Would You Recognize A Stradivarius?

Secrets of Stradivarius Explained

By Brandon Keim EmailJuly 03, 2008 | 11:05:10 AMCategories: Materials Science, Music, Mystery

Scientists may finally have discovered the secret of Stradivarius violins.

In a study published yesterday in Public Library of Science ONE, Dutch researchers ran five of the peerless instruments, made in the early 18th century by Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari and synonymous with harmonic perfection, through a CT scanner.

The resulting three-dimensional X-rays revealed that wood used in Stradivari’s violins possessed an exceptionally uniform density, with little variation in growth rings added by trees each season.

Summertime growth typically outpaces wintertime growth, producing broad rings of relatively permeable wood that alternate with narrow, dense winter bands. That differential affects the wood’s harmonic qualities.

Fortunately for Stradivari, he lived during the Little Ice Age: trees grew little more in summer than in winter. Hence the uniformly dense wood, hence three centuries of experts baffled by the resonance of Stradivarius violins, which have been variously attributed to varnishes, boiling and submersion in ponds.

A question, Wired Science readers: uniformly dense wood made Stradivari’s violins sound better. Are there musical instruments that would benefit from the highly variable grains likely produced in the wildy oscillating growing seasons of our changing climate?

A Comparison of Wood Density between Classical Cremonese and Modern Violins

Image: Courtesy of PLoS ONE, comparative back-plate wood density, with Stradivari’s violins in the bottom row and modern violins on top; video of violin maestro Joshua Bell playing a Stradivarius in a Washington, DC subway station.  I previously posted on this read it here


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