Scientists are trying to uncover what makes Stradivarius violins special – but are they wasting their time?

December 20, 2016 by Bruno Fazenda, The Conversation
Credit: Kerinin/Flickr, CC BY-SA

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 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.

Aside from the performance of the musician, the quality of the sound can be affected by the rigidity of the connections between bridge and the panels, the shape and size of the panels and the material they are composed of. A violin whose panels are made of glass would sound different to one made of metal, due to the different vibratory properties of these materials. Even the shapes that are cut into these panels, such as the typical f-shaped holes, play a part, since they break up and alter some of the resonant modes that can be sustained by the panels. The question is, are these differences in the chemical composition of the woods and other finishing materials, sufficiently different to elicit an audibly superior sound?

Some studies, in the aptly named Catgut Acoustical Society Journal, have shown that there is indeed a difference in acoustic response between Stradivarius and Guarnieri violins. These have looked at how the body vibrates and the emitted sound pressure. Unfortunately, there seem to be no studies comparing the acoustic response between the renowned Cremonese instruments and other violins.

Halo effect

One study in 2011 asked professional violinists to compare violins made by Stradivari and Guarneri with high-quality new instruments while playing blindfolded in a room with relatively dry acoustics. Contrary to all expectations, the researchers found that the most-preferred violin in the test set was a new one and the least-preferred had been made by Stradivari. They also found that most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

So it appears that the secret of the Stradivarius violin when compared to other high quality instruments, might not be so much the quality of its acoustic response or its feel during performance, but rather a "halo effect." This is a well known bias in the field of psychology where your overall perception of something affects how you rate specific elements of it. In this case, it appears that knowing one is holding a famed instrument, seasoned by the ages and, most certainly, with a premium price tag is influencing the way it sounds to us.

No doubt the differences in material properties that are being reported in research papers will have their effect on the acoustic response, which might be measurable. The question is whether these acoustic differences are perceptible and, if so, whether they are strong enough to break any beliefs and biases we might have when told we are listening to the sound of a real Stradivarius. A systematic study on the acoustic and psychoacoustic differences between modern and prized antique violins is the only way to find the answer.

Explore further: Mystery solved: Chemicals made Stradivarius violins unique, says professor

More information: Hwan-Ching Tai et al. Chemical distinctions between Stradivari's maple and modern tonewood, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611253114

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hudres
3 / 5 (2) Dec 20, 2016
With no disrespect intended, the writer of this article is obviously not a musician, nor has he ever heard a Stradivarius and a Guarnieri played side by side. They are both outstanding instruments but have decidedly different tonality. One cannot say one is just as good as another any more than one can say an apple pie is just as good as a peach pie. Scientists have studied the chemistry of the wood, varnish, stains, and glues. They have also looked at things like the way Stradivarius aged his wood (he let the trees lay in a creek for upwards of ten years and then dry for several more years before using them to make instruments) Not unlike the situation with Coca-Cola syrup, many have studied these violins, but no one has been able to duplicate them.
Telekinetic
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 20, 2016
I had the great opportunity to play an Amati violin several years ago and found it to have a lovely but surprisingly muted tone. The outstanding Stradivarius and Guarnieri made violins are in the possession of the world's great violinists and are worth millions not for some placebo effect, but because they have no peer. The modern violin can be great of course, but the one blindfold test cited in the article is not any way to judge the old masters against the new. If you listen to good quality recordings of Heifetz, Grumiaux (who played a Stradivarius nicknamed "the cannon"), Milstein, Stern, Oistrakh, Menuhin, et, al., they all were playing on the creme de la creme of instruments.
ddaye
not rated yet Dec 20, 2016
The material of wood changes steadily with age for far longer than commonly cited aging cycles of a decade or few. No wood can be harvested at any given time that matches wood that was harvested and made into an instrument generations earlier. There are some processes being used by some makers today that cause accelerated aging of specific components of the wood. I don't know if anyone's claiming equivalence to Strad quality wood, but I can attest from work in a semi related context that woody material can be significantly improved with natural processing free of chemicals or varnishes. It can be made to bend and vibrate more uniformly and made less responsive to changes in atmospheric humidity, which are two traits of woods that are long seasoned conventionally.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Dec 20, 2016
Yes, ddaye, it's a welll known fact among players of stringed instruments that the more an instrument is played, the more the tonality is improved. The vibrations are most likely conditioning and altering the structure of the wood.
retrosurf
5 / 5 (2) Dec 22, 2016
Telekinetic, it seems far more likely that the tonality improvement is a function of an individual forming their performance to the strengths of the particular instrument. A human is much more malleable than a wood.

ddaye, it's true that there is probably no equal to the trees that were used as the initial stock of the violin, but research would seem to refute your claim that "natural" processing is responsible for the superior sound of the Stradivarius and Gesu violins:

" We also provided the first experimental proof, published in Nature 2006 that the wood of Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu had been chemically treated. Using the powerful scientific tools of solid-state NMR and FTIR spectroscopies, we could show that all three major organic components of wood were drastically changed well beyond the effects of natural aging."

(from http://www.nagyva...us.html)

Wood treatment it was, but natural it was not.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Dec 22, 2016
@retrosurf:
Having played the violin for years, I heard this assessment from professional violinists. Also, the policy of the music department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was to have professional musicians play the Strads in their collection periodically so as to keep their tone.
rrrander
not rated yet Dec 23, 2016
A good audio spectrum analyzer would give specific patterns that would show differences between violins, if they were played by machines and not people who impart their own personal playing style and thus impact the sound the violin is making. Even larger or smaller hands, and different body structures will impact the sound. A-B testing with humans is notoriously unreliable.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Dec 23, 2016
There is no robot or machine that can play the violin in an objective way. Even if there was such a machine, it couldn't play it with any musicality, which is what one goes after in judging the quality of a music producing instrument.
retrosurf
5 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2016
@Telekinetic

It seems likely that there is some truth to the observation, but if I were a musician, I would encourage museums to believe that a violin needed to be played to keep its tone; yes, I certainly would :-)

I found this quote on the web:

"Keep in mind that if your violin is new or hasn't been played in a long time, it will usually take a few weeks of constant tuning to get it to stay in tune."

This means that the string/violin tension system takes weeks to come into equilibrium. I suspect that this is correlated with the "exercise sweetens a violin's sound" effect. Sensor and experiments come immediately to mind.

Do new strings require a "breaking in" period, or are they immediately good and wonderful and better than the old strings that they replaced? Why are violin strings replaced (breakage, damage, loss of goodness)?
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2016
New strings will always need to be stretched by winding on the peg until they reach a stable point to stay in tune. Even when they reach that point, they slacken when they sit unused for even a short period. A metal-wound gut string is under a relatively high amount of tension, and with use, will eventually need to be replaced. When you see a live orchestra tune up before a performance, they are finding a common "A". In between the performance, they will re-tune because the strings will lose tension from use during the performance. Ambient temperature/humidity in the performance space will also affect the strings.

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