The cello string tension test you must try

Are high tension strings bad for your cello’s sound?

Here’s the theory.  Higher tension strings restrict your cello from vibrating freely, right?  All that extra weight from the strings makes the cello tense and “strangles” the sound.  Most cellists will take this view.  In fact we used to think exactly the same.

But what’s the science behind this?  

Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth.  Therefore what we must do is prove the hypothesis before we try and explain it.  So we developed a little test to prove it one way or another.  The steps are so simple a child can do it.  And there’s no chance of death by strangulation to anyone, you or the cello!  

The idea is to dramatically increase the tension of one string to a greater extent than any brand of string.  If the increased tension is huge then the change in the cello’s sound should also be blindingly obvious, if the theory holds.  You simply need to increase the pitch of any string, but to play on the other strings.  Or invert the test by decreasing the pitch of any string and play the others.  Something unclear?  Here’s a step-by-step guide, using the A string as our tension adjusting string:

  1. Using fine tuner on the A, lower the pitch of the A as far as the fine tuner will go.  Do not play the A which is now a low tension string.
  2. Quickly check and retune G and C strings to the D but again, leave out the A.
  3. Play on the C, G and D only and become accustomed to the sound of your instrument.  Ideally play a particular melody you are confident with.
  4. Now twist the tailpiece tuner on the A right the way down (ie increasing the pitch and tension of the A, but again do not play on it).
  5. Repeat steps (3) & (4), especially keeping the melody consistent.  Once more don’t play on the A of course.
  6. Ask yourself if you can hear a difference.  Not sure?  revert back to Low tension and alternate back and forth until you can or can’t hear a clear difference.

The increase in tension you are applying on the A from low to high is massive.  Bigger than any difference between different brands of strings.  If you are going to hear an impact, you are going to hear it in an exaggerated form, as I said, the change in tension will dwarf anything you’ll experience by swapping brands of strings.

This experiment works best if you have a trusted listener.  Don’t tell them if the fine tuner is all the way up or down (high tension, low tension).  In fact pretend to change, but don’t.  Trick them so they don’t know if you are high or low tension.  You can start the other way round too, starting off with high tension then comparing against low.

One thing to note is that at either high or low tensions the A string in the experiment is out of tune.  We need it to be like this because otherwise one of the tension states will benefit from sympathetic harmonics.  The result would be an unfair test and one of the tensions would benefit from sounding better than the other.

You can run this experiment on any string but the A works well and will have the biggest difference in tensions.

We extensively did this experiment and couldn’t hear a difference.  Have a go yourself and leave a comment below.

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