Why Violins Have F‑Holes: The Science & History of the 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 focused on 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 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2016.

Relat­ed Con­tent:


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

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

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 (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Ludovít Bari says:

    Každý tvar nástro­je dovolu­je vytvořit v něm adekvát­ní zvukové otvory,aby tim neporušil estet­ický vzh­led nástro­je a jeho funkci.

  • Kyle Oracion says:

    It was cool hear­ing and read­ing about the his­to­ry of instru­ments. As a gui­tar play­er its cool see­ing and read­ing about all the sim­i­lar­i­ties they have togeth­er when it comes to the mak­ing of it.

  • Andrew Jeon says:

    I nev­er real­ly thought about how the F holes and how they could change the sound of the instru­ment. It was very inter­est­ing to learn about the evo­lu­tion of the f holes and how it start­ed off as a sim­ple cir­cle. This arti­cle wants to me exper­i­ment with F holes and play instru­ments with cir­cu­lar holes instead of the nor­mal f holes and com­pare them to how they sound.

  • andrew says:

    ok bud­dy

  • andrew says:

    go and prac­tice

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.