Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why f Holes?

f holes, The 'Harrison' Stradivarius circa 1693

image from The National Music Museum
By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

It's pretty hard to miss the very distinctive feature of the violin family's sound holes. The f hole. They are almost like a violin maker's fingerprints. Very distinctive and a true sign of a maker's skill.

 f-holes of a Stradivarius on display in the Royal Palace of Madrid
But why f holes? There are many other sound hole patterns that would probably work as well.

First, the shocker. When violin family instruments were evolving, the letter that we know today as a small italic 'f'' was actually a long, descending or medial s. That type of 's' was used in the beginning and middle of words in print and in cursive in Latin, Italian and other formal scripts.
Medial "s" in the word 'Congress' in the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights
Label of the Brescian master Gasparo da Salo, viola da gamba circa 1570, "Gasparo da  Salo, In Brescia" showing the medial "s"

The word for 'sound' in Latin is 'sonas'. In Italian it is 'suono'. In French it is 'son'. In Spanish it is 'sonido'. At the time that the violin family was evolving, Latin was the formal written language. This is seen by the use of Latin versions of the names of the maker and city on the label of the instrument. I will make a not too stretched conjecture and say that the early violin makers were putting 's' holes, or 'sonas' holes in their instruments. As the letters changed form, our name for the sound holes changed with them.

Viola da Gamba, by Jakob Stainer circa 1671

Whether you believe my conjecture or not, f holes are a defining feature of violin family instruments, differentiating them from the older viol family of instruments. F holes. Violins have them, viols don't.

The "King" cello, made by Andrea Amati circa 1538.

The earliest examples of f holes are on the earliest violin family instruments by Andrea Amati (mid 1500s) and Gasparo da Salo, and Pietro Zanetto ( both from Brescia, mid to late 1500s). These makers used fairly wide f holes, with the Brescians' being very long as well.

f hole, Pietro Zanetto viola, circa 1564
f holes, The 'King Henry IV' violin by Antonio & Girolamo Amati, circa 1595

image from The National Music Museum

f-holes, Andrea Amati violin circa 1560

image from The National Music Museum
Girolamo Amati f-holes circa 1604

image from The National Music Museum
f-holes, Gasparo da Salo viola, circa 1609

image from The National Music Museum

If you look at the f holes of the generations of the Amati family there is a general trend towards a narrower and more elegant f hole. Stradivarius learned his trade in the workshop of Nicola Amati. By the time Stradivarius was working in the Amati shop, the Amati f holes had become very round, flowing and reflective of the curves of the instrument. They had become an integral part of the artistic presentation of the instrument.

f-holes, Nicolo Amati violin, circo 1628

image from The National Music Museum
f-holes, Andrea Guarneri viola circa 1664

image from The National Music Museum
Over the generations, violin makers have experimented with various lengths and widths of f holes, and the positioning of the f holes on the top. Of course, there are limitations. Some of the limitations you would expect, others are more subtle. If the f holes are placed too wide apart, the sound tends to become rough. Too close together and the vibrating part of the top becomes too narrow with a resulting "pinched" sound.  Too wide of an f hole (more than 8mm at the notches for violins) and the violin loses projection. Too narrow (6mm or less for violins) and a luthier might have trouble getting the soundpost in to the instrument. The treble f hole gets banged up quite a bit if the width is too narrow.

Think the f holes don't make much difference? Sing a scale in to the f hole. Feel a certain note vibrate? Now cover up one of the f holes with a soft cloth and repeat the scale singing. Feel and hear a difference? Yes, f holes matter.  

Air is flowing back and forth through the f holes as you play your instrument. How that air flows, how smoothly it flows, and how fast it flows are all characteristics of your instrument's tone.

The most perfect f hole? The 'Messiah' Stradivarius,  circa 1716
The 'Wieniawski' Guarnerius del Gesu Violin, circa 1742
f holes, Maggini violin, Brescia circa 1632

Wondering what the little triangular notches are on the inside and outside of each f hole are for? The inside notches denote an imaginary line across the top that designates the 'stop' or 'stop line'. The bridge usually is placed on the stop line and centered on the instrument. For violins, the distance from the edge to the stop has been standardized at 195mm. However(!), many great instruments have shorter or longer stops. This doesn't make them "wrong". Just different. A good violin maker/repairer with a good set of ears can help you determine the best place for the bridge if the stop is not 195mm.
And the outside notches? Umm, I dunno! Artistic balance?
Cellist Julia Bruskin, Vuillaume Cello, circa 1849
The 'Wieniawski' Guarnerius del Gesu Violin, circa 1

f holes, Nicola Bergonzi viola, Cremona, circa 1781

image from The National Music Museum

Need even more f hole trivia? You can often tell whether a maker was right handed or left handed by the cut of the f holes. The bass f hole is usually neater with a right handed maker, the treble f hole is neater with a left handed maker. An excellent example of this comes to us from brothers Matteo Goffriller (probably right handed) and Francesco Goffriller (probably left handed). I once saw a viola they made together and I'm almost certain each brother cut one f hole. Their better one.
Francesco Goffiller violin, circa 1726
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  1. This is a wonderful article. Thank you for the information!

  2. I love these articles! Thank you!

  3. >There are many other sound hole patterns that would probably work as well.

    I wonder if there has ever been a scientific study about the optimal shape for an F-hole. I suppose they have to be catered to the instrument, as well.

  4. Notice how much they look like integrals?

    1. That was the very first thing that I noticed - - well said!

  5. Fantastic article! Thank you.

  6. I still don't see why they can't be a different shape. I'm a typographer, and there are hundreds of styles for each letter. Or for that matter, why not G shapes, X shapes, R shapes for the holes? (Nevermind R -- something would have to hold the center piece in place.)

    1. Good question.
      I think they are f shaped to fit with the C bout so that the upper openings are smaller than the lower ones, as the upper part of the violin is smaller, the are at the same distance as the bridge width.
      The lower openings are larger in order to pass more sound from the lower part of the violin which is larger.
      The lower openings are more far apart than the upper ones,and approaching the blocks, just to let more area of the spruce vibrate.

  7. It would seem that the shape has evolved to its present, optimal form:

  8. Here is an article about the shapes of the holes:

  9. I liked this post, it very well described the mechanics. A scientific study was sponge but MIT, but it is controversial because it writes off the attempts by the early makers to improve design as incremental mistakes.

  10. This was a wonderful article.
    It was not only informative but also fun to read.
    Thank you for writing it.

  11. Which side, left and right, is the treble and bass f hole?

    1. As you hold the violin with the top (belly) facing you and the scroll/pegs away from you, the treble f hold is near the E string on the right side of the violin, the bass f hole is near the G string on the left of the violin.