Lutherie Myth/Science

There’s an attention getting title, huh? Lifted directly from the late great Sun Ra's Myth Science Arkestra. Actually, this page should probably have a less sensational title, like Lutherie Premises Discussed. The original idea for this section was suggested to me by a reader who wanted to see some of the more questionable lutherie myths scientifically debunked, and there is some of that on this page. Other readers asked for translations of some of the more significant research articles into language which was easier to understand by non-technical readers. So what is mostly here is a collection of widely held beliefs about various aspects of stringed instrument design and construction and short discussions on the current state of research regarding those beliefs. In a few cases there is definitive research which either supports or contradicts a belief, but the vast majority of cases fall into the gray area where there is little or no credible and significant scientific data to either support or refute the premise. This of course does not imply the premise is false, but it doesn’t support its validity either. So this page really contains more discussion on the scientific data surrounding some premises, with just a little bit of debunking thrown in. And along the way I try to introduce some of the basic concepts of sound experimental methodology and why this is important. Eventually I'll include some pages defining some of the terminology used to describe experiments and their design but for now those interested in this topic might want to take a peek at Sid Sytsma's web page The Basics of Experimental Design [A Quick and Non-Technical Guide].

Why is any of this important to the builder of stringed instruments? The most obvious reason is that, given a fixed amount of time and other resources, luthiers may want to avoid expending effort in areas that have been determined to be of no value. And as for those premises for which there is little scientific support one way or the other, maintaining some perspective on the validity of these may be useful in determining just how much effort to put into their implementation.

Research on the physics of musical instruments is a slow process. There is not a lot of funding for this and not a lot of people do it. But important research is being done, and a lot of that is published in the Savart Journal. Savart Journal Those who are interested in the historical research may want to obtain the reprints of important research papers. Some of these appeared in the short-lived Journal of Guitar Acoustics. Most of the research extant was published in the Catgut Acoustical Society Journal but unfortunately it has ceased publication.

The following topics are in no obvious order. I pretty much listed them in (as the telephone automated attendants are fond of saying) the order in which they were received. If you have any thoughts about any of these (interesting research etc.) or if you have ideas for additional topics please let me know.

Last updated: December 08, 2022

Bass and Treble Sides of Instruments

Folks writing about stringed instruments will often use the terms “bass side” and “treble side” to uniquely identify the two sides of an instrument. You'll occasionally see literature which asserts or implies that the bass notes and treble notes each originate from their respective sides of the instrument. Enough is known about the sound producing mechanisms of instruments to demonstrate that this is false. This has some implications for instrument design and begs the question of why some instruments designed around this erroneous notion seem to work so well.

Bass Side Strings are Under Greater Tension

Or is it the treble side strings that are supposed to be under greater tension? I can never remember. No matter. For all practical purposes both are false for modern steel string guitars and similar instruments. But the treble strings are under higher tension for the higher pitched bowed instruments, and they are also generally under higher tension for antique instruments with plain gut strings as well. From a research perspective the good news is that proving any of this to yourself is simply a matter of looking it up.

Older Instruments Sound Better Than Newer Ones

Maybe they do. But if they do it may have less to do with age than with other factors.

The Tone of Instruments Improves the More They are Played

As with observed improvements with age, there may be a strong correlation here. But that does not in and of itself imply that there is a causal relationship, and there are no scientific studies employing rigorous enough experimental methodology to support this either.

Violin Scrolls are based on the Golden Mean Spiral

They are not, but this seems to be a persistent myth anyway. Here's what a Golden Mean Spiral (or Golden Spiral) is, and why it does not describe any classical violin scroll.

Violin Plates are Symmetrically Arched and Thicker in the Center

Construction of the plates of most violin family instruments has them thicker in the center than on the edges, and strives for symmetricalness and uniformity of contours and thickness. This is done because this is the way the Cremonese masters made their plates. Only it turns out they didn't. Which begs the question as to why it took so long to observe this to be so.

Human Perception of String Tension and Compliance in Stringed Musical Instruments

Conventional wisdom has it that the length of string between the bridge saddle and the string anchor has an effect on the tension of the string. It does not, but players may very well perceive an effect on the elasticity of the string. Or not. Also discussed here are effects of breakover angle on perceived string tension, and other beliefs related to string tension and compliance.

Quartersawn Wood is Stiffer than Flatsawn Wood

Lutherie construction relies heavily on quartersawn wood, and a number of references indicate that this is because wood is stiffer when oriented this way. There is surprisingly little data available on this subject but what there is indicates that this is not so, at least along the grain. Cross grain stiffness is another thing altogether, though.

Strings of Stringed Musical Instruments Describe Conical Sections

I've measured a few dozen instruments to date to determine if this is so and although some come close I have yet to find an instrument where this is the case. This raises (or should raise) some questions about what needs to be done to attain optimal string action.

A Listening Evaluation of Discrete vs Integrated Circuit Audio Preamplifiers in Stringed Musical Instruments

Musical instrument lore is full of myths. One of them is that the onboard preamps found in electric guitars and basses sound better if they are made with one kind of electronic component than they do when made with another. In a double blind listening evaluation the sensitive ears of the bass faculty of the Berklee College of Music didn’t identify a preference for either discrete FET or op amp circuitry.

You can find much careful research debunking many component and circuitry “superiority” myths, particularly in the area of so-called high end audio, in the journal of the Audio Engineering Society.

Neck Joint Type and Sustain

Conventional wisdom has it that the construction of neck joint of the instrument influences the sustain of the instrument. Neck through construction (for electric guitars and basses) is considered to offer the best sustain, followed by set neck (i.e. glued on) construction. Bolt-on necks are considered to offer the worst sustain. A recent experiment in this area suggests that this order may be backwards and that folks can't hear the difference in sustain based on neck joint type anyway.

Damping is Bad?

A widely held belief is that vibration damping is a negative quality in the materials used in lutherie. It turns out there are many counter examples, where damping improves tones and playability, particularly in bowed instruments. And it is likely that even if it were true that decreasing material damping in plucked instruments were beneficial, there would be some limit to this benefit and going beyond it would be detrimental to tone. As is the case with other properties, damping is neither good nor bad - it is simply one of the factors that shape the tone of an instrument.

The Distance Between Nut and 12th Fret is Half the Scale Length

It is widely held that this is true, but it is only true under certain conditions and those conditions are frequently not met. These conditions are not met in so many instruments that it is not reasonable to assume that you can just double this distance to determine the scale length of a completed instrument.


• Latest American Lutherie article: "Book Review: The Caldersmith Papers", American Lutherie #148 Table of Contents

• Latest research article: "Quantifying Player-Induced Intonation Errors of the Steel String Acoustic Guitar"


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