In 2010, the Molitor Stradivarius, a violin constructed in the late 1600s, was sold at an auction for over $3 million. The very next year, the Lady Blunt, made in 1721, was purchased for more than $15 million—five times the Stradivarius.
So, what gives? Historical value aside, do violins sound better with age?
If regularly played and taken care of, old violins do sound better with age. Old violins sound more “mature” and robust than newly manufactured violins. With frequent use, the acoustics of the instrument improve and thus create a clearer and better-projected sound.
Why does aging a Violin make it sound better?
To answer this question, we first need to know what “aging” a violin really means.
Here’s the thing about violins: they sound better with age but only if they’re given enough care and attention.
Violins that were played well over time will sound infinitely better than those played badly. The same is said for violins that were played regularly compared to violins left to collect dust in the closet for several years.
When played regularly, violins produce a more complex tonal range. “Aging” a violin gives its wooden construction time to settle. It also gives it time to habituate to the wood vibration and resonate with the note’s frequencies.
Over time, the wood’s molecules will align on a microscopic level, thus creating a clearer and more robust tone.
In other words, aging a violin gives it time to resonate better on a melodic scale. Just like humans need to practice to get better, violins need our help to develop and “open up” over time.
How much better do old violins sound compared to new ones?
The truth is, the answer to this question is somewhat subjective.
While new isn’t always better when it comes to violins, it all comes down to preference. Some violinists believe that old violins are only “slightly better” than new violins, while others believe there’s an astronomical difference between the two.
Old violins—especially those that were well-cared for and regularly used—are described to sound full and vibrant, with a fuller and more mature and developed sound. In comparison, new violins sound frail and somewhat lacking.
If a new violin is played regularly by an experienced violinist for six months straight, its tone will improve by 30% to 60%.
Now, imagine how wonderful the violin will sound after six, seven, or even ten years of professional use. It’ll undoubtedly sound more harmonized and robust than how it started off.
With that said, old violins are much more susceptible to damage than new violins, especially if they weren’t taken care of or if they were made with poor-quality wood. This may also affect the tonal comparison between the two.
So, old violins can either sound a lot better than new violins or only slightly better. It depends on several factors, namely:
- Material quality
- Personal sound preference and characteristics
How exactly do older violins sound better?
Older violins sound better in a way wine tastes fuller with age; it all comes down to maturity and development.
According to Dr. David G. Hunt, the continuous vibrations caused by the strings of a violin change the nature of its wood.
“In conditions of high humidity, we observed a change in the violin’s stiffness and dampening coefficient,” he said. “Both factors provide a more pleasant tone in mature pine, spruce, and other woods used in violins.”
With age, violins and their internal components undergo a considerable mechanical vibration whenever they’re played, altering their intrinsic properties for the better.
This “evolution” of sorts is why old violins often sound better than new violins.
How old does a Violin need to be to sound better?
Aging a violin isn’t only a question of time.
If you put away a violin, untouched, in a closet for 10, 20, or even 30 years, it won’t sound better than a new violin. Doing so will only put the violin in an instrumental version of a coma. It won’t improve nor will it age as it should be.
As discussed earlier, violins must be given a proper amount of care for them to age gracefully. They must be played regularly, kept in a well-controlled environment (with regards to temperature and humidity), and occasionally checked for age-related damage.
If all these factors are met, the regularly-used violin can “peak” in a little over 10 years, but may not really hit its stride until 25 or even 50 years of use.
When it comes to violins, the older is usually the better; not only because of their sound but also because of their historical value.
According to a PNAS study, instruments become geriatric after about 200-300 years of good use. Even so, some of the most valuable violins in the world, dating as far back as the 1550s, are considered the “best sounding” instruments that exist—even though the title is likely overexaggerated.
Remember: Antique Stradivari and Guarneri violins aren’t as good as they were out of the box, so to speak. They’ve been extensively restored by professionals before they’re deemed worthy to be played in a concert hall.
If they were just left to rot in some unknown basement, they likely wouldn’t be as valuable or as gorgeous sounding as they are today.
Do all older Violins sound better than new ones?
Although the general consensus when it comes to violins is the older the better, this isn’t always the case.
With today’s technology, brand new violins that were made from premium-quality seasoned wood sound much better than 100-year-old violins built with cheap wood.
To a trained ear, the 100-year-old violin may sound better than the new violin, but the difference is likely extremely subtle; especially if the older violin was barely used.
From a scientific point of view, older violins sound better than newer violins because they went through the process of maturity. With age, old violins develop tonal qualities that don’t exist in new violins. Instead of the harsh, almost frail sound generated by newly-manufactured violins, old violins produce a clearer, more resonant sound.
However, some experts believe that antique violins are a bit overhyped.
Studies found that professional violinists often can’t differentiate the sound of an old violin from a new one, and many actually prefer the sound of the new over the old.
A $50,000 modern violin is incomparable to a Stradivarius worth millions, but this doesn’t mean that the former sounds bad when played.
Although you might be tempted to buy a 50-year-old violin from eBay or Amazon, you can never guarantee the quality of its sound unless you play it yourself. Old violins don’t always sound better than new violins, especially if the newer violin is manufactured with top-quality wood.
Check out this video where older violins are compared to newer:
Will a good old violin beat a good new violin?
In most cases, yes. If the old violin and the new violin are made of the same quality and by the same manufacturer, the old violin will likely sound better.
However, the older violin will only sound better if it was used regularly and stored in a well-controlled environment.
For instance, a 10-year-old DZ Strad won’t sound better than a new DZ Strand if it was stored away in the corner, untouched. It’ll sound on par as the newer violin; perhaps even worse because it wasn’t used in so long.
What is the difference in how old and new violins are made?
Most experts believe that older violins are made with a lot more care and detail than newer violins.
As the violin becomes more and more popular, companies have begun to mass-produce the instrument to maximize their profits. This isn’t to say that mass-produced violins aren’t good, but they generally aren’t as good as handmade violins that take hours to create individually.
For many, the “old violin sound” is attributed to the creator’s workmanship and the wood used to make the violin.
Dr. Barton Samuel Rotberg, performer and violin instructor, states that perhaps old violins produce such unique tonal sounds not only because their age but also because they already had such qualities at birth.
This implies that violins of the previous era were constructed better than new-age violins.
With that said, we, unfortunately, don’t know how violins were made in the 1800s, so modern-day and antiquated craftsmanship is difficult to compare.
What we do know, however, is that old violins are often handmade rather than factory-made. They take more effort, attention, and precision to create.
Even so, today’s technological advancements have made it easier to “perfect” the construction of a violin, giving the instrument an equal standing to old violins in terms of design and assembly.
In most cases, old violins sound better with age, especially if they’re well taken care of and used frequently.
But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the instrument’s overall construction. To quote Dr. Rotberg, neither age nor activity can make a poor instrument excellent.