The Secret of a Stradivarius: Physics or Chemistry?

Stradivari violin

A new study poses a challenge to the old masters. Stradivari violin, 1693. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Music aficionados swear that instruments by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri are the very definition of superlative: rich, lush, sonic perfection. CHF’s podcast Distillations recently explored the many existing explanations as to why stringed instruments made by these craftsmen were so unmatched. Could it be physics: the shape and structure of the instrument producing perfect intonation? Or could it be chemistry: the varnish and other finishes adding the final definitive touch to timbre excellence?

It may be neither. A nifty collaboration among researchers at the University of Paris, the University of Michigan, and the D’Addario Company (makers of the essential strings for violins and other instruments) coaxed 21 experienced violinists to compare playing old master violins with contemporary instruments. The test was double blind (neither the researchers nor the musicians knew which violin was performing) and done under highly controlled acoustical conditions.

In the authors’ own words, “the results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom.” That is an understatement fully worthy of the hoary tradition of prestigious scientific journals. Most of the players were unable to distinguish whether a violin was new or old. On average, the most preferred violins were the new ones and the prized Stradivarius came in last place.

Perhaps under different conditions, with different musicians, possessing different aesthetic sensibilities, the results would be different. But whatever the result of such a study, the combination of sheer beauty and rareness will make the old Italian violins highly prized to both musicians and listeners. Even if they don’t really sound any better.

Tom Tritton is president and CEO of CHF.

Episode 136: Good Vibrations [Distillations]
Study Finds New Violins Equal to Classics [Philadelphia Inquirer]
In Classic vs. Modern Violins, Beauty Is in Ear of the Beholder [New York Times]

Posted In: History | Technology

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