Sherlock Holmes’ Violin
“A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony.” (Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
American novelist and poet, Louisa May Alcott, once said that the violin is the “most human of all instruments.” With its curvy, body-like shape and sweet sound, the violin is considered to be one of the more sensual instruments because it is evocative of the female figure. The violin, like the cello, viola, and other instruments in the string family, requires a delicate touch and concentration to play because they lack frets. As a result, only a person who is skilled in the art of telling when the notes are off will be able to become a great player. In other words, they must have a keen ear and technical prowess in order to fine tune the sound.
Sherlock Holmes is often depicted playing the violin in his various adventures with his mystery-solving counterpart, John Watson. Maggie Williams describes Holmes as not only a consulting detective who is able to outwit criminal masterminds, but also “one of fiction’s most famous music lovers and violinists” (Williams 62). As the owner of a “Stradivarius violin,”—a violin built by members of the Italian family Stradivari that is associated with excellence and unparalleled quality and sound; today they are the most expensive instruments in the world—Holmes is only further established as a figure of class and fine taste (Doyle 271).
But why the violin? Why does Holmes need to play it?
I actually discussed these questions with a couple family members (a few of us string instrument players and musicians ourselves), and we arrived at the same general conclusion: Playing the violin allows Holmes to exercise the creative part of his brain and rest/relax the highly cognitive part. His mind is constantly taking in information from the outside world and deducing it down into facts and figures, and because the violin is one of the more difficult instruments to play, it requires his complete attention. It is a highly technical instrument, but a different type of technical than that of reasoning or logic, it is more so muscle memory that comes into play. Just as playing the violin causes Sherlock to mentally rest, so it also results in Watson’s ability to physically rest and set his mind on his own self. Such is seen in the following passage:
He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play me some low, dreamy, melodious air,—his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face, and the rise and fall of the bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound, until I found myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me. (Doyle 233-234)
Another explanation for Holmes’ playing of the violin relates to the violin being like a human form. While I do not really want to go as far as to say that Holmes’ plays it because of this reason—as if to pretend that he is feeling, touching, and bowing across a women’s body—it is a possibility. And because Sherlock does not seem to be the type of character who will ever get into a relationship, perhaps this serves as his outlet for certain desires of the male variety. This would of course explain the dreamy, sweet, harmonious, and almost sensual nature of his playing and why Watson imagines the face of the women he loves when Sherlock is playing him to sleep.
Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that Holmes often has a breakthrough moment in his cases whenever he takes the time to play the violin or simply listen to music. By allowing his brain to rest from the analytical and focus on the creative, Holmes is able to unite both sides of his brain and discover the truths surrounding the cases that he is solving. This just goes to show that even a great mind, a brilliant mind, needs to have a chance to relax in order to have that “AHA!” moment.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of the Four. Public Domain, 1930. iBook App. Electronic.
Williams, Maggie. “The Case of the Violin-Playing Detective.” The Strad 120.1429 (2009): 62-63. Web.