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.

An engineer and teacher, John was born in Newcastle in 1925. He is married to Judith Ingham and has two sons and two grandchildren. His thesis was supervised by Professor Joe Wolfe, from the School of Physics.

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 the baroque-style.

That would mean comparing different players and instruments.

In John's study, the same players play the same instrument. His conclusions?

"Not a great difference. I guess the secret is the player... A good violinist can make a cigar box sing," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

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

Hear the recordings and read more at the Faculty of Science newsroom.

Media contact: Dan Gaffney, 0411 156 015, d.gaffney@unsw.edu.au