Any acoustic stringed instrument requires a hole (a sound-hole) to enable the sound to escape from its hollow chamber or ‘body’. One distinguishing factor of a modern bowed stringed instrument (as compared to their plucked counterpart such as the guitar) is not only the position, but also the peculiar shape of the sound-holes. A modern violin (and for that matter, the viola, cello and double-bass) has two sound-holes on its ‘belly’ on either side of the bridge, and these are called f-holes as they resemble a cursive ‘f’-shape and its mirror image.
But why this shape in particular? I had put it down to a flamboyant calling-card signature of some luthier down the line, and that others copied him after that. Some believed that it was in homage to the first significant client of the Amati family, Francis I of France. This theory is debunked, as the f-hole predates the appearance of the Amati family in instrument design.
On visiting museums in England and elsewhere where vintage instruments were on display, and looking at paintings where these instruments are featured, it became clear that the concept of the f-hole emerged around the 15th century. Prior to this, viols and other early stringed instruments have bilateral sound-holes shaped like a ‘C’.
By the time the purported ‘inventor’ of the modern violin Andrea Amati (1505-1577) began making instruments in Cremona Italy sometime after 1520, the f-hole was de rigeur.
Cremona in the 1500s was an interesting place, a confluence of mathematicians, alchemists, and importantly Latin, Hebrew and Arabic scholars beginning to rediscover the wisdom of ancient Greece with its knowledge of music, geometry and proportion.
So the f-hole may be a design born from Renaissance thinking. Golden measures or ideals are a very important part of this thinking. The f-hole can be regarded as two opposing (ie one clockwise and the other anti-clockwise) Fibonacci or ‘golden’ spirals. A Fibonacci spiral is a logarithmic spiral whose growth factor is dependent upon a ‘golden’ ratio. These spirals exist everywhere in nature, from the design of our inner ear (the cochlea) to the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem (phyllotaxis), to the arms of spiral galaxies in the cosmos. This design influences the shape of the violin scroll at its upper end as well.
Some more (literally) food for thought has been provided in the latest issue of The Strad magazine by instrument restorer Andrew Dipper. Although the idea has been around for some time, Dipper elaborates upon it at length in this issue. He describes the f-hole in one of the earliest Amati instrument (the ‘King’ cello of Charles IX of France) as a spheroid that has essentially been opened out by a helical incision from the opposing ‘north’ and ‘south’ poles. In simpler terms, a sphere flattened out by such a helical incision is the shape of the f-hole. Dipper reveals that it was ‘playing with food’ ie a peeling an orange that led him to think along these lines. Could the luthiers of the 1500s also similarly have arrived at this idea?
The very word ‘tangerine’ betrays the origin of the fruit into Europe from Tangier, the seaport in Morocco on the Strait of Gibraltar. The orange begins to make an appearance into Europe around the 15th century, brought in by Italian and Portuguese merchants into the Mediterranean. Oranges were highly prized luxury items and status symbols, and conveyed social distinction and wealth in contemporary portraits. It is tempting to speculate that a luthier from the late 1400s or early 1500s might have been peeling an orange imported from Morocco, and hit upon this concept.
Dipper makes the case that “in terms of violin acoustics the knowledge of the link between f-hole and sphere is rather useful, since matching the f-hole area to the volume of the sound box is an important part of the design process.” He also argues that it might be the circumference of the f-hole shape rather than its area that could influence the power of the sound of the violin, which is what the later Cremonese luthiers like Antonio Stradivari began to do by adjusting the area of the polar circles of the f-holes to increase the overall circumference.
The idea of the sphere as a template for sound dissemination from a musical instrument might have been a very literal and practical application of the concept of the ‘music of the spheres’ or ‘musica universalis’ from antiquity. Something to think about the next time you are peeling an orange!
(An edited version of this article was published on 10 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)