What Makes a Stradivarius Sing?

Illustration for article titled 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]

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I'm a music educator and I repair instruments for a living and I have this to say about string instrument construction:

People often mistake that a dense piece of wood will make a better string instrument. Novice and hobbyist guitar players often make this mistake. This is because they don't know what dense means. They think it means strong. It doesn't have to mean strong. A string instrument relies on the density of the wood to carry the vibrations from the strings to the bridge, through the body of the instrument, down the sound post, and to the bottom of the body. People don't realize that string instruments are made from several different woods for several different parts of the body, and it's all for different reasons. But mostly, you have to understand this: Just as a drum head will oscillate, or a string will vibrate with sound, the wood does so slightly as well. The bottom of the body of the violins, violas, cellos, guitars, etc. are made with different wood than the sides because this wood is meant to vibrate on it's own too, therefore strengthening and deepening the sound. Usually if a piece of a string instrument is skimped out on, it can be the bottom body wood, and that's a huge mistake. Most people don't realize this because instrument manufacturers can just use lacquers and finishes to make everything look the same. In reality, your professional violin does not naturally come out all one color, and if it does, it isn't professional enough to be called so.

Stradivari not only found out what types of woods work best on what parts of the instruments, but he figured out exactly how to cut and curve and layer each piece of wood both inside and out of the instruments for maximum sound, volume, and tone. He did something that I very much doubt a computer, even if it had the information required to do such calculations, could easily reproduce. He had this down to a science, even a formula if you will.

Unfortunately today, one of the reasons these stradivarius instruments are so extremely rare and expensive is not because they are old, or collectable, or amazing sounding, or anything like that. We can reproduce the instruments. The problem is the materials. The woods used to make these instruments is no longer legal to harvest because of endangerment to the species of tree it comes from.

Many other things have changed since Stradivari's time in violin making as well. We no longer (well, you can, but it's not so common) use gut strings, or leather in the instruments. The wood of the bows is ENTIRELY different than it was 300 years ago. The absence of ivory in bows. We DO however, still use natural glues in the instrument, as opposed to staples or nails or elmers glue or spit. Sometimes, in a repair shop, instead of using a few hundred dollars worth of natural glues or horse glues, you might just use hot glue. Or reheat the previous glue and let it set again. The latter tends to be easier.

Also, it should be known that Stradivari was not alone in his (for lack of a better word) research into string instrument production, his family had been at it before he, and he simply carried on the notion, and became famous for his leaps forward.

And Now Some fun facts most people don't know about certain instruments...

1) A piano's sound is hugely factored by a sounding board, a piece of curved wood placed below the strings which vibrates and creates the rich sound that is full of overtones. A "dead" piano sound is usually because the sounding board has gone, literally, flat, because of lack of care.

2) Every wind instrument, from brass to voice (yes voice is an instrument. yes its a wind instrument) has one thing that you can spend years on learning to get correctly. AIR! WIND! Why else is it a wind instrument. Sure, your embouchure is important. sure, your placement is important. But if you cant blow the air, you certainly aren't making any WIND!

3) Guitars are tuned out of tune.

4) so are pianos.

5) so are percussion instruments.

6) but for some reason modern guitar players tune their guitars to 440hz instead of the 442hz they used to. stupid kids.

7) the strings of violins, cellos, violas, and basses are under thousands of pounds of pressure (per square inch) when the instrument is fully assembled.

8) the strings of a piano are under hundreds of thousands of pounds of pressure (per sq. inch). If a piano string snaps while being played, or somehow comes off of it's securings, and hits something, it can sound as loud, and scarier, than a pistol being shot. To be hit by an ejected piano string can cause serious lacerations and damage, and if lucky, severing of a limb is possible.

I can speak first hand of the sound of a piano string snapping. Midway through a performance a few years ago, one of the piano accompanists lower strings snapped and struck the lid of the piano. The sound was terrifying, and the event was so fast that nobody's eye caught it. Several people screamed, everybody jumped, a few ducked, and a couple got entirely on the ground in the aisle. The performers did not react. Later on, the string was found, and hilarity ensued when it was presented to the pianist in a frame the next week.

I think I wrote a bit much.