How Did Instrument Makers Invent the F-Hole?

In the tenth century the fithele (precursor to the violin) had round holes. By the eighteenth century violins had F-holes that effectively doubled air resonance power. The question is: How did they figure that out over time?

The answer may be: they didn't. A recent MIT study "The evolution of air resonance power efficiency in the violin and its ancestors" goes into excruciating detail on the evolution of the sound hole in violin-like instruments between the tenth and eighteenth centuries and reveals a strong and continuous improvement in sound power and other violin characteristics over time.

When I first saw the graphic above I wondered how violin makers managed to figure out how to make improvements to the shape of the sound hole. Well, it turn out that the shape may have simply evolved over time, and that natural selection within the violin maker's shop as he chose violins to copy for the next build and dimensional variations due to construction methods at the time may have provided enough slop and smarts in the system for the evolutionary trend to propagate.

I guess it's proof that following your ears will eventually get you great things.

The original scientific paper linked above is quite dense; check out Economist article "Making Sweet Music" for a lighter read about F-hole evolution.

QuartBernstein's picture

I have a vintage Supertone F-hole. It's not as loud as my round hole guitar's, but significantly sweeter for being birch.

tony's picture

About 1750 Ben Franklin started working with electricity ( lightning rod ) , 250 years later I have a collection of the world's music in my shirt pocket to share with a fellow trans-Atlantic traveler!

It keeps getting better and better.

Tomorrow afternoon, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I'll be listening to Schiit's new Yggy DAC, promising another advancement in music reproduction. Maybe in less than a decade that promised performance level will be in a box the size of a deck of cards.

Last year, I was at an Old Car meet where fully restored/collectors cars were on display, competing for awards, these are beautiful cars from the Pre-War era but any Car Showroom today sells better crafted, higher performing Cars for everyman's everyday use.

Tony in Michigan

ps. we live in exciting times, buckle your seat belts, we're about to be blindsided by the next advancements

cspirou's picture

It makes me wonder if bass reflex ports in speakers would benefit from something other then a circular hole shape.

zobel's picture

Of course, as you might imagine, every conceivable port shape has been tried. Since these are low frequencies, lots of air moves through the port. At those frequencies virtually all the air moves at equal velocity in the port. To prevent wind noise from being generated from the port, a smooth cylindrical port with flared openings both inside and out side the box are quietest. Smooth oval shaped ports with flares work as well, and are sometimes used for space saving reasons, but designers for the most part have gotten away from rectangular or shelf ports which are very space saving, but generally not as good sounding.

hamstring's picture

Well maybe not size but length! I read this paper. I thought it was interesting that what they found was that the length of the edge of the hole improved the power of the sound! It's amazing what a few hundred years of trial-and-error will get you.