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Exploration of the Month

December 1998


The Violin

With Christmas rolling around, many children are getting excited about ideas for presents. (They've probably been doing so since Halloween) Perhaps under your tree this year, you'll find a musical instrument. This month's exploration discusses one of the most widely used musical devices: the violin.

The violin has its roots in Central Asia and it rapidly spread across Europe in the 10th century. The design was refined throughout the years, but the present-day construction originated in Italy during the 16th century. The creation of a violin is a slow and exact process. A web page which illustrates this art was created by Hans Johannsson. Violins are used throughout the world by a diverse range of musicians from members of a symphony orchestra to traveling musicians in India.

First, let's take a look at the bow. The bow is the piece of the instrument that the violinist uses to create a vibration in the strings. These vibrations develop into different sounds we call music. The middle picture shows the individual strands on the bow. Don't they look like strands of hair? That's because they are hair - a horse's that is! A further magnification shows the imperfections across the hair sample.

 broken bow of violin bow string magnified 75X bow string magnified 300X

Pictured again are the horse hairs used to make the bow. Before violinists play, they rub the bow across a substance called resin. Resin is a manufactured chemical compound which when applied, provides more friction to the horse hair, making it easier to vibrate. It simply helps a musician have greater control of the instrument . These next pictures were taken with the scanning electron microscope. To the left, the hairs still retain their smooth shape, but upon further magnification, we can see that the bow strings have a complex surface. This surface is a combination of the leftover resin and physical imperfections in the hair itself. A previous month's exploration discussed the topic of hair in general. Check it out!

 SEM bow 100X SEM bow 500X SEM bow 2000X

Let's now look at the back of the violin. It is usually composed from the wood of a maple tree. Other wood, such as pine, is also used in the violin's assembly. Even though the construction of violins vary, the materials used have one central purpose: to amplify and hone the vibrations created by the musician.

The next pictures unfortunately aren't chunks of a violin, but simple wood chips. Don't be disappointed! Did you actually think that the good people here at Project Micro would destroy a beautiful violin? (Well, we wanted to, but they are really expensive!) The two pictures below were taken with the optical microscope. The grain illustrates the progress of growth in the original tree. As the wood is broken, it separates into small shards. The small pieces of wood are what lodge into your skin if you get a splinter. That's one reason why the wood pieces in a violin are smoothed and varnished.

back of violin wood magnified wood magnified

The SEM was used to take the remaining pictures. They simply show the small imperfections in wood at 70, 1000, and 10000 magnifications. It's amazing how complex all of the components of a violin are when observed in the microscopic world!

SEM wood 70X SEM wood 1000X SEM wood 10000X

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Last Updated: 12/01/98