Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Science of a Piezoelectric Violin

A futuristic, 3D-printed violin is making its musical debut next month during the New York City 3D Print Week. The sound it creates promises to be unearthly — instead of the traditional vibrating strings of an acoustic violin, this instrument is piezoelectric, which means applied pressure is converted directly into an electric signal. This electric signal is then amplified and converted into sound through a speaker.

2-String piezoelectric violin. Credit: MONAD Studio

The violin is a prototype created by MONAD Studio, an architecture and design practice headed by Eric Goldemberg and Veronica Zalcberg, in collaboration with musician Scott Hall.

As a violinist and a physicist, I was curious to find out more about how the instrument worked. The studio website doesn't provide many technical details, so I did a bit more research on how piezoelectric sound works.


A piezoelectric disk generating a voltage
when compressed. Credit: Tizeff via
Wikimedia commons

Some materials, such as quartz crystals and certain ceramics, are naturally piezoelectric. This means that when the material undergoes some sort of stress or pressure, the atoms in the material lattice slightly rearrange themselves, resulting in an excess charge accumulating in opposite areas of the material.

Any separation of electric charge creates a voltage that can form part of an electric circuit, and suddenly you have a basic electric pressure sensor.

The opposite also works. Send a current through a piezoelectric material and the material will "squeeze itself", vibrating its atomic crystal structure in response to the current.

The piezoelectric effect was first discovered in 1880 by Pierre Curie (husband of Marie Curie) and his brother, Jacques Curie, and is used today in everything from scanning probe microscopes to the ignition sources of propane barbecues and cigarette lighters (finger pressure causes an electric arc which ignites the fuel). Piezoelectricity is also used in sensitive sound detectors, since any vibrations of a piezoelectric material can be translated into an electric sound.

Credit: Just plain Bill
via Wikimedia commons

That brings us to violins. Many acoustic musicians already use piezoelectric pickups, small "microphones" that are mounted to the bridge of a violin in order to transform the vibrations of the violin into an electric sound for further amplification or transformation.

The work of MONAD Studio takes this a step further. Their two-string violin seems to operate solely by the piezoelectric effect. While there are no videos released of their violin in action (live performances will be debuted at the 3D Print show next month), it's possible to imagine the musician pressing their fingers and the bow on specific, piezoelectric areas of the violin, which would send a current through an amplifier and speaker to create music. The sound is likely to be much more electric than a traditional violin.

Here's a video of a previous sound installation that MONAD Studio created for a Florida gallery in 2014.

Since this violin is 3D-printed and easily customizable, the creators predict many more instruments to come. "We are now flooded with amazing proposals to collaborate with other musicians who ... want us to develop a special instrument tailored to their sound and performance type," said Goldemberg in an interview with 3Dprint.com.

At the New York exhibit, the piezoelectric violin will be debuted with four other instruments, a cello, a small and large didgeridoo, and a monobarasitar (a version of the lute-like sitar instrument). These will be mounted as part of a large overarching display frame that will also make music. Goldemberg describes the entire ensemble as a "a complex meta-instrument in the tradition of the one-man band".

If you happen to be in the New York area during April 16-17, you can get free tickets for the 3D Print Week here. And send us photos!

By Tamela Maciel, also known as "pendulum"

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am John Tremblay and i live in Canada. I am very much crazy about Jazz,rock and metal song. I love to listen song most of my time. My hobby is playing Violin.
    Professionally, i am a business person. I have a Music Store in 240 boul. st-luc, Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, J2W 1C2, Québec, Canada. Here is my website: https://musiquedepot.ca/