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Fresh chemical clues emerge for the unique sound of Stradivari violins

Violin against a red background.
Enlarge / A 1729 Stradivari known as the “Solomon, Ex-Lambert” on display at Christie’s in New York in March 2007.

Musicians and music aficionados alike have long savored the rich sound quality of the violins created by Antonio Stradivari, particularly at the dawn of the 18th century (the so-called “golden period“). Scientists have been equally fascinated by why Stradivari violins seem to sound so much better than modern instruments; it’s been an active area of research for decades.

A recent paper published in the journal Analytical Chemistry reported that nanoscale imaging of two such instruments revealed a protein-based layer at the interface of the wood and the varnish, which may influence the wood’s natural resonance, and hence the resulting sound. Meanwhile, another paper published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America showed that the better resonance of older violins produces stronger combination tones, which can also affect the perception of musical tones.

I’ve written extensively about this topic in the past, and you can read a handy summary of some of the research in this area to date here. Per my 2021 article, the (perceived) unique sound can’t just be due to the instrument’s geometry, although Stradivari’s geometrical approach gave us the violin’s signature shape. One hypothesis is that Stradivari may have used Alpine spruce that grew during a period of uncommonly cold weather, which caused the annual growth rings to be closer together, making the wood abnormally dense. Another popular theory has to do with the varnish: namely, that Stradivari used an ingenious cocktail of honey, egg whites, and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees—or perhaps salts or other chemicals.

It’s the varnish that has received the most attention in recent years. The theory dates back to 2006 when Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, made headlines with a paper in Nature claiming that it was the chemicals used to treat the wood—not necessarily the wood itself—that was responsible for the unique sound of a Stradivarius violin.

Specifically, it was salts of copper, iron, and chromium, all of which are excellent wood preservers but may also have altered the instruments’ acoustical properties. He based his findings on studies using infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study the chemical properties of the backboards of several violins (the backboard is the instrument’s largest resonant component).

More evidence in favor of Team Varnish came from a 2016 study by researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA). They studied how a varnish’s chemical composition, thickness, and degree of penetration into the wood affected the acoustics of the instrument. The researchers found that all the varnishes increased the wood’s dampening ability—that is, how well it absorbs and stops vibrations, bringing out a warmer, mellower, and aesthetically pleasing sound. A 2017 study by Taiwanese researchers compared the maple used by Stradivarius with modern, high-quality maple wood. Their analysis showed evidence of chemical treatments in the form of aluminum, calcium, and copper, among other elements.

And last year, researchers analyzed trace chemicals preserved in the maple wood used to make the soundboards of Stradivari and Guarneri instruments. The research involved a rare collection of Cremonese wood samples of spruce and maple used by Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati, and the results were then compared to modern spruce and maple tonewoods, as well as woods from antique Chinese zithers and less exceptional old European violins. They found traces of borax and several metal sulfates in the wood samples dating between 1600 to 1750. “I believe that chemically processed wood was the missing key that prevented us from reproducing Stradivari’s tone,” co-author Bruce Tai told Ars last year.

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