Why Violins Have F‑Holes: The Science & History of a Remarkable Renaissance Design

Before elec­tron­ic ampli­fi­ca­tion, instru­ment mak­ers and musi­cians had to find new­er and bet­ter ways to make them­selves heard among ensem­bles and orches­tras and above the din of crowds. Many of the acoustic instru­ments we’re famil­iar with today—guitars, cel­los, vio­las, etc.—are the result of hun­dreds of years of exper­i­men­ta­tion into solv­ing just that prob­lem. These hol­low wood­en res­o­nance cham­bers ampli­fy the sound of the strings, but that sound must escape, hence the cir­cu­lar sound hole under the strings of an acoustic gui­tar and the f‑holes on either side of a vio­lin.

I’ve often won­dered about this par­tic­u­lar shape and assumed it was sim­ply an affect­ed holdover from the Renais­sance. While it’s true f‑holes date from the Renais­sance, they are much more than orna­men­tal; their design—whether arrived at by acci­dent or by con­scious intent—has had remark­able stay­ing pow­er for very good rea­son.

As acousti­cian Nicholas Makris and his col­leagues at MIT recent­ly announced in a study pub­lished by the Roy­al Soci­ety, a vio­lin’s f‑holes serve as the per­fect means of deliv­er­ing its pow­er­ful acoustic sound. F‑holes have “twice the son­ic pow­er,” The Econ­o­mist reports, “of the cir­cu­lar holes of the fithele” (the vio­lin’s 10th cen­tu­ry ances­tor and ori­gin of the word “fid­dle”).

The evo­lu­tion­ary path of this ele­gant innovation—Clive Thomp­son at Boing Boing demon­strates with a col­or-cod­ed chart—takes us from those orig­i­nal round holes, to a half-moon, then to var­i­ous­ly-elab­o­rat­ed c‑shapes, and final­ly to the f‑hole. That slow his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment casts doubt on the the­o­ry in the above video, which argues that the 16th-cen­tu­ry Amati fam­i­ly of vio­lin mak­ers arrived at the shape by peel­ing a clemen­tine, per­haps, and plac­ing flat the sur­face area of the sphere. But it’s an intrigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty nonethe­less.


Instead, through an “analy­sis of 470 instru­ments… made between 1560 and 1750,” Makris, his co-authors, and vio­lin mak­er Roman Bar­nas dis­cov­ered, writes The Econ­o­mist, that the “change was gradual—and con­sis­tent.” As in biol­o­gy, so in instru­ment design: the f‑holes arose from “nat­ur­al muta­tion,” writes Jen­nifer Chu at MIT News, “or in this case, crafts­man­ship error.” Mak­ers inevitably cre­at­ed imper­fect copies of oth­er instru­ments. Once vio­lin mak­ers like the famed Amati, Stradi­vari, and Guarneri fam­i­lies arrived at the f‑hole, how­ev­er, they found they had a supe­ri­or shape, and “they def­i­nite­ly knew what was a bet­ter instru­ment to repli­cate,” says Makris. Whether or not those mas­ter crafts­men under­stood the math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples of the f‑hole, we can­not say.

What Makris and his team found is a rela­tion­ship between “the lin­ear pro­por­tion­al­i­ty of con­duc­tance” and “sound hole perime­ter length.” In oth­er words, the more elon­gat­ed the sound hole, the more sound can escape from the vio­lin. “What’s more,” Chu adds, “an elon­gat­ed sound hole takes up lit­tle space on the vio­lin, while still pro­duc­ing a full sound—a design that the researchers found to be more pow­er-effi­cient” than pre­vi­ous sound holes. “Only at the very end of the peri­od” between the 16th and the 18th cen­turies, The Econ­o­mist writes, “might a delib­er­ate change have been made” to vio­lin design, “as the holes sud­den­ly get longer.” But it appears that at this point, the evo­lu­tion of the vio­lin had arrived at an “opti­mal result.” Attempts in the 19th cen­tu­ry to “fid­dle fur­ther with the f‑holes’ designs actu­al­ly served to make things worse, and did not endure.”

To read the math­e­mat­i­cal demon­stra­tions of the f‑hole’s supe­ri­or “con­duc­tance,” see Makris and his co-authors’ pub­lished paper here. And to see how a con­tem­po­rary vio­lin mak­er cuts the instru­men­t’s f‑holes, see a care­ful demon­stra­tion in the video above, and learn more about the art and sci­ence of vio­lin-mak­ing here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Luthi­er Birth a Cel­lo in This Hyp­not­ic Doc­u­men­tary

The Art and Sci­ence of Vio­lin Mak­ing

Why You Can Nev­er Tune a Piano

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (18) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (18)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Ann Marie says:

    Would­n’t the C shape be eas­i­er to break com­pared to the F?

