The Sweet Song Of The $7 Violin
Stringed instruments can be a joy to the ears and the eyes. They’re handcrafted, made of beautiful wood, and the very best ones are centuries old, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or sometimes even millions.
But there’s a new violin in the works—one that’s 3D-printed. It costs just a few bucks to print, making it an affordable and accessible option for young learners and classrooms.
Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Brown is a concert violinist and the founder and director of the AVIVA Young Artists Program in Montreal, Quebec, and she’s been tinkering with the design of 3D-printed violins for years. She talks with Ira about the science behind violins, the design process, and how she manages to turn $7 worth of plastic into a beautiful sounding instrument.
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Mary-Elizabeth Brown is a concert violinist and the founder and director of the AVIVA Young Artists Program in Montreal, Quebec.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Stringed instruments can be a joy to the ears and the eyes, handcrafted, made of beautiful wood, and the very best ones are centuries old and worth hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of dollars.
Except for that violin you just heard. What if I told you it cost just a few bucks, and it’s made of plastic? Now, why would you want a plastic violin? As I said, violins can get really expensive. And even the beginner ones might cost you a couple of grand. And that hefty price tag makes them inaccessible for a lot of families and classrooms.
But my next guest has a plan to get more violins into children’s hands by 3D printing them. Yes, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Brown is a concert violinist and the founder and director of the Aviva Young Artists Program based in Montreal, Quebec. Welcome to Science Friday.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Thanks so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. How a violin sounds all comes down to physics, right?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: It does. It’s all about how acoustics function and how those sound waves transfer and play in the resonating body of the instrument.
IRA FLATOW: And you translated that science into an instrument that can be 3D printed. Please, tell me– walk me through the process here.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: We are now about five years into this story. We started by asking this question about five years ago, well, if you can print a bone or a portal vein, why can’t we print a violin? And so I started working with an interdisciplinary team based in Ottawa. We developed instruments for use in the context of a Symphony Orchestra and to play concertos with the Symphony Orchestra.
Our good friends at the Toledo Symphony Orchestra sort of took the baton from there and started to do some work in looking at whether you could recycle material and use recycled plastic to make 3D instruments. And then most recently, the ball has come back to Canada, and we’ve started to look at how we can make it more accessible using at-home 3D printers and less expensive materials like PLA.
IRA FLATOW: What is the model? What model do you use? How do you actually know what to print on the 3D printer?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Well, we get our information from a whole bunch of different sources. So we started with a basic kind of violin shape. And then from there, we pulled the measurements from a Stradivarius made in 1704. It’s called the Bett’s Strad. And you can actually have a look at it on the Library of Congress’ website.
So we pulled the measurements from that instrument and ran some printing tests, decided that we liked a lot of it, and then we started to play with the curvature of the front and back of the instrument. What we would say is the belly of the instrument– if you look at a violin, you see that it slants up and curves in the middle of the face of the instrument and the middle of the back. So we took some curvature measurements from a violin maker– a violin making family, I should say, who was working in Naples at about the same time as Strad, the Gagliano family, we incorporated those. And that’s how we got our most latest iteration.
IRA FLATOW: Do you have to manipulate the printing material so you get the exact shape and consistency that you want?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: We do. So a lot of that comes down to the sort of material you use and how it’s printed. So in this case, we use polylactic acid, which comes in a great big reel. It looks like a big spool of yarn. And it gets fed into a printer that melts it and draws tiny little lines. They’re about 0.4 millimeter thick.
And we manipulate that using a computer to print the violin with tiny little spaces that resonate in between. Those spaces are made in the shape of a square, so like a tiny little checkerboard shape inside the instrument because that’s what helps it to resonate best.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, so the square shape makes better sound?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: It does. There’s actually been some really interesting research recently about plastic polymers and the various shapes, the internally printed shapes that sound best. So a square pattern definitely sounds better than, for example, a honeycomb pattern or a star shape.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So you must have printed a lot of violins before– a lot of trial and error here before you got what you wanted.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Indeed. And there have been some really great flops along the way, things that have sounded like tin cans. The most recent ended up looking a little bit like a mound of pink spaghetti in the middle of my 3D printer. There are lots of different versions of trial and error.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And so what’s the design that you ended up with? And how much does it cost?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: So the current design is made all in PLA. It’s in two parts that fit together. So a child-sized instrument, a fractional size instrument costs about $7 to print.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And the goal, of course, in printing this is to make violins that people can afford to practice on and use in schools.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Absolutely, and can be recycled when they’re done.
IRA FLATOW: I hadn’t thought about that. Now let’s get to the all important question, sort of a drum roll moment. What about the sound? Mary-Elizabeth, can you play both violins– your beautiful old Italian one and the one you made for $7 And see if I can guess which one is made of plastic?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: OK. Option number one.
IRA FLATOW: OK, that was option number one. Here’s number two.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: OK, Ira, what do you think?
IRA FLATOW: Oh, my goodness. I have no idea. If I had to guess, I would just guess the first one was the older violin and the second one was the 3D printed one.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: You are right.
IRA FLATOW: But they were so close, it was just a guess.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: You’re right. And so the difference here being probably less about how it sounds and more about how it feels to play. They feel a little bit different that way, but they’re hard to tell apart. You’re the first person who’s been able to guess that one right.
IRA FLATOW: Well, it was just a guess. I could tell in the second one, it seemed like it was a little more difficult to play, from the way I heard it. You know, I never played a violin in my life, so I could not tell.
But to a trained musician like yourself, what is the difference? Is it just the difficulty? Because the sound was excellent.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Well, so it’s exactly the same piece of music. And if anyone is curious about what that is, that’s a piece of music called The Meditation. And it’s from an opera called Thais.
