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Stradivarius are synonymous with quality, but how we can replicate their sound is a mystery!

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Thank you to Cometeer for sponsoring today’s episode! Cometeer offers pour-over quality coffee that’s delivered in frozen, recyclable aluminum capsules.

You can click the link in the description and receive 50% off your first purchase so you can try their coffee for just $1 a cup! Even if you have never touched a violin before, there’s a pretty good chance you have heard of the violin maker Stradivarius. For many in the music world, it’s a name synonymous with unparalleled quality.

Stradivarius instruments have a sound that’s supposedly impossible to find anywhere else. For centuries, musicians, instrument makers, engineers, and scientists have been trying to understand and reproduce the “Stradivarius” sound. They’ve investigated everything from the materials their maker used to how he crafted the violins.

But the mystique is still there. So, let’s take a look at what sets these instruments apart, from the maker’s techniques, his materials, and the chemistry and physics of string instruments, to understand why Stradivarius violins have been so hard to recreate. Antonio Stradivari was a violin maker who lived in the northern Italian city of Cremona in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

His name was often Latinized from “Stradivari” to “Stradivarius,” but people in the know call his instruments “strads.” Today, only around 650 strads remain, and they are among the world’s most sought-after instruments. They’ve been described as having a “silvery” quality to their sound. Which is easy to say, but it means nothing to me, but much harder to describe scientifically.

But that doesn’t mean scientists haven’t tried. From chemistry to physics, forestry, and psychology, scientists from all sorts of disciplines have tried to uncover the “mysteries of Stradivari.” To understand the Stradivari sound, let’s start with how any violin gets its sound in the first place. Four strings are kept tight between tuning pegs on one end and a tailpiece on the other.

The strings are suspended between the nut and the bridge, which are both attached to the body. The tuning pegs can be twisted to adjust the strings’ tightness. Drag a horsehair bow across the strings, and they vibrate.

That vibration is then transferred into the body by the nut and the bridge. And it’s the body that makes a violin sound like a violin. The body and the air can vibrate at the same frequency, say, for example, 440 times per second for an “A.” But not everything in the violin vibrates at the exact same frequency.

Some parts vibrate at multiples of the frequency, like 880 or 1320, and those are called harmonics. The shape and material of the body can amplify some harmonics while dampening others. The shape and material also contribute to the violin’s resonance.

Like any object, there are certain frequencies where the violin body vibrates most easily. If you then vibrate the strings at the same pitch that the body vibrates at, it produces resonance. And what makes a violin sound different from a piano or a trumpet, or even different from other violins, is the precise balance of harmonics and resonances it produces across the range of possible frequencies.

There have even been studies that tried to find differences in the way Stradivari violins vibrate with 3D scans, but they couldn’t detect much that was special. On top of that, strads have a lot of variety in shape, and yet they all reportedly produce the highest quality sound, so that attribute alone can’t explain the Stradivarius sound. So how about the material the body is made from?

Violin bodies usually consist of a combination of different woods. The bottom and sides tend to be made of maple, while spruce is preferable for the top. But not just any bit of wood will do.

The best violin woods are stiff and strong to hold up against the tension of the strings, yet spring back to shape after being bent, to create vibration. Stradivari famously used alpine spruce for the tops of his violins. It grows slowly, resulting in grain that is close together and straight.

And that tends to make it strong, but still light and elastic: exactly what violin makers look for. Stradivari also happened to live at the edge of Europe’s Little Ice Age, a 70-year period of unseasonably cold weather that lasted from 1645 to 1715. That slowed tree growth and made for even more consistent wood.

A group in Switzerland tried to replicate this with an unusual tool: fungus. By treating spruce and maple with fungi that altered the wood’s cellular structure, they created materials similar to those Stradivari used. The fungi would eat some of the cell walls in the thicker parts of the wood, evening out the density overall.

They even made violins out of the fungus-treated wood, which they call “biotech Stradivariuses.” These biotech violins apparently sound great, and some think they are comparable to the real deal. There’s also a theory that Stradivari treated his wood with salts and smoke. Chemical analysis shows that the Stradivari violin wood really is different, but because Stradivari never wrote down his process, researchers can’t quite tell why.

They can only try to reverse-engineer it based on what the wood looks like today. After testing maple from three different strads, they found normal chemical changes due to age, but also elevated levels of metals like aluminum, calcium, and copper. Which hints at some kind of special treatment.

The researchers believe Stradivari’s chemical treatment, whatever it was, might have been unique. On top of their material advantages, though, strads also have the benefit of age. Among other things, wood dries out with age, subtly altering its characteristics.

As wood gets older, it’s less able to stop itself vibrating, a property known as dampening. But Stradivari had competitors, like Giuseppe Guarneri, who would have had access to the same wood, and their violins are just as old. So the age of the wood isn’t the whole answer, either.

So where does that leave us? Here’s what we know: Stradivari was undoubtedly very skilled at making violins, had access to some great materials, maybe used some secret chemistry, and perhaps a fine violin just gets better with age. But what makes Stradivari violins sound unique?

But wait, we haven’t asked this question, are they actually unique? Do they really sound better than anything we could make today? Scientists set up double-blind tests in 2017, in which players who didn’t know whether they were playing a modern violin or a strad played for an audience that didn’t know either.

And, when asked which sounded better, neither the players nor the audience could reliably tell them apart. In fact, many actually preferred the sound of the modern instruments. So, maybe the answer in the end lies with psychology.

When musicians know they’re playing a one-of-a-kind instrument, passed down through generations of the world’s greatest players, they might feel special and important, and maybe that helps them play better. And, when we listen to someone who we know is playing a million-dollar Stradivarius, we feel special and important, so we might think it sounds better. Like how if we know a wine is expensive, we’ll think it tastes better.

After 400 years, we might have uncovered some of the chemistry, physics, and biology that go into making a violin a strad, but ultimately, maybe the magic of a Stradivarius really comes down to the shared experience of music, history, and science. Thank you to Cometeer for supporting this episode! If you really enjoyed this episode and you love learning how science can help us solve mysteries, why not watch more SciShow while sipping a nice cup of Joe?

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