  • jonturner says:

    Indeed, a most curi­ous evo­lu­tion. The f‑hole, in addi­tion to pro­vid­ing a port for the pro­jec­tion of sound, also allows for a freer vibra­tion and response of the top and bridge assem­bly. Too “loose” and tone is sac­ri­ficed for mere vol­ume with a “flab­by” low end. Too “tight” and the instru­ment feels sti­fled with a lack of bright­ness and sub­stan­tial loss of vol­ume. Of course, all this is bal­anced against a hun­dred oth­er vari­ables: top thick­ness grad­u­a­tion, the set­ting of the sound­post which com­mu­ni­cates vibra­tion to the back, the thick­ness and grad­u­a­tion of the back, string ten­sion, var­nish, wood spe­cif­ic den­si­ty and stiff­ness, etc. etc. etc.

    Mak­ing a vio­lin is a won­der­ful trip down a bot­tom­less rathole of ideas to try and elu­sive rewards. As one who builds, I rec­om­mend it most high­ly. :)

  • ha says:

    “Attempts in the 19th cen­tu­ry to ‘fid­dle fur­ther with the f‑holes’ designs actu­al­ly served to make things worse, and did not endure.”

  • chuck says:

    I’ve been fond of Savart-style vio­lins for ease of con­struc­tion, as well as prov­ing them­selves just as capa­ble in sound pro­duc­tion and pro­jec­tion as more “stan­dard” vio­lins. The Savart vio­lin is trape­zoidal, with lit­tle sound­board cur­va­ture and two long, nar­row slots serv­ing as sound­holes, rather than f‑holes. Purists will, of course, turn their noses up at such abom­i­na­tions on sight.

  • Oscar Blanco says:

    I was won­der­ing.
    Can “f” holes also work on loud­speak­ers? For instance, sub woofers which have that lat­er­al “o” shaped hole on the side.

  • Tiziano Dall'Omo says:

    Dear Sirs, the pro­to describ­ing the shape of f‑holes among the cen­turies maybe it is not acci­rate. We have an a fres­co dat­ed 1239 in Bas­sano del Grap­pa, (VI) Italy, show­ing a por­trait of a court play­er hold­ing a viel­la with the f‑holes per­fect­ly designed. I can attach the pic­ture of this once I get a valid email address. thank you

  • Nan McKinley says:

    Can you post some pho­tos of the 19th cen­tu­ry ver­sions that did­n’t help? Thanks!

  • Ronald Veerman says:

    Also, think of it from a wood­work­er’s — or, if you will, indus­tri­al design­er’s — per­spec­tive. Holes in a spruce sound­board will leave edges of wood exposed and unsup­port­ed. These areas will be vul­ner­a­ble because if the wood devel­ops ten­sions over time (i.e. shrink­age), an unsup­port­ed edge is the spot where cracks are liable to start off, through the board along the grain. Also, these edges will nat­u­ral­ly dry out faster than the rest of the board, caus­ing extra shrink­age around the hole. This is one rea­son why, in more sophis­ti­cat­ed instru­ments, the edges of round sound­holes are usu­al­ly bound with some sort of pur­fling or inlay — not just for dec­o­ra­tion, but to keep, so to speak, the sound­hole ‘togeth­er’.
    This is also one of the rea­sons you would­n’t want your C‑hole — if that is your next choice of shape — to end in sharp cor­ners (sup­posed ele­gance being anoth­er). It’s a sure bet that, over time, a crack will devel­op right there. It will be much safer to cut the end­ing in the shape of a soft curve, espe­cial­ly when it spi­ral­ly winds back into its own curl. Hence the devel­op­ment of the ‘dots’ on the points of the C‑hole.
    Then why change the C‑hole to an f‑shape? Again, risk of dam­age: the ‘penin­su­la’ inside the C‑hole will be rel­a­tive­ly weak. More impor­tant­ly, the C‑shape, by ‘sur­round­ing’ the bridge, cuts off a rel­a­tive­ly large area of the sound board from trans­mit­ting vibra­tion. The first solu­tion to that prob­lem would have been to flip them over (see the six­teenth / sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry instru­ment in above illus­tra­tion), but that requires a wider waist. In organ­is­ing space, espe­cial­ly on the small box that is the vio­lin, the f‑hole — gen­tly fol­low­ing the out­er curve of the sound­board — is sim­ply the bet­ter solu­tion. (Why a vio­lin would have to be so nar­row at the waist is, of course, anoth­er ques­tion…)

  • Rex Westen says:

    I am game, Ronald. Tell us more about the nar­row waist of the vio­lin.

