Scientists are trying to uncover what makes Stradivarius violins special – but are they wasting their time?
Dec 22, 2016
Stradivarius violins are renowned for their supposedly superior sound when compared to other instruments. This has resulted in numerous studies hunting for a scientific reason for why Strads sound so good. A number of these studies have focused on the chemical composition of the wood in violins made in Cremona by Antonio Stradivari in the 17th and 18th centuries. Others have considered the violins made by Stradivari’s contemporary, Joseph Guarneri del Gesu, whose violins are widely considered to be just as good.
Research often looks at how the materials used in the construction of the instrument define its superior quality. For example, one study argued that a “little ice age” which affected Europe from 1645 to 1715, was responsible for the slow-growth wood used in the construction of the violins that gives them a particular quality. This type of wood would have been available to all violin makers in Europe so other work has looked at the particular varnish applied to Strads. But the most recent study on this showed that Stradivari finishes were also commonly used by other craftsmen and artists and were not particularly special.
Now a team of scientists from National Taiwan University have tried to uncover the secret of Stradivarius violins by analysing the chemistry of the wood they’re made from. The researchers found that the aged and treated maple wood had very different properties from that used to make modern instruments. But is there really a secret to be found in the Stradivarius?
In the new paper the researchers found reproducible differences in chemical compositions between maples used by Stradivarius and Guarnieri and those used by modern instrument makers. This alludes to a forgotten tradition unknown to modern violin makers that uses a process of transformation through aging and vibration, resulting in a “unique composite material”.
The problem with studies looking at chemical composition is that they don’t include measurements of how the violins actually vibrate and create the soundwaves which we hear. Stringed acoustic instruments produce sound from the vibrations of a taut string. These are passed mainly via the bridge and nut to the violin’s body, where the panels resonate and create the soundwaves.