The Tartini Tones

Combination tones generated by violins of good quality
can be easily heard, affecting the perception of the
The harmonic content of the dyad is enriched
by the combination
tones and this is positively
perceived by the listeners.

—Giovanni Cecchi, University of Florence
Italian Tribune, November 17, 2022

Yes, it’s from Cremona—we’re not sure
If made by Stradivarius. Who knows?
Despite the sheer magnificence, the pure
And bell-like vibrancy, the aural glows,

There is no maker’s mark. The provenance
Is vague and somewhat sketchy. It’s not nice,
But dealers in old violins (to enhance
The reputation and the asking price)

Would say it came from Stradivari’s hand.
And even if not true, the instrument
Might well have all the excellence, the grand
Style of that master craftsman’s sacrament.

I don’t blaspheme. This fiddle channels grace.
Just sit in holy silence while it’s played
And hear the terzo suono (like fine lace)
Intertwine tones, as if you knelt and prayed

And heard angelic whispers from on high
Hinting of what the sacred seraphs sing
To Majesty Immortal. And you cry
That you are not in their encircling ring.

Those are Tartini tones. The seasoned wood
Of deep Italian forests slowly growing
Untouched through centuries, that had withstood
The chill of countless winters’ frigid blowing

Alone can give that terzo suono mix
Of doubled, blended notes, and there’s no more.
The forests are cut down. You cannot fix
That loss, just as no person can restore

The quarries of antico nero stone,
Avranches cathedral, Bibliothèque Louvain,
Or any precious thing for which we moan
That stupid men have wrecked, for hate or gain.

Perhaps this is not by Stradivari. Well,
We hear Tartini tones no matter who
Crafted the violin. It casts a spell
Just as enchanting as those special few.

The nameless maker of this violin
In some ill-lit workshop with his plane,
His pumice, iron moulds, and varnish tin,
Wrought voiceless wood to sing against the grain.


Poet’s Note:

Tartini tones are subtle resonances or vibrations produced by antique violins from Cremona, Italy, most particularly those from the workshops of Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri, and other neighboring luthiers. They were first identified and described by the composer Giuseppe Tartini in 1714, who called then a terzo suono (“third sound”) that enriched and deepened the played notes. Listeners and recent laboratory acoustical research both testify that these tones are audibly present in the old violins, and negligible or not present at all in modern instruments. Some persons have theorized that the wood used by these early violin makers was of an unusually dense quality, as a result of the “Little Ice Age” that afflicted the northern hemisphere from about 1300 to 1800.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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17 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    An intriguing poem. Tartini was writing at age 22, so toward the front end of his considerable production of violin music. He and contemporaries like Locatelli and Veracini, and the slightly older Vivaldi (as well as Italian-influenced German violinists like Pisendel) must all have been aware of this phenomenon, but Tartini was the one to describe it in writing. (He also had a lot to say about ornamentation.)
    I wonder if Brahms’s good friend, the violinist Joachim, who was among the early proponents of Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin (more than a century after it was written) had some influence on the wonderful sonorous double-stop writing in Brahms’s violin sonatas and his Double Concerto. I have a hunch, too, that Tartinian combination tones (or, rather, their absence) are behind Stravinsky’s complaint about the performance of his Elegy on two violas rather than on the single unaccompanied viola he intended.
    Thanks for a fine, musically alert offering, Joseph.

  2. Paul Buchheit

    Thanks, Joseph. I will be listening to the violin with much greater appreciation after reading your work.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, it’s a crap-shoot as to whether you will hear the Tartini tones on a modern violin. Many violinists aspire to own (or at least occasionally play) a genuine old Cremona instrument, but they are rare and outrageously expensive.

      There were many explanations in the past for the superior sound of these violins. Some suggested it was simply that they had “aged,” like fine wines. But since the Tartini tones were identified in 1714, when the instruments were still comparatively new, that theory can’t be right. Others said that it was due to the woodstains and varnishes used by the luthiers, but since such things are merely cosmetic and superficial, how could they affect the sound?

      Many fell back on the explanation that the sounds were due solely to the expert craftsmanship of the Cremonese makers, which had somehow been forgotten or debased or simplified by later luthiers. That theory generally appeals to reactionaries like myself, but I think it is wrong. Italian craftsmen ferociously maintain their traditions and methods, and pass them on religiously to their apprentices and heirs. The gunsmiths Beretta have been making high-quality firearms since the fifteenth century!

      We know how Stradivari made his violins — in fact, my grandfather made four Stradivarius-style violins following the man’s methods precisely. They were good instruments, but no one who played them heard Tartini tones.

      What did Sherlock Holmes say? “Consider all the possibilities, Watson, and then eliminate the ones that are not possible. Whatever remains — however implausible — is the correct explanation.” Tartini tones must be due to the nature of the material used for making the instrument.

      • Julian D. Woodruff

        There is no disputing the quality and desirability of Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesu” violins. But the Tartini tones situation is complicated. To consider only a couple of points: 1) in 1714, when T was writing, Stradivari was in his “golden” period, before which he used different designs; Guarneri was either as yet unknown or not at the peak of his career; 2) their instruments, as with violin-family instruments generally, were built with shorter, thinner bass bars less sprung (attached to the under side of the top with less tension), and the strings were of gut and gut wrapped with gut–not the steel and metal-wrapped synthetic strings in general use today. Most of these instruments were “modernized” in the 19th century, although some have more recently been returned to something close to their original specs. These and other factors complicate the issue.

  3. Mike Bryant

    Joe, your poem does absolute justice to the recent literature on Tartini tones and violins. For years it has been accepted that the Tartini tones were created in our eardrums or in our minds. The study that recently came out establishes that the sound waves actually exist in the air… these sound waves are real. The other finding, as you note, is that the best violins, that were made in the little ice age, produce these pleasing tones at louder volumes. I believe the reason is still being debated… a secret varnish or harder woods?
    The combination tones can be generated more easily on some instruments. There is a YouTube video of a saxophonist that creates this bit of magic by “singing” a tone a certain interval above the note he is playing INTO his tenor sax! It creates a third note that is an octave below the lower note. The Tartini tone is lower than the range of the sax!
    I have heard these third tones before, but not associated with the violin. I always assumed they were a sort of sonic interference pattern. Thanks for bringing this bit of new knowledge to life in this smashing poem… (practicing my British)

  4. Brian Yapko

    This is very beautiful and offers a novel lesson in musical history and harmonics. I take it that Tartini tones in fact a form of audible harmonic which results from playing a quality, historical Italian instrument? Your poem is especially poignant for its references to scarce artistic source materials that have been squandered through foolishness. This background makes the elusive Tartini tone from a wood that no longer exists that much more precious. I like the conversational style of this poem (literally, with references to “I” and “You”) which makes the poem accessible but which is elevated by gorgeous phrasing such as “angelic whispers from on high/Hinting of what the sacred seraphs sing/To Majesty Immortal.”

  5. Paul Freeman

    As always, your fine poetry is an education. The connection between the hardness of the wood and the Little Ice Age makes complete sense. It took me back to the Italian Alps and terminal moraines, relics of the Little Ice Age, heaped up like barricades across glacial valleys. What a pity that the woodlands existent then have been felled for Man’s short-term gain.

    The poignancy and beauty of the last line, in particular, I found breathtaking.

  6. Cynthia Erlandson

    What an exquisite portrayal of a seemingly miraculous musical phenomenon! I was especially mesmerized by verses 4 and 5: ” This fiddle channels grace.”; the comparison of the tones to fine lace; and the way the word “Intertwine”, with its momentary reversal of the meter, gave me a sort of auditory “image” of the “angelic whispers.”

  7. C.B. Anderson

    “This fiddle channels grace.” Is an especially apt expression that precedes a very nice elaboration of the subject. I have played stringed instruments (guitar, mandolin) over the years, and the only harmonics I ever hear are ones I force by lightly touching the strings at certain intervals — of course! I have no such fine instrument like the ones you describe. Some people claim they can hear harmonics in the babble of a rushing brook.

  8. James A. Tweedie

    Glue, wood, varnish, regardless of the source or sources, the tones are there, and as Joe points out in a most personal, familial way, they cannot be replicated satisfactorily by even the finest of today’s craftsmen.

    2 stories:

    A violinist friend at great expense purchased a mid-18th century Italian instrument. The lower registers sang like Joe’s angels with a tone and tones that were exquisite beyond measure. “What a find!” I said to myself as he played. But when he hit the high-soaring trebles that we associate with the Stradivari of Heifetz and Menuhin, the sound was thin, weak and almost grating. “No wonder he could afford it,” I decided.

    It takes a complete instrument to produce a complete sound and there are very few of those.

    Story 2: I went shopping for a guitar for my daughter, looking at a mid-quality mass-produced Yamaha (red—she wanted red). There were two to choose from. The first sounded cheaper than the price. The second sounded as good or better than instruments selling for 10 times the price. The store owner agreed and was baffled at the difference. When I purchased it he threw in an expensive case for free because “the guitar deserved it.”

