False Strings

Here’s information on false strings I collected years ago from the ASTA Listserv.

Dear Colleagues, How do you tell when a string is false? K.L.  

This is my system: Find the solid note that is at the place of the first harmonic on each string, starting with the highest string (on violin, the E one octave higher than the open E). Find the note a minor 6th below on the next string lower (on violin this would be G# on the A string). Play them separately, then together as a double-stop. If a string is false, the individual notes will sound in tune, but the double-stop will not. Repeat this process on all strings. To reinforce your judgement, play the suspect open string with a long and fast bow, coming off the string. Listen for the ringing sound of the string after your bow leaves the string. If the string is false, you will hear the ringing tone change pitch. It will waver up and down. I’m sure there are other ways of checking. I recommend that most students change strings at least once a year. Advanced students might need to change them twice a year. Professionals may need to change strings 3-4 times a year.  – Helen Fall

<< Another question along these lines- can anyone explain to me why/how a string rings false? I’ve had parents ask me, and I find that I can describe the sound but have not enough of a clue WHY or HOW it happens. Thanks, Kim >> Below is an excerpt from a flyer developed by Bill Weaver that was available at the Violin House of Weaver, in Bethesda, MD, years ago. I photocopy it and give it to parents in answer to this question: “Strings are constantly being tuned by turning a peg in the forward position. Most players will tune a few times each day. As a string is tuned, it in reality becomes stretched smaller and smaller each time pitch is acquired. The winding on either a gut- or perlon-core string is made of aluminum or silver. This winding remains the same shape and does not shrink to accommodate the narrowing core. Before you realize it, the center of the string is smaller than the covering. The string loses its ability to speak cleanly, and becomes dull or false. SOLUTION: TRY TO CHANGE THE STRINGS AT LEAST TWICE A YEAR, AND IF YOU PLAY OFTEN, THREE OR FOUR TIMES EACH YEAR. THE ‘E’ STRING SHOULD BE CHANGED MORE OFTEN STILL. SOME FEEL THE ‘E’ COULD BE DONE AT LEAST EACH MONTH.” Sorry about the shouting cap’s. I just lifted the quote directly. Helen Fall

Good suggestions, Helen, yours and Bill Weaver’s both! I think Bill’s focuses primarily on a string that buzzes, or sounds fuzzy, though such a string has probably gone false as well. Regarding the very good question of what it means for a string to be false: a string vibrates not only as a whole, but in every conceivable fraction of itself. These fractional vibrations are what we know as harmonics, and enrich the sound of a fundamental pitch as its overtones. In order to ring true, a string must be the same diameter for its whole vibrating length. The fractional vibrations (overtones), especially, are thrown out of whack when this is not the case. Over time we (most of us) tend to hit the string with our fingers in certain places more than in others, wearing it unevenly. Additionally, skin oils, peanut butter, etc. tend to build up unevenly on the strings. In time, certain places become thinner and lighter, others thicker and heavier. A string no longer is capable of ringing true; it becomes false. This reaches a significant level first with the thinnest strings, which are fortunately the least expensive and easiest to schedule for early replacement. Violinists are most prone to the problem, bassists least; but it hits us all in time. String “falseness” is an elusive thing to determine, as it shows up first in the (not directly heard) overtones of a note we play. Tuning is difficult or elusive, and putting the finger down in the right place produces an out-of-tune note. (This last I think is what’s behind why your clever minor-6th check works, Helen.) Furthermore, as this develops slowly over time, we begin to make subtle compensations in finger placement, without even noticing it. A player who has been playing with false strings for some time may initially have trouble playing in tune with fresh strings! Generally, if tuning neighbor strings in perfect 5ths (bass 4ths) is elusive, it’s probably that one or both are false. While a new string can be false, it’s a rarity with contemporary string manufacturing technology, in my experience. Therefore, the best plan, I think, is to change strings regularly enough to avoid the problem. Bill Weaver’s suggested schedule is good, though it stretches things a bit by my thinking. When I’m playing a lot, I change that skinny E string every week or two (yup!); a two-month old A is an old A; and my lower strings get changed 2 to 4 times a year. One last thought: school orchestra directors, the single most effective thing you can do to produce a dramatic improvement in the sound of your string section for a concert is to see that all violinists change their E strings during the week before! Jerry Fischbach

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