Why do Stradivari's violins sound sublime?


29 November 2006 by Paul Marks

A wood preservation technique was probably responsible for the exquisite sound produced by violins of the 17th-century Italian instrument makers Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri.

Chemical analysis of wood shavings scavenged from two instruments while under repair has given fresh clues as to their exquisite acoustics.

Joseph Nagyvary of Texas A&M University, US, used infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to analyse the chemical properties of the each instrument's backboard - its largest resonant component.

Along with colleagues from Colorado State University, US, and Brigham Young University in Utah, US, Navygary found that a chemical wood preservative used in timber yards around Cremona in Lombardy, where both violin makers worked, appears to have given the violins their signature sound quality.

Brutal treatment

Navygary's analysis of the wood shows that it has a different chemical composition to maple grown in the region today. "The great Italian masters prepared their wood by artificial means. The violin backs appear to have been brutally treated with salts of copper, iron and chromium as wood preservers," Nagyvary says.

It is these salts, he suggests, that provided the mellifluous tone. Some metal ions - like copper - have powerful fungicidal properties, which is why they were used to treat the wood. But these salts may also have altered the mechanical and acoustical properties of each instrument. Nagyvary now plans to find out exactly which salts were used.

Navygary says the preservation was probably not meant to alter the acoustics. "They would just find salt crystals in local quarries and dissolve them in water - they didn't know what they were throwing in."

Bow selector

Nagyvary has made analysing the Stradivarius violins - and making similar-sounding modern versions - his life's work. In 1998 he discovered that treating a piece of modern maple with salt water and grape juice could produce a violin backboard with some Stradivarius-like resonances. Then in 2001 he found that borax, the anti-woodworm treatment Stradivari used, also had an appreciable effect on the violin's sound.

Some experts, however, dispute the significance of the study. "The more detailed the science becomes the more sceptical I feel," says Jon Whiteley, curator of music at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK, which owns two of Stradivari's violins and one of his guitars.

"The quality of the alpine wood and the varnish is critical of course," he says, "but it's the shape of the resonating soundbox, and the curvaceous, arching way it bows outwards that gives the unique tone."

Journal reference: Nature (vol 444, p 565)

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