Frequency of changing strings

In a recent discussion with my violinist-son, it came up that professional violinists tend to
replace their violins’ strings about every four months. Except for the e-string (highest, typically
solid steel) the violin strings have gold- or silver- or aluminum-covered polymer cores; some e-
strings have platinum covered chrome steel cores, not very harpsichord-like. No need to cover
here all violin-string versions for my question. With respect to that question below: I am well
aware of the different mechanics of exciting vibrations on violin strings and on harpsichord
strings. This introduction is only the motivation for asking the harpsichord related question.

Without remembering specific quotations, I recall that the age of harpsichord strings has come
up in discussions on sound quality. This topic is rather difficult for an amateur harpsichordist
because, I would think, professionals are exposed to replacement of old strings many more
times in their life-times and a matter of normal professional repeat experience.

Here is my question: Is there a consensus that replacing (all) “old strings” has a truly noticeable
effect on how a harpsichord sounds? If the consensus is in the affirmative,
a) what would be their age and the physical changes responsible for the effect and,
b) is there also a consensus on such a cause(s)?

How often do professional harpsichordists have all strings changed? Or do they? Would there
be a difference for brass and steel strings? I do understand that some of you have reported
specific brass manufacturers who are preferred, without getting into the materials science too
deeply. If age makes a difference, what do you do with coils of wire purchased “recently” but
which have (probably) been sitting on the vendor’s shelf for decades (if one knows)?


I am not a professional violinist but I don’t change violin strings more than once a year, if that. Gut strings are of course a different matter.

As you mention. most violin strings have complex cored and wound structure which under the constant stress tend to alter with time, and mostly lose brilliance.

Harpsichord and piano wire is not cored (ignoring bass piano strings) and does not suffer from this deterioration. Generally a set of strings will last many decades. The only real issue is that rust causes some sonic degradation, but that can usually be avoided by not keeping the instrument too humid (which does seem to be a problem in America). Although violin strings of the top grade are very expensive, it’s more expensive and very labour intensive to change all the strings in a harpsichord. It’s not normally done by way of routine as you asked. Maybe you would do it if you wanted to change the wire for say, P wire, but that is effectively unobtainable unless you have a strong personal relationship with Birkett - it’s not a full commercial concern. It’s also not done because there is almost no change in sound of iron wire over decades, that I can hear.

Brass, of whatever make, is a different matter. Brass strings can sound ‘tired’ after quite a long time, and new strings sound brighther. Whether you want brighter or not is a personal matter. But likewise, unless you can get magic Birkett brass, there would not normally be any need to replace the brass elements as a matter of routine maintenance.

Consider pianos. I have heard and played 100 year old pianos with original strings and they sound fine. You need to refelt the hammers long before restringing.

My point being, I don’t think that once having stretched, that iron strings change their metallurgical and therefore sonic properties over time.

On the matter of violin strings, there are Irish fiddlers who change their strings every thirty years, whether they need it or not. :slight_smile: This is not a dig at the Irish, just how little they are concerned with the matter.

Hi Stringers! Here’s a mail-in-waiting I’d prepared much much earlier, waiting for a flagging off in topics, not the case, happily.

Stringing the changes? Recently during a shop-like discussion with a modern piano fellow I was asked if I was also going to replace all the strings on the harpsichord under revison, details of which I was boring the poor chap with, and I replied ’ No, they seem ok’. Astonished down to earth reply: ’ But,it’s a good money spinner: a compleat string change as often as you can swing it!’
So, that good reason apart and referring to recent discussion on some Rose brass stretching a little at first and Birkett’s perhaps less, I do wonder, how long do strings last ? Is there some agreement on optimum life spans of the historically informed alloys combined with the thin diameters used?
Pianos bass string being overwound, as lower violin and guitar strings, would logically be more prone to ‘wearing out’ as any stretch of the thinner load bearing core spaces out the windings ever so slightly.

When people say, Ah, I’ve changed the strings and my harpsichord sounds so great now, perhaps that’s also because of the the accompanying revoicing, sprucing up of the action etc. A string change is rarely a stand-alone operation.

I recently changed all the strings (wrest pin reseating operation) on a Dowd, restrung by Don Angle about 20 years ago, with the same Rose strings as he, no effective change in sound apart from the effects of perking up the plectra a little and reseating the very slippy very talced-up loose wrestpins. This was the professors first reaction: sounds much the same as before! Stays tuned though…

Also, one of the most interesting sounding harpsichords I’ve ever revised, wonderfully bright harmonics ‘n’ all, quite subjectively: the word ‘shimmering’ really applied, was a Martine Argeliés 2 x 8 single with lovely rusted iron and tarnished brass strings, kept practically on the beach, sea on three sides. Quite a surprise! Anecdotes are not proof of anything, though, there were perhaps other factors involved.

Anyway, so how often do my esteeemed co-listers change all the strings then?

Thanks for your thoughts!

PS, String shelf life: I’m not sure just storage does anything, it’s more likely the stretch factor, but then I’m no physicist neither.

PPS, about the Irish: perhaps it’s the fiddler that changes every 30 years ?
Thomas Murach

For what my personal experience is worth for my Hubbard kit double, I never replaced the treble steel strings: they sound as well as initially (1974) and due to the enlarged treble scale of these kits they cannot be replaced by iron or else they soon break, and the sound of iron in that region (tested) is not good.

As for the lower half of the range, I did replace all strings after 30 years or so, but not because I felt in any way that their sound quality had diminished, but instead (as I have explained in detail in my Hubbard Restringing webpage) because the original brass was not of historical quality. Replacing it with historical-grade red and yellow brass, plus iron in the lower tenor, I got a clearly audible improvement in sound quality in that region of the instrument, and also an absolutely inaudible changeover between the 4 different alloys used in the instrument (this was also helped by using the traditional “change alloy while keeping the same gauge” way).

Because of much better suited brass, not because of newness.

And there you go: a change after 30 years whether needed or not. Must be because you lived in Ireland. [It’s OK, I play Irish flute. so nothing discriminatory!]

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Not an unnecessary restringing, since Claudio says he got a pronounced improvement in sound quality. I heard Claudio give a concert on the freshly restrung instrument, played a little on it myself and can confirm that the transition between different string types was inaudible.

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Yes, because of good brass. Makes a huge difference. Not ‘necessary’ but an excellent optional upgrade.

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I would say, after building and living with harpsichords since the mid to late 1970s, that I agree fully with everything Andrew has written here. The issue of replacing with a different type of wire is a different one than the issue of simply replacing old wire because it is old.

Thank you for your input regarding my question on string replacement, Andrew, Claudio, Thomas and Owen (plus others?). I had expected something like this, but it became clearer to me now, that any improvements resulted only, if older wires were replaced with newer special kinds (Rose, Birkette), which, it was properly warned, may be difficult (time-consuming) to come by. At my age, there is probably not enough time to start asking for those. Again, thank you!