No object of art has been the subject of so much scientific curiosity as the violins of Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu, but the systematic scientific exploration of the violin remains a Herculean task. The peculiar construct and its materials have a large number of variables, which would yield an astronomical number of outcomes. Another difficulty is the negative attitude of those who own the priceless antiques or control access to them. Progress is almost impossible without analyzing a number of these violins, which constitute the standards of excellence.
Several good review articles give an account of the current state of violin physics. A large treatise by Eric Janssen, "Acoustics for violin makers" was posted on the internet at www.speech.kth.se/music/acviguit4/. A leaner and more critical text is the prize-winning article of Colin Gough published in Physics World, April 2000 and posted at http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/696. These papers elaborate on the uses of free plate tuning, the mechanical properties of wood, and the identification of several low-frequency resonances of the assembled violin. They also discuss the merits of recent engineering methods such as the finite-element analysis and modal analysis, which enable us to visualize the vibrational movements of the entire violin. Unfortunately, all these methods have not yet produced better violins than those made by traditional violinmakers. Colin Gough also admits to another failure of violin science with regard to quality control:
"Science has not provided any convincing evidence for the existence of any measurable property that would set the Cremona instruments apart from the finest violins made by skilled craftsmen today." The objective methods of physics–the response curves and long-time average spectra–are not suitable to define the fine differences among good violins, however, the expert human ear and brain can tell them apart. In my own opinion, the outstanding feature of the great Italian violins lies in the low noise level of their tone, combined with the flickering of its harmonic content in response to vibrato, which cannot be reproduced by tricks of plate tuning and adjustments. It seems to be a material property.
From the outset of my research, from the mid 1970's on I have become an exponent of the chemical/material paradigm, which postulates that the refinement of the violin tone–as best exemplified by the Strads and the Guarneris–was the consequence of chemical factors involved in the preparation of the wood and the particular Cremona finish. (See a list of my early articles under the heading Biography and Bibliography). Some violin makers in the past held similar views and were ridiculed for thinking there was a secret to be found along these lines. My theories and their experimental support became known through the over 250 public lectures sponsored by the American Chemical Society since 1977 (which gave rise to numerous popular science articles by writers who were given to exaggerations and distortions). Our laboratory at Texas A&M University was first to employ the state-of-the art method of EDX spectroscopy for the analysis of minerals in the wood and varnish of a Guarneri cello (ref.1). Our most notable achievement was the discovery of microcomposites and nanocomposites in the finishes of Stradivari, Guarneri and Ruggeri instruments during the years of 1986-87. Publishing these ground-breaking results in a proper scientific journal was a difficult proposition. Our manuscript containing information that our friends considered among the most important in the history of violin research was submitted to Nature on April 9, 1987, but the referee there did not share this view. After its rejection, our work was eventually published in the Chemical & Engineering News and in Die Naturwissenschaften in 1988. In course of our work, we identified more than 20 individual mineral species in the Cremonese and Venetian fillers and varnish layers. This research earned the gold medal of the Japanese Physics Society in 2005. My most comprehensive article appeared in the now defunct Chemical Intelligencer (ref. 2). Barlow and Woodhouse–the latter having been the referee who blocked the publication of our Nature manuscript– also studied the ground of several Old Italian instruments (ref.3).
Following the request of the editors, I published the light-microscopy of the 12-layer structure of a glorious Strad varnish in the July 2005 issue of Education in Chemistry. The identification of the individual layers of varnishes from the Strad and a F. Ruggeri cello appeared earlier in the German magazine Das Musikinstrument (ref.4).
We also provided the first experimental proof, published in Nature 2006 that the wood of Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu had been chemically treated. Using the powerful scientific tools of solid-state NMR and FTIR spectroscopies, we could show that all three major organic components of wood were drastically changed well beyond the effects of natural aging. It may seem counterintuitive that damaged wood could have acoustical advantages. One can argue, however, that the process makes the wood more permeable, more hydrophobic and lowers its water content. It may also be involved in the reduction of the noise.
The question of how the wood of the Cremonese masters was chemically treated was the subject of our most recent publication that appeared in the internet journal PLoSONE.org (Jan. 22, 2009). The analysis of the ashes from the wood of Stradivari and Guarneri instruments revealed the presence of mineral preservatives, such as borax and fluorides. Treatment with such minerals at high temperature could have caused the changes we observed in the organic constituents of the wood. The most detailed account of our past research with regard to the wood treatment was published in the last issue of VSA Papers (ref.5)
Our results indicate that the materials of the Strad were much more sophisticated than those of the latter day violins. In fact, the chemical changes of the wood and the structure of the old varnish are so complicated that their elucidation would fall outside the domain of traditionally trained luthiers. Clearly, much more work needs to be done on the direct analysis of the old specimens, and future success will require a change of heart of those involved with the antique violin business. There is a well-funded research program is going on currently by a French-German team in the European Union lead by J.P. Echard. According to their analysis of 5 Strad violins, the ground layer was made up of proteins, and there was no mineral particle layer (ref.6). This was a striking contrast to the previous findings on Cremonese cellos!
It appears that the refinement of the old violin sound, with its power, brilliance and low noise, owes a lot to the material properties. Some critical comments notwithstanding, it should be clear that the progress of violinmaking lies in the realm of material sciences.
1. J. Nagyvary, J. Violin Soc. Amer.Vol.VII, No.2, pp 89-110 (1984)
2. J. Nagyvary, The Chemical Intelligencer, Vol.2, No.1, pp 24-31 (1996)
3. C.Y. Barlow and J. Woodhouse, J. Catgut Acoust. Soc., Vol.1, No.4, pp 2-9 (1989)
4. J. Nagyvary, Das Musikinstrument, Vol.42, No.6-7, pp 107-111 (1993)
5. J. Nagyvary, VSA Papers, Vol. XXII, No. 1, 91-115 (2009)
6. J.P. Echard et al., Angew.Chem. Interntl Ed.491: 197 (2010)
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