THE PHOTO OF THE VIOLIN ABOVE IS OF THE "ALARD" GUARNERI DEL JESU
My treatise on The True Art of Making Musical Instruments—A Practical Guide to the Hidden Craft of Enhancing Sound is now published and available on Amazon.com. Here is the link for that page.
There has never been a book written that covers the craft of enhancing sound until now. Indeed, most books written about sound are based on the physics of sound. In the 46 years I have been making musical instruments, I have never found it either necessary or useful to know anything about the physics of sound. My reason for this total disregard for such knowledge is that ALL the greatest musical instrument makers from 1400 to 1840 including Stradivari, Guarneri del Jesu, Amati, Ruckers, de Zentis, Blanchet, Taskin, Cristofori, Stein, Hubert, Walther, Graf, Schnitger knew nothing about the physics of sound. That is because all such knowledge wasn’t discovered yet. What these makers knew was vastly more important and valuable, but unfortunately was secreted away only in their instruments.
My attitude when I began making musical instruments in 1972 was to restrict myself to only that knowledge available to those great musical instrument makers. That body of knowledge, which was acquired over a period of 350 years, had as its foundations the teachings of Pythagoras. Based on his ideas of the musical ratios, makers of all kinds instruments developed the craft of enhancing the sounds of their materials to make their instruments sound as beautiful and as resonant as possible. Then, towards the end of the 18th century, with the development of modern scientific methods and attitudes, all that lovingly acquired ancient Pythagorean based knowledge was put aside and immediately forgotten. Even Conrad Graf in the beginning of the 19th century had to relearn that body of knowledge to produce the sounds of his pianos. But little of what Graf had learned was acquired by apprentices in his workshop. Recovering all that lost knowledge was my goal.
This treatise is meant to preserve this knowledge of how the greatest instrument makers in history thought about sound and how to enhance it. As soon as the book is published I will anounce that here.
ACOUSTICAL TECHNOLOGY TRAINING
If You Are Young And Passionate About Making Musical Instruments and want to understand how the ancient violin, harpsichord, and fortepiano makers understood and thought about the craft of making sound, the following Will Merit Your Close Attention.
I hold that what I do acoustically, to make my instruments to sound as they do, can be done by anyone willing to learn the techniques and attitudes necessary to apply this Acoustical Technology masterfully. This offer is open to anyone interested in learning this sophisticated yet simple way of realizing a high degree of enhancement in the sound of any musical instrument. Were this not true, my instruments would turn out sounding haphazard like everyone else's, which they don't. My instruments always sound as I intend them to sound because everything I do to make a sound is based exclusively on the Principles of Acoustics that I have deduced from listening to how the antique instruments sound. The ability to apply these Principles of Acoustics is not based so much on the talent but instead on the character of the person applying them. Whomever I undertake to teach the Art and Science of Acoustical Enhancement must be able to successfully apply my acoustical technology to their instruments once they have completed my course of instruction.
The Background and Approachfor How My Acoustical Technology Developed
When I began building harpsichords, this business was, as it still is, dominated by the idea that if you make an exact physical copy of an antique harpsichord or violin (the model having been selected because its musical and acoustical properties were generally accepted as being musically superior), then the resulting instrument should sound exactly like the original would have sounded.
Everyone seemed to think that this was a good idea. Yet, when the results of such instrument making were compared to the original instruments, the antiques sounded so much better as to make the copies of them appear acoustically inept, musically incompetent and on the whole, aesthetically mediocre. Apparently, this vast discrepancy didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. A few, not instrument makers but players, knew the difference but still had to play on the new instruments. The reason why this chasm failed to dampen almost everyone’s enthusiasm is that they accepted the conventional wisdom.
That conventional wisdom was that antique instruments were thought to sound better because they are old. Modern instruments were and still are generally acknowledged by connoisseurs to be radically inferior to the antiques…like a faded photograph compared to the real thing. Yet, so many of the ancient instruments are clearly better sounding in every possible way than modern made instruments. The easiest answer as to why is that the antique instruments have had 200 years of aging to improve their sound.
Here, the aging metaphor was being misappropriated, even by famous musicians, from the wine making industry. It is an “explanation of convenience” which seems, as far as I can tell, to have absolved musical instrument makers since the 19th century of the obligation to do anything more than making their instruments by first taking careful measurements of a famous antique “master” instrument and then reproducing those measurements using as similar materials as possible to the original instrument. When the sounds of their instruments didn’t turn out as good as the originals, they rested on the hope, no, the expectation that in 200 years their instruments were going to somehow magically sound absolutely fabulous, like the great antiques sound today. I actually heard this being spouted by several harpsichord makers and violin makers. One even said: “I make as exact a copy of the original as I can. If it doesn’t turn out (sounding as good), it is not my fault.”
This arrogant attitude presumes that the best makers of previous centuries were content with making an instrument, just like instrument makers do today, in the hopes that it would show over time to improve with age until it became a great sounding instrument. What astonished me at the time is how many of my colleagues swallowed this way of thinking hook, line, and sinker. At the time, I instinctively rejected this notion but had no evidence to substantiate my radical view.
Fortunately, a visit to the Russell collection in Edinburgh in 1972 provided me with ample evidence that this notion was false. There, where harpsichords from every period and country could be heard and played, is also where that conventional “wisdom” may be observed to be glaringly wrong. If age is what made a musical instrument good, then instruments made in 1585, clearly, should be that much better sounding than instruments made in 1668…after all, they had over 80 years more to improve…but they are not better! The harpsichord made in 1720 should, by that false reasoning, be better than the one made in 1769. But it is not! Logically, any exception to that notion meant to me that the notion was totally false. That has proved to be the case. And if this notion is totally false, then it makes thinking that it is true to be exceedingly arrogant, because it assumes, without any proof, that the best ancient makers were as clueless and ignorant as most instrument makers since the 18th century.