The playing is a lot about physics. And it’s about how we take horsehair– so that’s what’s stretched across the bow– and how we rub it against metal, and then that transfers into the body of the instrument. And so a skillful violin player is able to do a number of things with the bow.
So we will adjust the rate of speed at which the hair travels across the string and how much pressure we use to rub the hair across the string, so how much friction we create, and where between the bridge and the beginning of the fingerboard the contact point that we use. So those are the three kind of basic factors that are involved in violin playing– or in sound production, I should say.
And so on a 3D printed instrument, we have to use substantially less weight and a little bit more speed of the bow to help to kind of draw out this sound–
IRA FLATOW: Right.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: –as opposed to my Italian instrument, which is sort of like opening up a wonderful painter’s palette full of color.
IRA FLATOW: I imagine wood, especially beautiful, old wood sounds very different from plastic, right? How did you account for that difference?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: So, wood is porous. And one of the considerations that we needed to account for was the fact that plastic is not. And so when we talk about this relationship between wood and plastic, we come back to that research about the internally printed spaces, whether they’re square shaped or star shaped, within the printed PLA. So that gives us a degree of flexibility, a degree of space and air pockets in the material that gets sort of as close as we could to printing what would be the equivalent of wood.
And we go back to the idea of total flops. There are PLA spools that are composites of polylactic acid and bamboo, and that was another disaster where it was not strong enough to withhold the weight of the bridge. So we had a great big hole in the middle of an instrument. That was not so good either.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I hate it when that happens.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: I know.
IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting because that’s part of the discovery process. But as you say, the point of your 3D printing is not to make a comparable instrument as much as it is to make a serviceable one that new players, amateurs can learn on, right?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Exactly. And I’m very fortunate that I have been able to play on this very fine Italian instrument for quite a long time. It’s a real joy to play on. But a beginning violinist doesn’t need that.
And the goal of this has never been to replace or replicate that. The goal has been to create an instrument that is easy to maintain, that’s durable, and that gives people a really easy access point to music education.
IRA FLATOW: Yes. So what does it mean to you then, as a violinist and educator, to be able to make something that can end up in children’s hands?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: You know, I’ve been very, very lucky. I will go and lead a rehearsal for a production of Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, later today. I live my life in this wonderful sea of beautiful music.
But had I not done that, had I done something else with my life, the very serious musical education that I had would have served me well in so many ways. And I think that it is a wonderful opportunity for young people to learn everything from focus and discipline to setting and hitting goals to working well with other people as we play together in the orchestra or in chamber music. There are just so many things that we learn.
And so if I can, in some way, help more young people to come to that, I think that would be a wonderful thing.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. If you’re just joining us. I’m talking with Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Brown, a concert violinist who is designing 3D printed violins for kids.
When can we expect these violins to be made widely available? I mean, will there be a day where I can take the design and put it into my own 3D printer and make a violin?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Well, that’s really the idea. And at the moment, we are in the final stages, the final iterations. As somebody who is a professional violinist and a teacher, I would like to make sure that it has my stamp of approval on every element of it before we start our beta testing, which we hope to start later in the spring of this year. And hopefully, we’ll have these out and available by the end of 2023.
IRA FLATOW: Now I know that 3D printed instruments have been made before. So what makes your violin different from other models?
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: That’s a good question. I think the main difference is that we have really dug into the disciplines of physics and acoustics and violin making. And we’ve involved researchers from all around the world in this process.
I think also, coming to this as a professional musician, coming to this as somebody who plays on a very fine instrument and looking for the closest possible sound in that gives us a different sort of view, or helps us to see that or hear that through a different lens.
I think, lastly, most of this is about finding fractional sized instruments. Most of the instruments that people are printing these days are for adults. But ideally, we start children when they’re quite young. So we have been printing 10th and 16th sized instruments, which are small enough for the average six-year-old.
IRA FLATOW: So you really went above and beyond to make this super easy for kids to use.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Yeah. One of the big things that’s different about this model of instrument is that the bridge and the sound post are printed in. So nothing on a violin– on a regular violin, is glued. So everything’s held in place by tension.
And that means that if you need to have anything done, you really need to go and see a luthier to do that for you. And the inspiration from this came from one of my dear students who lives on a sailboat off the coast of New Zealand and plays the violin very well. And her bridge started to warp as they were starting a sort of two week sail where they would not come to port.
And so her mom and I sort of cowboyed steaming a bridge using boat repair tools and a clamp and a tea kettle.
IRA FLATOW: Lots of MacGyvering here.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: We really did MacGyver this. And it really got me thinking, if we’re going to put– it’s one thing to put instruments into the hands of young people. It’s another thing to then saddle them with the cost of continued maintenance and having continued repairs and other things.
So a lot of this last iteration, especially with the little instruments, had to do with printing in the bridge and the sound post so that there would be limited MacGyvering needed, wherever they ended up.
IRA FLATOW: Do you have to paint it to look like a violin? I mean, does it come out in– it must come out in a multitude of colors.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Well, the one that I played to you today is white, but I have pink iridescent thermoplastic filament in my printer at the moment. So the next one that gets printed is going to be a sort of fuchsia color. So it can come in any kind of color you like.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I would imagine that’s a plus when you’re introducing kids to violins. It looks kind of cool, right? It doesn’t look scary.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: Exactly. You know, I had a student just this morning who’s eight who said, you know, hey, Miss Mary Beth– which is what they’ve called me for like the last 20 years– you know, hey, Miss Mary Beth, could you print me a blue one? I think I might play more scales if it were blue.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a great anecdote. Well, thank you. Thank you, Mary Beth, for taking time to be with us today.
MARY-ELIZABETH BROWN: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Yes, and good luck to you. Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Brown is a concert violinist and the founder and director of the Aviva Young Artists Program based in Montreal, Quebec.
Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.