In the world of violin accessories, performance and practice mutes seem unimportant ... until you need one!
While not as vital as shoulder rests, chin rests and pegs, violin mutes – as well as mutes for violas and cellos, for that matter – are important instrument accessories for a number of good reasons. Mutes are small devices that are attached to a stringed instrument that alters its timbre, thereby reducing the volume that is produced.
The “timbre” is just a fancy way of referring to the instrument’s characteristic tone, as well as the color and quality of the tone. It refers to the sound that is produced by a violin, as opposed to the sound produced by a clarinet, assuming both instruments are playing the same note at the same volume. The sound is different.
Stringed instrument mutes, such as violin mutes and cello mutes, are manufactured from many different materials including wood, metal and rubber. These devices almost always attach to the bridge so that it dampens the vibration of the bridge, which produces a much softer, quieter sound.
The sound of a stringed instrument comes from a player applying energy to the strings, either by bowing or plucking the strings. The sound and volume is produced, not by the strings alone, but by the strings vibrating and conducting through a wooden bridge. By retarding the vibrations of the bridge itself, this effectively “mutes” the instrument.
But why would anyone want to mute a violin? The best reasons why any violin player, from beginners to pros, might want to use a mute are to practice. Practice mutes differ from performance mutes in that practice mutes are heavy and dampen the sound quite a lot, allowing a student or professional to practice the violin without the sound disturbing anyone. The so-called “practice mutes” are also called “hotel mutes”.
Less-heavy performance mutes are actually used by orchestral performers because the composer of a certain composition may actually call for the use of mutes as part of the performance. A composer will indicate when an instrument should be muted, by using the term con sordino.
Cellists often use cello mutes to eliminate wolf tones. The mute fits between any two strings on the cello and acts as a energy absorber to “tame” the wolf tones.
Mutes for violas, cellos and violins tend to be low cost accessories, typically running between $1.50 for practice mutes up to $30 for fancier, performance mutes. They can be found at a local violin shop or a reputable online violin store. It is recommended to purchase a mute for students to keep in their cases for use in practice, and, should the occasion arise, for performance.