Sound Doctor

“My violin makes strange noise, what’s wrong?” Unpleasant noise from the violin can caused by flaws of the instrument itself as well as the player’s technical issues. A self-diagnostic is always important. Here you will find some quick fixes.

1. Scratchy sound, part 1. If the violin makes a high pitch sound in addition to the scratchiness, most likely the bow is placed too close to the bridge. If it makes a choking noise (like a dying chicken!) with the pitch constantly bent downward, most likely the bow is placed too close to the fingerboard. Check the amount of rosin dust left on the fingerboard. If it looks very white, then your bow is too close to it.

2. Scratchy sound, part 2. The lack of balance between the bow speed and bow pressure largely contributes to the scratchiness. Pressing the bow with the arm aggressively into the string will doubtlessly make the sound scratchy. If the bow pressure is adequate, but there’s not enough bow speed, the string will not vibrate, hence producing a choking sound.

3. Scratchy sound, part 3. If the scratchiness only appears when playing at the bottom of the bow, then the right small finger isn’t working correctly to counterbalance the weight of the bow.

4. Scratchy sound, part 4. If all of the above cannot help you, have a violin repairman check if the bridge is placed at the correct position, and if the strings are false or simply out of tune.

5. Whistling when hitting on the E-string. This is a notorious problem known to the E-string since steel strings became popular in the 19th century. Certain brand of E-string will help reducing the chances of whistling, such as the Pirastro Gold E, Eudoxa E, and the Goldbrokat E. However, technical issues and playing habit also largly contribute to the whistling. If the whistling appears when playing a rolled chord (such as the beginning of the Saint-Saen violin concerto, 3rd movement), place the bow away from the fingerboard will fix the problem. If the whistling appears when playing an ascending scale or scale-like figure, replace the open-E with the 4th finger will avoid this issue.

6. Grainy sound or “smoker’s voice,” part 1. This could be caused by the lack of left finger pressure as it cannot stop the vibration of the strings effective. Look at the orientation of the fingernails. If the fingernails face upward, that means you’re using the puffy part of the fingers, which is too soft to stop the vibration of the strings. You need to use the left corner of the finger tips, so that the fingernails face you and slightly diagonally. Be careful not to overpressure your finger because it immobilizes the dexterity of the left hand.

7. Grainy sound, part 2. Check if your bow hair is too loose. If the bow hair is too loose, the bow stick will grind on the string and produce a grainy sound.

8. Airy sound. You’re playing too lightly at the upper half of the bow. The upper half is very light. Your right index finger will need to transfer the pressure onto the bow correctly when playing in the upper half to counteract the lightness.

9. Buzzing sound, part 1. Some low end violins have poorly made fingerboard that aren’t shaped correctly. When the string vibrates and hits the fingerboard, it buzzes. Usually the fingerboard on a string instrument is made to be slightly concave. The making of this curvature requires superb craftsmanship. Even the slightest imperfection in the curvature can cause a buzzing sound.

10. Buzzing sound, part 2. Check the condition of the fine tuners on the tailpiece (if you have them). If the washer or the screw on the fine tuner is loose, it will buzz when the string vibrates. If the string pulling mechanism at the bottom part of the fine tuner (usually underneath the tailpiece) is slightly touching the surface of the instrument, it will buzz when the surface vibrates.

11. Buzzing sound, part 3. Check the position of the chin rest. See if the bottom of the chin rest is very close to or touches the tailpiece. The close contact between these two component will cause a buzzing sound when you place your head onto the chin rest and start playing.

12. Buzzing sound, part 4. Check if there’s any open seams between the top soundboard, the rib (side of the violin), and the bottom soundboard. Loose connection between these parts can cause buzzing.

13. Sound suddenly fades out when playing at certain segment of the bow. Check to see if that segment of the bow hair has enough rosin. The commonly ignored segments of the bow hair are the tip and the bottom. If those two areas look brown or black, you need to rosin those areas and use that segment of the bow hair. The bottom 1-2 inch of bow hair is extremely useful, especially in viola playing.

14. Harmonic sounds muddy, unfocused. You need to straighten your finger and use the bottom, softer part of the finger tip. Slightly decrease the amount of contact between the string and the finger, until the harmonic starts to sound clear and focused. Place your bow closer to the bridge will enhance the sound quality of the harmonic.

15. The open strings are constantly out of tune, part 1. The pegs that holds the strings are loose and won’t stay in place. You need to push pegs into the peg box as your turn them and wind the strings because they are held by friction. Some low end violins have poorly made pegs that don’t fit with the holes on the peg box. Minor refit can be done to fix this problem. Alternatively you can have a repairman install the newly designed plastic pegs with planetary gear sets inside. They allow you to turn the peg safely and incrementally without breaking strings. The planetary gear sets also firms holds the strings in place and doesn’t unwind.

16. The open strings are constantly out of tune, part 2. Check if the tail gut (an adjustment cable for the tailpiece) is slipping or on the verge of breaking. A slippery cable constantly decreases the tension of the string and causes them to go out of tune.

17. The open strings are constantly out of tune, part 3. Climate changes can be a common factor. Newly replaced strings can also contribute to this issue, although synthetic (Perlon) strings usually stay in tune after its initial break in period. A failing string that’s slowly unraveling can also be the cause.

18. The instrument is difficult to play intuned, although all the strings have been precisely tuned and the fingering tapes have been set properly. This usually happens on the E-string. The possible causes are: poorly shaped bridge, fingerboard, nut, failing E-string, or the groove on the bridge becomes too deep due to the constant pressure from the string.