Nicholas Makris

Nicholas Makris

Awarded in 2015

Instrumental Science

What the evolution of string instrument design tells us about acoustics

What makes for a beautiful—and beautiful sounding—violin?

Violins enjoyed a renaissance in the 16th through 18th centuries during what’s known as the Cremonese period, in tribute to the famous family workshops of Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri of Cremona, Italy, where many believe violin design reached its peak. Instruments from these workshops exhibit exceptional craftsmanship and acoustic attributes. As both a musician and scientist, Dr. Nicholas Makris was intrigued: What is it about the design and construction of these ancient golden age instruments that makes them sound the way they do, and how did they evolve?

With the help of his colleagues Dr. Yuming Liu of MIT, Roman Barnas, Director of the North Bennet Street School Violin Making Program, and their students, Dr. Makris spent seven years investigating the physical and acoustic properties that underlie the violin’s lowest frequency resonance, known as air resonance. Their research showed that instrument design changed slowly over time, explainable as a result of small fluctuations in craftsmanship. “We found that if you try to replicate an instrument, you’ll always have a little error,” says Dr. Makris. The result was a slow evolution toward long, slender sound holes and eventually thicker instrument backs.

The team developed mathematical models of violin air resonance that showed how these changes lead to more powerful instruments in this low frequency register. These findings proved that physics can explain the design and evolution of sound holes and air resonance power in violins and their ancestors—but air resonance comprises just a small part of the violin’s overall acoustic spectrum. Dr. Makris is prepared to extend his research to the rest of the violin’s acoustic spectrum—to better understand the physical mechanisms that lead to excellent string instruments.

Middle: Sound hole shape evolution driven by maximization of efficient flow near outer perimeter, minimization of inactive sound-hole area and consequent maximization of acoustic conductance.


“We are aware of no other funding mechanisms in the United States that would support this work.”

Traditional funding organizations don’t have much appetite for the type of research that Dr. Makris and Dr. Liu are performing. In fact, they and their collaborators completed their first seven years of exploration during free time and without funding. In this context, the Bose Research Grant was almost too good to be true. “We are aware of no other funding mechanisms in the United States that would support this work,” says Dr. Makris. “The only option we could identify was the Bose grant.”

Innovative research thrives on innovative funding. We are very grateful to the Bose Research Grant for providing the nourishment that will enable our work to continue.”


Music for all

While automation has taken over many industries, instrument making requires experience and human intuition. Expert craftspeople hone their skills over decades by replicating what works, and their knowledge often dies with them—as was the case for the masters of the Cremonese period. Dr. Makris hopes that his work will help translate their intuitive understanding of instrument design into a template that others can follow, thereby granting young musicians greater access to top-quality instruments. “Mystery is good, and there’s magic in violinmaking,” he says. “Some makers, I don’t know how they do it—it’s an art form. But here, for us, it’s good to understand scientifically as much as you can.”