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Violin Evolution

October 31, 2014

Nature, through evolutionary processes, has been changing and "forking" the body plans of organisms since the emergence, about 3.5 billion years ago, of life on Earth. Everywhere there's an ecological niche, nature tries to fill it, sometimes with unusual organisms, such as those discovered in the depths of the sea (see drawing).

Humpback anglerfish (Melanocetus johnsonii)

The Humpback anglerfish (Melanocetus johnsonii), a species of the aptly named black seadevil (Melanocetidae).

This fish is found at sea depths of up to 6,600 feet (2 kilometers).

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

It's possible that the evolution of the human hand was affected by our tool use, starting with the primitive tools we used in the Lower Paleolithic, 2.5 million years ago.[1-2] Our present toolmaking has been more refined, and we've adapted the tools to better serve us, rather than the other way around. Tools have evolved to better fulfill their purpose. Hand tools now have curved handles, and they are made from lightweight materials. The battery-powered, electric screwdriver has likely saved many a craftsman from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Many years ago, I discovered the niche of classical music being played on instruments of the same period at which the music was composed. Most of these compositions are now played on modern instruments; but, to hear them as their composers did, they need to be played on the instruments of the composer's era. My transient obsession started with versions of Handel's "Water Music," and it advanced to Medieval music. Perhaps this was subconsciously triggered by my watching the The Adventures of Robin Hood television series as a young child.

George Frideric Handel on a 1985 German postage stamp

George Frideric Handel as he appears on a 1985 German postage stamp.

1985 was the 300th anniversary of Handel's birth, and the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.

I recommend the recordings of the Academy of Ancient Music for those interested in early music.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)[3-4)]

Most people are familiar with such early instruments as the harpsichord, and the lute, an early form of the guitar; but, how many have heard a sackbut? The sackbut is an early form of the trombone, common in both Renaissance music and Baroque music. It's similar to the trombone, since it's a brass horn with a telescopic slide, but today's trombone has evolved improvements, such as a larger bore and an extended bell, both of which increase loudness, and a tuning slide.

It's obvious that stringed instruments evolved in size in order to access different parts of the audio frequency spectrum; i.e., the large double bass is used to play the very low frequency notes, down to about 31 Hz. There's a wide range of size of instruments in the violin family, but within members of the family, itself, there was an evolution of instrument shape. A study of the morphological evolution of the violin has recently been published as an open access article in PLoS ONE.[5-6]

The first violins were made in 16th century Italy, and their design changed to improve their acoustical properties and playability. There was likely considerable input from musicians, themselves, as to what an ideal instrument should be, and there are some details of the violin shape that relate merely to aesthetics and not to sound quality. Such aesthetic elements were more likely to change as historical tastes changed. An interesting object of study would be how luthiers, as violin-makers are called, influenced each other.[5-6]

Dan Chitwood, a plant biologist, is an assistant member of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri, where he does research on plant morphology; specifically, the study of leaf shape, its relation to plant viability, and how it has evolved to allow plants to adapt to certain environments. One example of this is a desert-adapted tomato species that can survive with little water because of its particular leaf architecture. Chitwood is also a viola player, so he applied his morphological tools to the evolution of violin shape.[6]

Stradavarius violin

A Stadivarius violin, restored to playable condition, at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. (Portion of a photograph by Larry Jacobsen, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Says Chitwood,
"There are many parallels between leaves and violins... Both have beautiful shapes that are potentially functional, change over time, or result from mimicry. Shape is information that can tell us a story. Just as evolutionary changes in leaf shape inform us about mechanisms that ultimately determine plant morphology, the analysis of cultural innovations, such as violins, gives us a glimpse into the historical forces shaping our lives and creativity."[6]

Chitwood built a dataset of the shape of more than 9,000 violins, built over the course of 400 years, from auction house images.[5-6] Among the luthiers represented were Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, and Antonio Stradivari. There were also luthiers who copied Stradivari. These were Nicolas Lupot, Vincenzo Panormo, and Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.[6]

Chitwood's linear discriminant analysis corroborated historical accounts of who copied whom. The analysis also demonstrated that four discrete shapes predominated in most instruments and the widespread imitation and the transmission of design (see figure).[5] Says Chitwood, “This is a fantastic example of how advances in one field can help advance a seemingly unrelated field."[6]

Thin plate splines of major violin clusters

Thin plate splines of major violin clusters. The differences have been amplified by a factor of four for better visualization. (Fig. 7 of ref. 5.)[5)]


  1. Matthew W. Tocheri, Caley M. Orr, Marc C. Jacofsky, and Mary W. Marzke, "The Evolutionary History of the Hominin Hand since the Last Common Ancestor of Pan and Homo," Journal of Anatomy, vol. 212, no. 4 (April, 2008), pp. 544-562. A PDF file is available here.
  2. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, "The Co-Evolution of Humans and our Tools," Irving Wladawsky-Berger Blog, March 7, 2011.
  3. Academy Of Ancient Music Web Site.
  4. 1 - Hour of Early Middle Ages Music, YouTube Video.
  5. Daniel H. Chitwood, "Imitation, Genetic Lineages, and Time Influenced the Morphological Evolution of the Violin," PLoS ONE, vol. 9, no. 10 (October 8, 2014), Document No. e109229, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109229. This is an Open Access Publication with a PDF file available here.
  6. Plant scientist discovers basis of evolution in violins, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center Press Release, October 8, 2014.

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