Serpentine “S”

The serpentine “S” that graces the pages of American Luthier epitomizes the paradoxical nature of the violin-as it echoes the shape of the sound holes carved in the first known violin by 16th century Italian luthier Andreas Amati, celebrated inventor and “father” of the violin.

Erroneously known today as “f” holes, the “f” is actually a long, descending, “S,” found in print or cursive writing in old manuscripts. One luthier suggests that these holes took on the shape of an “S” because they were sound holes. In Latin, sound is sonas; Italian, suono; French, son; Spanish, sonido.

The sound holes are crucial to violin tone, distinguishing it from the sound of its cousin-the viol that features C-shaped sound holes. If the sound holes are placed too wide apart, the violin can sound rough; placed too close together and the result is a “pinched” sound. Carving the “S” too narrow prevents the placement of the sound post; too wide and the violin loses its power. The tiny triangular notch at the midpoint of the “S” denotes an imaginary line designating the placement of the bridge. The sound holes are the most delicate and telltale parts of the violin, revealing both the style and skill of the luthier – in essence, the fingerprints of the maker.

The mystery is that the sound holes are the opposite of what they seem – these S-shaped bits of nothing hold the key to how the violin makes sound as they serve as the central escape hatch for the multiple air currents swirling inside the sound box. In fact, the violin is as much a wind instrument as it is a stringed instrument! In yet another twist, of all the energy that the player feeds into the violin, only a tiny bit actually emerges as sound – the rest escapes as heat.

A century after Amati, German mathematician Goffried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced the same serpentine “S” to represent an “integral,” a mathematical term describing the infinite sum of infinitely small parts—perfectly encapsulating the idea that one stroke of the bow on a string produces hundreds of different modes and overtones at once that somehow merge together and and then emerge from the violin’s escape hatches, producing the grand sum of a tone that makes music possible.

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