PhD a new string to violin-maker’s bow

Tuesday, 8 December, 2009
Dan Gaffney

Eighty-four year old amateur violin-maker John McLennan has capped a lifelong love of the violin by graduating with a PhD in Physics from UNSW.

John's thesis concerns a comparative study of the acoustics of baroque and modern violins he built in his home lab in Newcastle, NSW.

He made and then incrementally converted a Baroque violin to a Romantic (modern) by making numerous changes and replacements, including replacing the short neck with a longer, more slender one, adding a longer ebony fingerboard, and a heavier bass bar and sound post.

At each stage of the conversion, John measured the instrument's acoustic properties and made recordings by having it played by four professional violinists.

One could have evaluated the baroque and modern instruments by comparing musical performances of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, says John, noting that the ACO plays with modern instruments and the ABO plays with baroque-style instruments.

That would mean comparing different players and instruments. In John's study, the same players play the same instrument, but in its various different configurations, so one can see just the results of the romantic modifications.

Baroque violin
Hear the baroque violin (00:15)


Modern Violin

Hear the modern violin (00:16)

One output of John's thesis is an on-line appendix with those recordings comparing the baroque and modern configurations of the violin. Hear recordings and read more here.

Dr John McLennan receives his Doctorate in ScienceAbout John McLennan, PhD UNSW, MSc UNSW, ASTC (Dip Met), AIM (London), C Eng. John was born in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, February 13, 1925. He was educated at Cardiff Primary School (1933-36), Newcastle Boys High School (1937-41), and Newcastle Technical College (1942-47). He married Judith Ingham in 1947 and has two sons and two grandchildren. An engineer and teacher, John became a member of the Catgut Acoustical Society Inc in 1975 and served as Vice President for 1984-89. He became a member of the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers Inc in 1982 and held positions as National Chairman 1988-89 and Journal Editor 1986- 90. He was a member of the Australian String Teacher's Association Inc during 1978.

UNSW media contact:
Dan Gaffney, 0411 156 015,