Benjamin Hebbert was back at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on 22 March 2014. With National Science and Engineering Week inspiring lectures in museum’s and galleries throughout the country, this provided the challenge of talking to completely different audiences with different agendas in mind.
The violin provides countless scientific angles to talk about, ranging from understanding it’s acoustics right the way through to the forensic techniques that help us identify a genuine violin from a forgery. However, for this audience and context I decided to talk instead about how the design of the violin evolved in a period without the same kind of scientific enquiry that we enjoy today, and to discuss why this design has continued to be successful over half a millennium without being significantly challenged by ideas that have come from scientific progress.
With an engineering theme in mind, the lecture focussed on the empirical knowledge that fed into the design of the violin: The combination of hard and soft woods used to mae the body, that give a similar acoustical effect to a modern Hi-Fi, yet have their origins at least 1000 years before amongst musical instruments excavated from Roman-controlled Egypt. In exploring its design, the lecture explained how the attraction of the violin comes in its inbuilt imperfections. Maybe unwittingly, this makes the instrument (and the viola and cello) map the characteristics of the human voice. The elements of design that outwardly make it absurd ultimately contribute to its unique playing qualities because of this.
Ultimately any lecture of this nature has to ask the question, can science allow us to do better. For me, the answer remains that I’m not sure what Beethoven would think if we tried.