My visit to the Russell collection revealed to me the following fundamental truth; makers who built the best sounding instruments did so because they knew exactly what they were doing and did everything in their power to make their instruments to sound as wonderful as possible right from the moment the instrument was made. It was nothing magical, nothing having to do with the aging process of wood, no "mini iceage", no "holy" varnish, no mystical intuitive talent of some blessed makers that they were able to build instrument after instrument of exceedingly high quality. Those makers who built the best sounding instruments did so because they mastered acoustics. It is as simple as that.
The consequence of this realization for me was that I understood that there was a body of knowledge and techniques (what I now call Acoustical Technology) which was being applied by those great makers, and which, for whatever reason, was lost. Indeed, that lost knowledge had to be something so ordinary that anyone back then could apply it with more or less success, and that it would have been taken for granted and eventually disappeared; as all that we take for granted wanes and eventually disappears in our cultural "march to progress". This Acoustical Technology was the “common denominator” connecting all musical instrument-making for 400 years prior to 1800…including the making of violins, lutes, guitars, brass and woodwind instruments, harpsichords, organs, clavichords, and pianos. Indeed, those makers whose instruments we most revere today, like Ruckers, Stradivari, Guarneri, Blanchet, Taskin, Cristofori, Amati, Schnitger, Stein, and Graf, were merely the most clever in figuring out and applying what they learned to the making of their instruments. Their less clever associates and colleagues built merely good instruments. Important about this realization is that it also meant that that body of knowledge was learnable. And, it meant that anyone who bothered to look for it in a focused, unsentimental, and mindful manner would have some success in recovering that knowledge.
So the question I forced myself to answer was: What exactly were the makers of the great musical instruments of the past doing to make their instruments sound so good? Answering this question as completely as possible, thus far, has taken me 42 years and has required making more than 500 instruments of all kinds, mostly keyboard and bowed stringed instruments. The method I have used for my investigations was not unlike techniques used in Forensic Science.
Forensic Science takes fragments of carefully collected evidence, then analyzes that evidence in order to reconstruct the answers to who did what and when, how they did it, and, in some cases, why. Anyone who studies the antique instruments notices the obvious stuff like layout, materials, dimensions, etc. A forensic science type approach goes several steps further. With this approach one notices, as in hand writing analysis, the human traces of workmanship, aesthetic decisions, and methodologies, and seeks thereby to understand the behavior of the ancient makers. My approach added to these yet one more dimension. It began with one observation about human nature. That is, everything we do is an answer to a question of some kind. Further, every question we pose, either explicitly, implicitly, or covertly, either verbally or nonverbally, arises from an attitude we possess. By starting with that observation, I began with the simplest pieces of evidence to analyze and reconstruct the questions behind that evidence and then to intuit the attitudes that are the cause behind the questions.
From simple observations, working backward, it is possible to deduce the attitudes of those ancient makers. Then, working forwards, from that point, by adopting their attitudes, it is possible to reproduce work that appears and sounds like "brand new antique", as one of my patrons dubbed it. When my results were not exactly like those of the antiques, then I knew that I had not succeeded in rightly deducing the precise attitude behind the phenomenon. Using this method, it took me years of research and experimentation to figure out how the best of the ancient makers thought that resulted in the outstanding quality of sound they were able to produce, instrument after instrument after instrument.
Realizing the value of what I have learned thus far, I feel compelled to make sure that the knowledge that I have gained, at significant personal sacrifice, does not again get lost. For this reason, I am inviting qualified persons to work with me to learn how to apply the Acoustical Technology I have developed and mastered.
Harpsichord After the Colmar Ruckers Opus 444 made in 2012
Now, finding, identifying and training qualified young makers who want to learn and master musical instrument making from an exclusively acoustical point of view is my goal. This is easier said than done. My experience over the last 36 years has made me realize that few musical instrument makers value sound as much as I do, fewer still are willing to pay the price themselves, as I have, to master acoustics. So naturally, I don’t assume that there are actually all that many musical instrument makers who are willing to subject themselves to learning what is required to be able to build great sounding musical instruments.
Nevertheless, and this bears repeating, I hold that what I do acoustically can be done by anyone willing to learn the techniques and attitudes necessary to apply this Acoustical Technology masterfully. This offer is open to anyone interested in learning this sophisticated yet simple way of realizing a high degree of enhancement in the sound of any musical instrument. However, only those who qualify technically, artistically, musically, and personally will be accepted for instruction. Whomever I undertake to teach the Art and Science of Acoustical Enhancement must be able to successfully apply my acoustical technology to their instruments once they have completed my course of instruction.
Since first making this offer, I have taught my acoustical technology to 6 young men, 3 of whom are violin makers and 3 of whom are instrument makers who are making harpsichords and fortepianos as well as violins, violas and cellos.
Technical qualifications involve a little experience making musical instruments, skill in use of tools, and skill in drawing or sculpting. Artistic qualifications relate to conceptual abilities, natural cognitive abilities, imaginative skills, and ability to think clearly and cogently about ideas. Musical qualifications have to do with how musical, how technically proficient on an instrument, and how much understanding of music one has. And personal qualifications have to do with age, attitudes, philosophy, intellectual aptitude, and habits, etc. The ability to speak English is also really helpful.
Anyone interested is welcome to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Use “Interested in Acoustics” in the subject line.
My contact information is:
Keith Hill - Instrument Maker, 5641 Granny White Pike, Brentwood, Tennessee 37027
My phone number is: 734 - 395 - 8708
My email address is: email@example.com