Physics of the Violin

Go to a gathering of Musical Acousticians and you will probably be surprised at the variety of things they study. There will be talks on banjos, bagpipes, the human voice and everything in-between, topped off with a performance on the Koto by a Japanese graduate student in traditional dress. Despite this variety one never gets very far away from the violin. There is something magical in an instrument that achieved some kind of perfection 300 years ago, and has never been successfully improved upon. The instrument has been studied by physicists for at least 200 of those years, and some measure of understanding has been achieved. However, this little wooden box with two holes and four strings gives up its secrets very slowly. One task Chris Waltham, PhD, has taken is to construct a violin out of a material radically different from the traditional spruce and maple to test the basic theory. The resulting "balsa violin" is demonstrated by Angela Ruthven, a second-year Engineering Physics student, who is also a violinist in the West Coast Symphony and has spent three summers with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada.