What is the gauge – and how to choose between soft, medium and strong tension strings?

Did you ever wonder what the difference between soft, medium and strong strings is? Did you ever chose a medium string because it is the easy choice (as I have done for many years before being more acquainted with string technology)?

What is the gauge and the tension?

The gauge is a historical designation showing the thickness of a gut string. By measuring the diameter of a gut string with an instrument (see the following image of a gauge-meter), it is possible to define its weight. The weight defines the tension of the string and affects the bridge pressure on the instrument. As the construction of modern strings includes many different materials, it is no longer possible to just measure the thickness of a string to know its tension level.

Gauge-meter

To define the tension level of a modern string, we at Larsen Strings use an instrument called a Monochord (see the following image) where the string is mounted hanging, carrying a weight. For a violin A string, the measured weight at a frequency of 440 Hz for a vibrating length of 32.5 cm will define the tension level.

tension test

How does the tension affect my instrument?

In combination with frequency, vibrating length (from the bridge to the upper-nut) and the height of the bridge, the tension of the string defines the pressure on the bridge (see the following picture. N: Pressure on the bridge; P: Tension of the string; α: Angle of the string at the bridge). The higher the bridge and the smaller the angle of the string at the bridge, the more pressure there is on the bridge.

tension violin

Tension is essential to enabling the transmission of the vibrations from the string to the instrument. The more tension on an instrument, the clearer the vibration is transmitted to the resonating box. However, there is a limit to how much tension an instrument can support. An instrument loaded with too much tension get a highly forced vibration; its ability to freely vibrate is reduced.

It is all about achieving the right balance: To find the tension level that suits best your particular instrument and playing style and will ensure a long life of the instrument. It is important to remember that an instrument can be damaged by exceeding bridge pressure. I believe that like me, most musicians care for their instruments and want them to be in perfect shape when times come to pass them on to a next generation of players.

What to choose: Soft, medium or strong?

It all depends on the instrument you have and the sound quality you are seeking. High tension strings (strong) tend to provide a greater volume and improved projection. They amplify the ground tone of the sound, to the detriment of the higher harmonics.

On the opposite, medium and soft strings are often used for instruments in need of a broader harmonic spectrum. Medium and soft strings enable the instrument to breath and will often bring a richer spectrum of colours. They lend more variation possibility to the instrument.

As for me, I still prefer medium strings. It brings more charm out of my viola and I like the feeling of them.

Do all medium strings have the same tension level?

When searching for the perfect match between strings and instrument it is important to remember that not all strings have the same tension level. The tension of the strings varies from string model to string model. It is thus possible to find a string called medium having approximately the tension of a strong string from a different brand or model.

Can I rely on the tension charts of the producers?

The sad answer is: Not entirely.

As string producers do not have to follow an internationally accepted standard, they can measure the tension according to a frequency and a vibrating length of their choice and do not have to inform about it. In lack of an available standard, Larsen Strings has chosen to measure the tension of its strings under the very same conditions as the world’s two largest string manufacturers. Furthermore, to increase transparency Larsen Strings informs of the vibrating length and pitch frequency under the measurements. However, some independent websites offer tension charts, which compare strings on the market.

Does low tension necessarily mean low volume?

It is possible to choose strings with only moderate tension, which due to their vibrating propensity provide great volume and projection. Larsen Strings has explored the possibility of reducing the string tension to the lowest level while still providing enough sound volume. These strings lend particular benefit to older instruments by providing a tension level that respects the inner balance of the instrument. On this point, Larsen Strings is especially proud of its Virtuoso® strings. The Virtuoso® offers a hitherto impossible blend of extraordinary sound volume with only moderate string tension. For more information, please explore our factsheets for violin, viola and cello strings.

Marie Girard – String advisor at Larsen Strings A/S

Please follow and like us: