What makes a Stradivarius violin sound so lively and transcendent that musicians are willing to pay up to several million dollars to own one?
For years, debate has raged on what exactly the Cremonese master did to make his instruments sound so good. Some contend it's the glue or varnish he used. Others believe it's the way he shaped the violin's belly and back plate. Or is the secret really in the wood?
A new study co-authored by Brigham Young University professors in the prestigious scholarly journal Nature puts at least part of the debate to rest.
Noel Owen, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has studied the molecular structure of wood for more than 20 years. Using a scientific technique called infrared spectroscopy, he analyzed thin shavings collected from Stradivari's and lesser-known Guarneri's instruments during repairs.
"The 'spectral fingerprint' of the old masters' instruments is different from instruments made in London and Paris at the time," said Owen, adding the same holds true when comparing modern examples of tone wood from eastern and central Europe. "Some people say this is due to aging, but we ruled that out. The best explanation is that there was a chemical treatment of the wood that modified its chemical structure."
Phil Evans, a professor and director of the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing at the University of British Columbia, says he's pleased to see a paper on wood science appearing in Nature.
"Noel has given all the scientists working in this important but often overlooked branch of material science something to aim for," said Evans. "I'm not surprised that Dr. Owen was involved in the study's analytical work, as, quite simply, he is the best there is in this field."
In addition to Owen's analysis, study co-author Joseph DiVerdi, of Colorado State University, did nuclear magnetic resonance tests on the samples and noted differences in the instruments' wood, too.
The study's lead author, Joseph Nagyvary, a retired Texas A&M biochemist, thinks such differences originate from a regional practice of wood preservation that affected the instruments' mechanical and acoustical properties.
Regardless of how the differences got there, Dennis Tolley, a BYU professor of statistics, determined that they are scientifically significant, a finding that, as a longtime fan of classical music, excites him.
"I don't know about you, but violin music has the ability to whisk me away to a place of different emotion," said Tolley, who often plays recordings of stirring violin concertos when confronting a statistical challenge.
"Though it's unlikely that we'll ever be able to exactly trace the steps Stradivari and Guarneri used to make their instruments, thanks, in part, to this research we may be able to improve the sounds of modern violins," said Tolley. "That's a great thing."
Related at BYU: Monte Belknap, an associate professor of violin in BYU's School of Music, has performed on several of Stradivari's and Guarneri's violins.
"Most of the instruments that violinists play on today are really toys compared to the violins of these great masters," said Belknap. "The great Cremonese instruments have a power, focus and sonorous sound that just cannot be matched."