How the violin evolved accidentally

Sarah Gentry, professor of violin at Illinois State University, plays a violin in Normal, Ill.

Sarah Gentry, professor of violin at Illinois State University, plays a violin in Normal, Ill.  (AP Photo/The Pantagraph, David Proeber)

The shape of today's violin wasn't the result of some genius's design specifications; instead, it developed over time, likely improving by chance, researchers say. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, an instrument's sound depends heavily on the way air flows through it: The more air that exits its sound holes, the louder the instrument will be.

But it's not about bigger sound holes, the MIT team explains. In fact, what matters is the hole's perimeter, where the most air flows. "More perimeter and less interior area"—as seen in a violin's f-shaped holes—"is better," says professor Nicholas Makris.

Indeed, "on a windy day … it tends to be far windier at the perimeter of (a) building rather than some distance from the building, because all the air flow obstructed by the building escapes in a concentrated region at the edges." Early versions of the instrument had circular sound holes, the Economist reports.

But "the circle has the smallest perimeter for the same area, and so is the least power-efficient," Makris says. Here's where "evolution" comes in: The shift from circles to f-holes was gradual, the Economist explains, as buyers likely favored the more efficient instruments.

These instruments might actually have differed by accident, the Telegraph reports. "Whether (makers) understood, 'Oh, we need to make the sound hole more slender,' we cannot say. But they definitely knew what was a better instrument to replicate," says Makris.

The makers of these successful instruments taught their apprentices the tricks of the trade, and so the design shifted between the 1560s and the early 1700s.

(Though the violin may not have changed much in recent centuries, research finds new ones beat Stradivarii.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: The Violin's Shape Was an Accident

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