    Clearly there is more than science involved, here. I won’t call it magic, although it seems to tempt in that way. But it is as if something of the maker and the wood come alive in certain instruments in a way where their voices live and sing in concert with the voices of those who are worthy of playing them.

    Tartini tones? Certainly. At the least. And Joe’s poem captures my own experience with this priceless quality with an ear that is in its own way, masterful.

  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your very kind remarks, and for your commentary. I have nowhere near the musical expertise expressed by those who have posted here.

    • Edward Hayes PhD

      Mr. Salemi

      Evan Mantyk suggested I direct my question to you. Can you recommend a book, or books, on the (London) Bloomsbury group of poets who wrote, roughly, between the world wars, and included the American T.S. Eliot? I would truly appreciate any guidance.
      Edward “Ted”Hayes

  10. Isabel Scheltens

    There is a nuanced tension between appreciating what is old and famous and what is objectively beautiful. So too between yearning for the past because it is past and because something good is irreplaceable. I appreciate your nuanced view of the thing.

  11. Margaret Coats

    Like Cynthia, I wonder whether you intend to suggest additional tones with metrical variations in your conversational style. It seems your speaker might try to do that with pitch and loudness variations if we were hearing him.

    You and he imply that only old Cremona violins have Tartini tones. But if the wood growing during colder winters is the reason for those tones, any European violin from the period should manifest them. Or is there something special about forests in the Cremona region? Maybe local subspecies of spruce and maple, if not unique weather. I heard that Strads contain less moisture than other violins, which makes the wood more resonant, but I thought that was due to seasoning known to have been applied. Traces of the chemicals used appear in fragments of damaged instruments being repaired.

    Anyway, considering the lifespan of trees used, your speaker is a bit hard on Italian forest clearers. Even if they had left all the trees in place, we are now well beyond the life expectancy of spruce and maple matured during the Little Ice Age. And I presume that instrument makers would have wanted wood from healthy trees in their prime, not from decrepit elders.

    Just knowing that Antonio Stradivari’s sons are considered less talented than their father, I might give more weight to the individual craftsman, as well as to the individuality of each instrument. As James Tweedie explained with regard to Yamaha guitars, there is sometimes no explanation for vast differences in quality between products of the same process. It could have something to do with small things we consider insignificant, such as tree geometry in relation to how the wood was split before the instrument maker received it.

    To say something that I haven’t said before, we would benefit by more poems on top craftsmanship. In this one, Joseph, you give a good model by focusing on what could be called the mystery or mythic quality of Stradivarius violins. That’s more deserving of poetic craft than would be a descriptive poem on the process, or a catalogue of the wondrous aspects of the product. Putting it in the easy-to-comprehend words of a down-to-earth speaker is your particular mode.

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    We can’t be sure of what exactly makes those Cremonese instruments so special. As I mentioned in my note, the idea that an unusually dense “Little Ice Age” wood is responsible is only one theory. To me it seems more plausible than any other, but I made use of the theory in my poem because it meshed more easily with my overall aesthetic purpose, not because there is necessarily any “truth” behind it. The poem — the fictive artifact — is always the poet’s primary concern when composing. Everything else is purely subservient to that end.

    Similarly, not all Italian forests have been cleared. It’s not like Sicily or North Africa after the after the Moorish locusts came. But the image of vanished forests fits in nicely with the poem’s sub-theme of irreparable cultural loss, so traditional poetic license allows me to write as if it were true. Poems are not legal depositions or police reports.

    The choriambic start of “Intertwine tones” that Cynthia noticed in the fourth quatrain was indeed deliberate, but not as a way to parallel the acoustic quality of Tartini tones. One can’t replicate that sort of thing in words on a page.

    I agree that more poems on top craftsmanship would be wonderful to have. And yes, they can’t simply outline process, which would be tedious if carried to any length. But poets should remember that the primary craft that we should expose is our own special gift, which is the expert use of language.

    • Sally Cook

      As you know, I come from a musical family. I had a piano for years after leaving home, and my repetoire narrowed to Baroque and early Baroque. New York provided neither money or space for one, but there was a sheet music store on Second Avenue; where I went to get more familiar with the less familiar composers.
      I found that each composer of note had a style that came across to me as a flavor. Tartini seemed to be both tart and gingery. Good old synethesia !

      As to my mother, the violinist in the group, she had several violins and left them sitting around the house so that if she wanted to play, there was always one at hand.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Sally, you have always been skilled in synesthesia. You can hear the sound of colors, smell the scents of words, taste the flavor of shapes, feel the textures of musical notes… it’s a gift that very few people have.

        When I was a kid and my grandfather mentioned the Tartini tones, I thought the word was the plural of “tortone,” the Italian ice-cream dessert.

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