What Makes a Stradivarius Sing?

Stradivarius violins are rarely sold, but when they are, it's for millions of dollars. Earlier today, one specimen from 1721 sold at a charity auction for a record-shattering $16 million. Everyone knows they're the best in the world. But why?

In the 93 years Antonio Stradivari lived between 1644 and 1737, he personally made or oversaw the creation of over 1,000 violins, viola, and violoncellos at his workshop in Cremona, Italy. An estimated 650 have survived into the modern era. So they're old. And exceedingly rare. But their true value supposedly stems from their insurpassable sound quality and beauty.

There's been no concrete consensus as to why exactly they sound so amazing, but researchers at Columbia and the University of Tennessee think it might be the result of climate change—and not the kind you're thinking of. According to their research, the 17th century was a time of reduced solar activity. Meaning cooler summers, which led to slower tree growth—producing denser wood that eventually went into these violins. Other theories in this vein include a special anti-worm and fungus treatment, something in the varnish, even the use of ancient wood reclaimed from church walls. The Cambridge Companion to the Violin cites their unique, flattened shape, but ultimately it comes down to Stradivarius himself. According to Dr Jon Whiteley, a curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Stradivari spent his entire life searching for the perfect shape. Judging from the price one of these things fetches nowadays, he probably got as close as anyone ever could have. Now all we need is for someone to scan it and make a fortune off of 3D printing.

[BBC, image from AP]