Studies of the sound of Stradivari violins – we analyze several theories

It is believed that Stradivari and other violin makers from the city of Cremona made their violins using an unusual technology that gave the instruments a special sound. For decades, musicians, engineers, chemists and physicists have been trying to unravel the “secret formula.” Today we are discussing various theories.

Photo: Josep Molina Secall.  Source:
Photo: Josep Molina Secall. Source:

The secret in chemical processing

One of the widespread theories is that Stradivari and colleagues “in the shop” covered the wood for their instruments with a special chemical composition. Find appropriate confirmation by scientists trying to for decades, and six months ago they succeeded. Team of specialists from Taiwan, USA and Germany compared wood of Stradivari and Guarneri violins with wood of modern instruments [из ели и клена], as well as old European instruments of the 18th – 19th centuries.

Scientists analyzed the structure of the samples taken using computed tomography, NMR spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. In the wood that Stradivari used, the molecules hemicellulose – the building blocks of plant tissue – were split more strongly. This indicates that the material has been chemically treated.

Researchers managed to identify the composition of the solution. It included borax, metal sulfates, table salt, alum and hydrated lime. Experts believe that with the help of borax and sulfates, the master protected the wood from fungus and woodworms, which were quite common at that time. The alum kept the deck from cracking, and the lime made the material more durable. At the same time, after processing, the wood became lighter, “louder” and, probably, retained these properties over the centuries. Therefore, today Stradivarius violins differ in sound from modern instruments.

Of course, as is often the case in the historical community, with similar conclusions not all agree… There is an opinion that there can be no “silver bullet” in this matter and the sound of Stradivari violins cannot be explained by chemical treatment alone. Over the years of hard work, the master could find dozens of unique solutions that helped to achieve the perfection of form and sound. Therefore, scientists put forward other “violin theories”, although some of them have already been recognized by science as untenable.

The special varnish theory

It is believed that Stradivari violins owe their sound to a special varnish coating that affects the mechanical and vibroacoustic properties of wood. Some historians suggest that the master used a unique “cocktail” of honey, egg whites and gum arabic – dried acacia juice. However, this theory did not find confirmation

Several years ago, French scientists took wood samples from Stradivari violins at the Musée Museum in Paris and examined them under a microscope and spectroscope. “Magic” varnish ended up ordinary drying oil, covered with red resin. The shade was given to it by iron oxide and scarlet dye carmine (cochineal), which was obtained from insects. All these materials were widespread in the 17th – 18th centuries. This varnish was used by all violin makers of that period. [и даже мебельщики], so he could not give Stradivari’s instruments a special acoustic charm.

Difference in wood density

The secret of Stradivarius violins and other Cremona masters may lie not only in the special processing of wood, but also in the wood itself. Specialists from the Netherlands and the USA in 2008 compared density of material in classical and modern violins using computed tomography. The tops of the instruments of the old masters had usedOGreater material homogeneity. This fact also can explain differences in sound.

Photo: Johanna Vogt.  Source:
Photo: Johanna Vogt. Source:

Another hypothesis tied with a period of cold weather that swept Europe at the end of the 17th century. He slowed down the growth of trees, and in unfavorable conditions the plants form thin-walled cells that accumulate bOLarger volumes of water. The thinner the cell walls, the lower the density of the wood, but the higher the sound conductivity. And some scientists believe that such a material is the key to the unique sound of Stradivarius violins.

Beauty is in the eye of the… listener?

Not everyone agrees that the great master’s violins have a unique and recognizable sound. A number of experts are convinced that everything depends on the individual preferences of the listener.

In 2010, the staff of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris asked two dozen professional violinists compare the capabilities of modern violins with the works of Stradivari and Guarneri. The musicians were given twenty minutes to choose the most enjoyable instrument for them. It was only possible to be guided by sound. The participants in the experiment sat blindfolded in the dark. The researchers also used special fragrances to counteract the smell of the wood.

Photo: Joel Wyncott.  Source:
Photo: Joel Wyncott. Source:

Only eight out of twenty musicians preferred violins made in past centuries over modern musical instruments. At the same time, most of the participants could not say when the violin of their choice was created.

In 2018, staff at the National Taiwan University put forward another curious theory. The sound of violins, which were made by masters before Stradivari, in timbre were closer to bass and baritone, because on stage performed mostly singers. But during the time of the great violin maker, famous female voices appeared. So, Stradivari brought closer the sound of the instrument to higher tones – tenor and alto. These frequencies are believed to be more pleasing to the human ear.

Finally, in the question of the uniqueness of the sound of Stradivari violins, one cannot discount such a factor as the personal “brand” of the master. The most successful instruments brought him fame, and the rest of his works are extolled by default. In this context, it is difficult to say what is the main reason for the exclusivity of Stradivari violins. But there is no denying the fact that everything can depend on the personal preferences of musicians and listeners.

What else do we write about in our “Hi-Fi World”:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply