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String Instruments


Musical effects and technical contribution for balanced and stabilised string instruments
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Notably, in order to play a string instrument, apart from the practice required to obtain intonation, it is necessary to constantly control the quality of the sound whose duration and evolution begin and end while the bow presses on the strings and provokes a frictional vibration. This differs to sounds which are created by single impulses, such as chordophone instruments without a bow (played by plucking or plectrum) or percussion instruments.

In a string instrument, every vibration implies an emotive participation which acts in simultaneous "continuum" with the construction of the sound, to the extent that we can compare the "vocality" in which (similar to what happens in a chord instrument) the human voice is modulated due to ample possibilities of modifications and adaptations. The difference in this symbiosis between emission and sound effect is that the singer has a further chance: the possibility to mentally plan and therefore adapt or modify the vocal structure in advance.

The string player, on the other hand, is forced to wait for the sound to begin in order to be able to correct it, instinctively or elegantly, when necessary, in order to optimise the harmonical sound result and obtain the best and ideal sensation of "acoustic beauty". At the same time, however, the musician runs the risk of distracting his attention from the care of phrasing at the expense of the musical language, compromising expression and style, which are not the outcome of mere finger exercises, but intimate and passionate determination to the ideal achievement of a universal language otherwise inexpressible.

Traditionally, through hard exercises, the musician tries to compensate acoustic effects and defects of his instrument in a continual search of a closer connection between himself and his instrument. The string instrument, in its unlimited capacity to model and mould the sound, inspired by the modulation of the internal voice of the executor, assumes a valuable rôle as long as it does not come across malfunctions (opening imprecision or drawing irregularity). Equally and much to the surprise of the expectations of the musician, the instrument can run up against some detestable acoustic effect, such as a string which blocks and does not vibrate freely, or patchy sounds or even when the musician has the sensation of not being able to position the notes correctly on the fingerboard. These problems cause disharmonious sounds, contrary and hostile to the musical thought of "harmoniously beautiful". This brings about a huge waste of energy which risks defeating and wearing down the enthusiasm of the musician, who can then find himself in the unpleasant situation of expressive impotence. This negative condition can become damaging, particularly in the case of children who may lose their self-confidence and eventually their interest, all because of the lack of faith in the instrument.

With the aim of rectifying these imperfections, commonly met in string instruments, we have studied and brought some substantial modifications to the mounting, intended as the set of elements used to fix the string to the string instrument, in order to obtain: greater regularity, better manageability of the string and reliability in the sound components.

We have interviewed on a large scale many people who are interested and involved at every level in the world of music. The question "what must a sound be?", as well asking the people to listen to and play prepared instruments allowed us to collect significant answers. These are obviously determined by personal aesthetic-acoustic needs and by "sound behaviour", in the order of the peculiarity of the sound's components - distinguished by merits and defects of the tone and intensity. The study also takes into consideration the indicative series of effects and desired/undesired behaviours, known/unknown of the same sound.

The modifications, experimented over the space of a decade according to the information collected, have appeared to rationalise the concept of movement and tension of the string on the instrument - from which the tone, intensity and manageability of the string and therefore the sound, depend directly upon. We have managed to efficiently reduce and resolve undesirable effects and technical aspects, such as:
1.    whining
2.    scratching
3.    tone irregularity and intensity between the free strings with the same intensity of impulse
4.    tone irregularity and intensity between the notes obtained from the same string with equal intensity of impulse
5.    excessively "closed" sound
6.    excessive graininess of the bow
7.    sudden drop in tension
8.    modification in the tone or intensity when the bow changes direction
9.    scordatura between two sounds when the bow changes direction between two notes of different strings
10.    false relation between sound intensity and impulse intensity
11.    distortion of the tone when the impulse intensity increases
12.    oscillation irregularity of the string during the bow movement
13.    irregularity of the sensation of the note's position along the string
14.    lowering of the fingering intensity of the acute regions
15.    sudden scordatura of the string
16.    reduced length of the sonority of the string
17.    prolonged settlement of the new string

The fundamental modifications made to the traditional body of the string instruments involve:

  • a deviation, in the intervening part between the bridge and tailpiece, which creates a "junction" that allows the string freer movement on the bridge. This favours the opening sound and the regularity and flow of the bow, in order to allow a more spontaneous development of the harmonic division on the string with the consequential benefit of a full sound;
  •  the geometrical alignment of the complete length of the string, between intervallic joints in respect of the thrust direction of the string on the various support points including the accessories. This alignment balances the oscillation of the string in the two directions of the bow strokes;
  • the disposition of the strings as though they were projected on conicalness of various heights, but on the same base represented by the bridge. These heights refer to the button of the lower part of the instrument and from the centre of the scroll;
  • a single loop which connects the button or prop to the tailpiece which, balancing the tension in one single point for all the strings, makes them independent from one another. This increases the independence among the strings, therefore avoiding oscillations of the tailpiece during movement, a cause of temporary scordatura of the double note, often apparent during the tuning of the instrument and while using the double notes;
  • the concept of the minimum quantity necessary for every string wound onto the peg, and the self blocking attachment of the string to the peg, via the help of a wedge-shaped element inserted into the hole of the peg connected to the string; this device reduces to a minimum the capacity of the string to lengthen further with the pressure of the bow and fingers, altering the relationship between the intensity of the impulse and the intensity of the obtained sound. This in turn alters the relationship between the distance of the notes on the fingerboard, absorbing the clarity of the sound and limiting the range of oscillation of the entire instrument. This device elongates the stabilisation of the string tension, keeping the instrument in tune for longer, reducing the settlement period and favouring a longer life to the string.

Considerations on the obtainable results

The considerations on the obtainable results vary from the technical to the aesthetic aspect. However, the predominant consideration is that the instrument, adapted as described above, beyond acquiring a greater capacity of sound "expansion", actually becomes technically "more comfortable" to play.

Obtainable results after the technical adaptations:

  • the touch with the bow improves: the regularity of  traction and dynamic variation signifies providing a better opening note because the right hand immediately finds the way to make the string vibrate well and to command the sound at one's pleasure;
  • all the notes of the instrument provide an open and complete sound right from the emission, therefore giving greater clarity, even in the higher notes;
  • the notes obtained from the single string become more similar in their sound and intensity and this prevents the left hand from pressing the string excessively on the fingerboard. This softens the movements in the transitions and reduces exertion during long practising sessions;
  • with the complete spontaneous development of the harmonic division, the contribution towards the third sound of the outcome in the note couples becomes more regular. This gives the instrument that characteristic resonance, similar to what the human voice obtains from the difference of frequency between the chest and cranial cavity and from which the vocal third sound is developed;
  • the instrument remains in tune for a lot longer;
  • the quick settlement and increased lifetime of the string, brought about by a more sophisticated way of blocking the string to the peg;

Ultimately the instrument becomes more precise and reliable, complete of those functional characteristics which, when defining the sound of the instrument, children say "normal" and easy.

Padova, 30 May 2006
Carmelo Gaudino


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