    I would think it would be nec­es­sary with the fair­ly low bridge of Baroque instru­ments in order to allow clean bow access to the strings. What oth­er ideas do you have?


  • pepe says:

    Just like the cut­away on a mod­ern gui­tar.

  • Ana de la Parra says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion.…!!!! Thanks

  • allen johnson says:

    While it does­n’t change the sto­ry much, the idea of a “sound­hole” is in itself a mis­con­cep­tion. The port­ing of the body is nec­es­sary to keep the air vol­ume in a body from imped­ing the vibra­tions of the instru­men­t’s top. The entire top vibrates and cre­ates the air move­ment that is the sound. The reflect­ed vibra­tions make a dif­fer­ence, but the sound does­n’t real­ly come from inside the instru­ment. All of the con­struc­tion tech­niques are designed to opti­mize and con­trol how the top vibrates to give the best tone and vol­ume. The vent size and shape help focus the air resis­tance inside.

  • Victor Martin says:

    The author Total­ly missed one of the main things about F‑holes and it has noth­ing to do with sound com­ing out, it has to do with the free­ing of the vibra­tion of the top, which is dri­ven by the bridge, which sits DIRECTLY BETWEEN the f‑holes.
    They pro­vide a more focused area of top vibra­tion which improves vol­ume and expres­sion.

  • Piers Snell says:

    Vic­tor Mar­tin hits the nail on the head… and the per­spec­tive from Ronald Veer­man was very eye-open­ing to me.

    Real­ly, this research is absolute­ly woe­ful.

    A Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy team sim­ply did­n’t realise that the vio­lin is not a wind instru­ment? I thought MIT had a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing some of the best brains in the world.

    The sound does­n’t come out of the holes, you fools! The *sec­ond* obvi­ous test for look­ing into how the vio­lin pro­duces sound would have been to close the holes with acoustic damp­ing and see if it silences the instru­ment. (Spoil­er alert; it does­n’t.)

    The *first* obvi­ous thing to research would be to see if there were any oth­ers who have worked on the same prob­lem before you. A quick skim through “The Vio­lin Explained — com­po­nents, mech­a­nism and sound” writ­ten by Sir James Bea­ment, pub­lished by Claren­don Press in 1997 would have been a good start, and then you would”t have wast­ed all that time and effort com­ing up with a wild­ly fool­ish answer.

  • HyukJae Henry Yoo says:

    A bit late on this post, but wor­thy I believe… the world-class vio­lin luthi­er Sam Zyg­muntow­icz has done an exten­sive research on how the shape of the vio­lin affects the sound, feed­ing Stradi­var­ius and Guarneri vio­lins through the MRI machine and using oth­er sci­en­tif­ic mea­sure­ments and 3D sim­u­la­tions, doc­u­ment­ed and pub­lished in his research Strad3D. https://strad3d.org/ He specif­i­cal­ly address­es the F‑hole in the research. You can SEE how the sound is pro­duced!

  • daniel says:

    The holes you are prob­a­bly refer­ring to are called bass reflex, which are meant to con­trol pres­sure lev­els inside the closed cab­i­net, due to the speak­er’s own move­ment. Oth­er­wise, the pres­sure in the cab­i­net would exert force on the loud­speak­er and change its response.

    Oth­er­wise, loud­speak­ers are dri­ven by ampli­fiers which take care of the desired vol­ume with­out hav­ing to resort to pas­sive means like sound­box­es.

  • Chris says:

    Isn’t it all a bit Euro­cen­tric though? The old fash­ioned his­to­ry books make every­thing look as if it orig­i­nat­ed in the West and yet there was a time when the East was more advanced in many areas. The Renais­sance owed a lot to Ara­bic cul­tures and with­out a doubt used a lot of Ara­bic instru­ments. Cer­tain­ly the flam­ing sword of Islam sound holes as seen on vio­la de amores etc. look more like f‑holes. Bowed strings did not start in the west but orig­i­nat­ed with nomadic horse peo­ple (hence the horse­hair), by all accounts in Mon­go­lia. I see the mod­ern Morin Khur has f‑holes. Maybe it would be inter­est­ing to find and ancient ver­sion.

  • William Burdis says:

    Vio­lin. not and Ehur, not an Oud. Vio­lin. An instru­ment despite the his­to­ry of it’s ances­tors was built and improved main­ly in Europe. Some in Eng­land but…Europe.
    No-one is dis­put­ing the ori­gins of alge­bra, bows and the rich his­to­ries there­in.
    But they are not talk­ing about it because it has lit­tle if any rel­e­vance to the ‘Case in Point’.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.