What makes a Stradivarius violin perfect? While most people might have only wondered briefly about the astonishing pristine sounds created by these beautiful musical instruments, for some scientists, the quest for finding the answer to this question represents their lifetime’s work.
A quest for centuries
The first people to engage in the endeavor of disentangling the secrets of the unique sound only Stradivarius violins can yield were, without a doubt, other violin makers. However, so far, no one else has managed to recreate the sweet sound that makes these violins still the best in the world.
An answer comes from an unlikely place
After centuries of trying to solve the mystery of these violins and their beautiful sound, one solution comes from a surprising source. Joseph Nagyvary, a university professor, teaching biochemistry at Texas A&M, came with a theory of his own. In 1976, he came up with the hypothesis that it was not only the wood or the construction of such violins that determined their unique sound.
Then where does the mystery lie? According to Nagyvary, the secret is all about the chemicals used for treating the musical instrument. For the last 33 years, he has worked on his theory, in collaboration with other specialists, combining elements of statistics with biochemistry, to find a basis for this hypothesis.
One of the most challenging tasks Nagyvary encountered during his research was getting wood samples from old Stradivarius violins since such things are not easy to find. In the end, to identify the chemicals used for treating the wood, he and his team had to burn the wood samples to ashes.
His hard work ended with a successful outcome. The ashes, when examined, proved that aggressive chemicals, such as borax, iron salts, fluoride and others had been used extensively to treat the wood of these violins.
These findings have a historical explanation, as well. When Antonio Stradivarius created his 1,200 violins, worm infestations were a difficult problem to tackle, and means of preservations included heavy chemical treatments like the ones uncovered by Nagyvary.
Another theory comes from Taiwan
An equally exciting study was recently carried on by a team of scientists from Taiwan. Their approach came from another place than the one described earlier. They believed that Stradivarius’s goal when creating his violins was to make instruments that could hit the same tonality as inflections of the human voice.
The study involved the recording of Stradivarius violins on one hand, and male and female vocalists, with the emphasis on singing vowels, on the other.
Their findings suggest that to reach that brilliance and clarity Stradivarius violins are so well-known for, their creator had tried to emulate the purity of female voices. The higher-frequency format of female voices creates clarity and brilliance, terms often used to describe the sound of Stradivarius violins.
So it’s not the clever use of a violin tuner that can make a musical instrument sound better, but it is still all in the art of the old masters, and their unique understanding of sound and its secrets.