First principles of violin making: Music of the Spheres

fig 2 Monochord (1618) section horiz

In an age of little numeracy or literacy, how did luthiers settle on the proportions of stringed instruments, with hardly any variation in their basic design? François Denis shows how the principles of the classical Greeks – notably Pythagoras – informed their thinking

On the face of it, Pythagorean philosophy may not seem to have any connection with violin making, but its principles shed light on various approaches to measurement that are commonly believed to have originated from the makers’ trial and error. This article will show how Pythagorean systems of measurement, connecting lengths with musical intervals, informed the design of early stringed instruments. It also attests to the importance of this way of thinking about measurement, a way that has for so long been buried in the past. According to tradition, the first person to identify the correlation between musical harmony and whole numbers was the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. It is said that he was passing a blacksmith’s forge one day, and noticed how all the smith’s hammers made different sounds when striking the anvil. Using this as a starting point, he came up with the idea that sound could be connected to whole numbers. Furthermore, it was also the Greeks who determined the link between arithmetic and ideas of beauty, grounding the notion that numbers can be used to explain the laws of nature, on both a micro and a macro level.

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