Violin of African Wood Has Powerful Sound

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The two violins made by researchers. Photo: Martina Menken

  • The world’s violins consist mostly of fir and maple, which are trees grown in the northern hemisphere.
  • What if indigenous African woods from the southern hemisphere were used to make an African violin?
  • The results of a new study show that African wood species produce an instrument that has a beautiful, albeit slightly different, sound.

Tonewoods are types of wood that possess some desirable properties that make them suitable for making musical instruments, such as woodwinds or stringed instruments – such as the flute or violin. Any fine tun wood should be cut radially, which means that the lines formed by the year’s rings are perfectly parallel to the surface. It should have an even granular structure, be free from defects and not shrink or swell appreciably with environmental changes.

The world’s violins consist mostly of fir and maple, which are trees grown in the northern hemisphere. But what if indigenous African woods from the southern hemisphere were used to make an African violin? We set out to test the native woods of the Continent and found that four types of woods could not only work, but do well. Then we created two full violins of them to test their sound.

What is the appropriate wood for the violin?

The sound boards are part of the violin’s body. They are made of wood that must resonate by amplifying the oscillations – vibration – of stringed instruments. It should be lightweight but solid enough to withstand the tension of the strings and the sound should propagate well in the direction of the wood grain. If the density of the wood is uneven all the time, sound waves may be scattered. This would make tropical (sub) wood species good candidates for soundboards because the lack of clear growing seasons results in wood with barely visible year rings and minimal variations in density.

However, high-quality violins are made from the same types of wood around the world: fir as the soundboard (top panel) and maple as the frame panel (back). While guitar makers seem to be more adventurous in using alternative wood species, violin makers tend to use only these traditional wood species. Quality wood is usually from cooler regions, such as Canada or the European Alps, where trees grow more slowly, resulting in a uniform woody structure with less fluctuations in density.

The soundboard on the front of the violin needs to transmit sound well, while the back panel at the back should have a high modulus of elasticity to support the soundboard, while still radiating the sound well. Both parts should have a fairly low density to avoid unnecessary weight, which can make playing the instrument uncomfortable.

Based on all these requirements, our research team has characterized several types of wood from South Africa to identify possible alternatives for making violins. We finally decided that Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifoliusand Knysna BlackwoodAcacia melanoxylon – which are not original, but created in the natural forests of the southwestern part of South Africa since the early twentieth century) would be suitable as acoustic panels. Indigenous peoples of West Africa, Sabele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) and hardpear (olenia windy) from South Africa were best suited as tire panels.

African Violin Test

Hannes Jacobs is a Professional Garment Manufacturer from Pretoria, South Africa. The luthier is a person who makes stringed instruments. He agreed to make a full-size violin out of yellow wood and sapel. We wanted to ensure that the tool quality would be comparable to high quality commercial tools.

The sound quality of this instrument, called the “African violin”, was compared to a violin made of traditional wood species of the same lute, with the same methodology. Both instruments are played by the same player with the same bow.

The sound quality of the violins was determined by recording the different sound-bands-frequency spectra of individual notes to analyze the distinct tones. This is a musical note that is part of the harmonic series above a basic tone. Good sound quality generally consists of many harmonics at higher frequencies.

The African violin has been played by many musicians on separate occasions, and everyone agreed that its sound is very different from that of most other violins. The overall rating was that it has a very full and powerful bass with a strong low profile that works well through the room.

The resonance frequencies of the African violin are distinctly different from those of the traditional violin. It has stronger undertones in the lower frequency range, resulting in a full sound that carries well. It also shows more indications at higher frequencies. For frequencies above 3 kHz, the African violin exhibits a distinctly higher amplitude, giving it a somewhat harsh sound, while the lower amplitudes of a traditional violin result in a softer sound. Perhaps the African violin is better suited to modern music or jazz.

The physical properties of the wood used for the African violin indicate that it may radiate a lower quality sound in the higher frequency range than that of fir wood. Contrary to this expectation, the African violin shows resonant peaks at higher frequencies than the traditional violin. Resonance peaks are located on the frequencies at which the soundboard oscillates the most and compose the musical notes you hear. The higher the audible resonance frequencies, the louder the sound.

The results of our study show that African wood species is clearly suitable for use as tun wood in violins. They are able to produce a machine with a beautiful, albeit slightly different sound.

The African violin has a noticeably stronger sound in the lower frequencies that transmits well across the room. It also showed more high-amplitude harmonics at higher frequencies, giving it a much harsher sound than a traditional violin. Yellowwood and Sapele can be used to make stringed instruments that are loud and powerful.


Martina Minkin is an associate professor at Stellenbosch University.

This article was first published by Conversation It is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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