and resonance becomes obvious if you compare a student instrument with a premium-quality one. The student instrument will usually have a very hard, shiny finish that is designed to handle abuse. A hard finish doesn’t allow the wood to vibrate freely, though, which can contribute to poor sound. The nicer instrument will have a softer varnish that is more susceptible to damage but allows for freer vibration and optimum sound.
Part of the art of making quality instruments is applying a varnish that is just the right hardness.
The very best varnishes from centuries past were quite soft and fragile. Some were formulated in such a way that they were (or still are) in a state of constant chemical flux, interacting with the environment and changing all the time.
The varnish on an antique instrument greatly affects its value. An instrument with intact original varnish is rare, because normal use can wear it away in a matter of decades. A fine original varnish is a beautiful sight, as it can develop a lovely effect called craqueleur. Craqueleur is produced by the layers of varnish expanding and contracting at slightly different rates, causing the surface to form tiny cracks. These can be so small that the surface of the instrument takes on a matte appearance, or they can be clearly visible as tiny interconnecting grooves in the finish.
This sign of excellent varnish can take a hundred years or more to develop, and sadly it is often not recognized for the wonder it is. Well-meaning people sometimes buff or polish out the craqueleur in favor of a shiny appearance, irreparably damaging the varnish and reducing the value of the instrument.
Caring for Varnish
Varnish can be ruined by well-meaning owners who polish it too often. Polishes typically work in one of two ways: either they shine the instrument by adding a thin coat of material, or they use a fine abrasive to remove a thin layer of varnish from the surface. Both methods will ruin the finish over time, one by building up a thick coat that inhibits vibration and the other by eventually removing all the varnish.
Instruments do need to be cleaned, but the best approach is to skip polishing altogether. Instead, take your instrument to a luthier on occasion to have the dirt and rosin buildup removed without damaging the varnish.
Like our skin, a good varnish protects your instrument, gives it its unique appearance, and allows it to move and vibrate freely. And like our skin, varnish deserves special care and attention to make sure it stays intact and beautiful.
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Have you ever wondered about the difference between Baroque and Romantic music? And what about the “Classical” period? Isn’t it all classical music? Read on for the scoop on 1,200 years of western music!
Is It All “Classical Music?”
Though we often call all older western music “classical”, no one word can do justice to 1,200 years of musical evolution. Western musical history is actually divided into many different eras (or periods), only one of which is the Classical era. Categorizing music into these different periods helps distinguish the changing styles, trends, instrumentation and composers over the centuries.
Western classical music has a long history, going all the way back to days when musical notation was only a loose method of recording a melody. Like a story with no punctuation or a blueprint with no measurements, early manuscripts are missing many details regarding how the music would have sounded (no rhythms, for example). This leaves us with little knowledge of music prior to the Medieval era, when notation schemes became much more detailed.
So our exploration of western musical history starts with the Medieval era and ends with today’s music: the Modern era. Dates are approximate due to the great amount of overlap between periods.
The Medieval Era (800 to 1400 AD)
Music of the medieval times was primarily that of the church. Monophonic chanting of Latin religious texts was the predominant style of this time period. Monophonic means no harmonies are used–one note was sung at a time, without instrumental accompaniment. Gregorian chant, the sound most people associate with medieval music, emerged late in the period (between the 11th and 13th centuries).
The Renaissance Era (1400 to 1600 AD)
Renaissance music was still predominantly church music, though more sophisticated melodies and polyphony (harmonies with more than one note at a time) became common. The Renaissance was a period of explosive growth for the arts, and music was no exception. Different styles emerged, such as Madrigals (text and verse set to music) and various dance forms. Works of the time were still primarily choral, though composers did begin to write pieces with parts for multiple instruments.
Notable Renaissance composers include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Taverner, Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Palestrina.
The Baroque Era (1600 to 1750 AD)
The Baroque era was primarily one of expansion: the scope of compositions changed from works for choirs and small ensembles to compositions for the newly emerged modern orchestra. The church’s influence continued to decline and secular works became common, leading to the creation of compositional forms like the concerto, opera and cantata. Like the paintings, sculptures and architecture of the day, baroque music was characterized by extravagant ornamentation added at the whim of the performers. Instrumentation became more varied, and the viol family of instruments was replaced with the modern violin, viola and cello.
Influential Baroque composers include Purcell, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, JS Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi.
The Classical Era (1750 to 1820 AD)
The Classical era saw the invention of an instrument that would change music forever: the pianoforte (which we now know as the modern piano). Countless pieces were composed for solo piano, multiple pianos, piano and strings, orchestra with piano… Strict adherence to set musical structures dominated and defined the Classical era; the sonata was developed, and the symphony and string quartet forms were taken to new heights. Theme and variation (a musical theme stated and then developed) reached the peak of its popularity.
Classical era composers the history of music in this era include Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Johann Christian Bach, Stamitz, Schubert and Boccherini.
The Romantic Era (1820 to 1910 AD)
The Romantic era was a period of rapid change for music. Composers began to abandon the traditional rules of music in order to express greater emotion and passion in their music. To support this greater intensity of expression, orchestras grew in size from about forty musicians to over 100. The accepted musical structures of earlier periods were adapted (or even abandoned), and free-form pieces like preludes, nocturnes and fantasias began to appear. Harmonies became more adventurous, using intervals and chords that would have been heard as dissonant and unpleasant in any previous era.
Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Dvorak, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Mussorgsky and Debussy are some of the popular composers of the Romantic era.
Hear it: Voiles by Debussy
The Modern Era (1910 to present)
The Modern era is a time of experimentation and “anything goes” compositions. Composers commonly explore new realms of atonal, serial, experimental and minimalist music. Rhythms are manipulated, and instruments used in non-traditional ways (i.e. John Cage and “prepared piano”). Traditional rules of structure, harmony and instrumentation are embraced or ignored.
Well-known Modern composers include Strauss, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Bartok, Gershwin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Philip Glass. The Modern era also encompasses all film music and its composers.
Hear it: An American in Paris by Gershwin
Western classical music is our heritage, representing the sum of all the ideas, emotions, passion, creativity, and work of millions of people across the centuries. But music isn’t static, and it’s not done growing and changing and evolving. Composers, performers, students–ordinary people like you and I–still have the ability to influence the course of music. Whether you choose to compose, adapt or play music already written, you can have an influence on the course of modern music.
How will you define your musical era?
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