The Art and Science of Violin Making

Sam Zyg­muntow­icz is a world-renowned luthi­er, or mak­er of stringed instru­ments. Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma play his instru­ments. In 2003, a vio­lin he made for Isaac Stern sold at auc­tion for $130,000–the high­est price ever for an instru­ment by a liv­ing luthi­er. To sum up Zyg­muntow­icz’s stature as a builder of fine instru­ments, Tim J. Ingles, direc­tor of musi­cal instru­ments for Sothe­by’s, told Forbes mag­a­zine: “There are no more than six peo­ple who are at his lev­el.”

Zyg­muntow­icz is the sub­ject of a 2007 book by John March­ese called The Vio­lin Mak­er: Find­ing a Cen­turies-Old Tra­di­tion in a Brook­lyn Work­shop. In one pas­sage, March­ese writes about the mys­te­ri­ous acousti­cal qual­i­ties of the vio­lin, which he likens to a mag­ic box:

The laws that gov­ern the build­ing of this box were decid­ed upon a short time before the laws of grav­i­ty were dis­cov­ered, and they have remained remark­ably unchanged since then. It is com­mon­ly thought that the vio­lin is the most per­fect acousti­cal­ly of all musi­cal instru­ments. It is quite uncom­mon to find some­one who can explain exact­ly why. One physi­cist who spent decades try­ing to under­stand why the vio­lin works so well said that it was the world’s most ana­lyzed musi­cal instrument–and the least under­stood.

The most famous, and fabled, stringed instru­ments are those that were made in Cre­mona, Italy, in the late 17th and ear­ly 18th cen­turies by Anto­nio Stradi­vari and a hand­ful of oth­er mas­ters. In Zyg­muntow­icz’s work­shop in the Park Slope neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn, New York, there is a bumper stick­er that says, “My oth­er fid­dle is a Strad.” Behind the joke lies a seri­ous point. Zyg­muntow­icz wants great musi­cians to use his instruments–not because they are cheap­er than a Stradi­var­ius, but because they are bet­ter. He’s try­ing to break a bar­ri­er that has been firm­ly in place for cen­turies. “I call it the ‘Strad Ceil­ing,’ ” he told NPR in 2008. “You know, if some­one has a Strad in their case, will they play your fid­dle?”

Although Joshua Bell owns a Zyg­muntow­icz, he most­ly calls on the luthi­er to make fine adjust­ments to his Stradi­var­ius. But Eugene Druck­er of the Emer­son String Quar­tet told Forbes that he actu­al­ly prefers his Zyg­muntow­icz to his 1686 Stradi­var­ius in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. “In a large space like Carnegie Hall,” he said, “the Zyg­muntow­icz is supe­ri­or to my Strad. It has more pow­er and punch.” In spite of the mys­tique that sur­rounds Stradi­vari and the oth­er Cre­mona mas­ters, Zyg­muntow­icz sees no rea­son why a mod­ern luthi­er could­n’t make a bet­ter instru­ment. “There isn’t any inef­fa­ble essence,” he told the The New York Times ear­li­er this year, “only a phys­i­cal object that works bet­ter or worse in a vari­ety of cir­cum­stances.”

For a quick intro­duc­tion to Zyg­muntow­icz’s work, watch a new video, above, by pho­tog­ra­ph­er and film­mak­er Dustin Cohen, and an ear­li­er piece by Jon Groat of Newsweek, below. And to dive deep­er into the sci­ence of the vio­lin, be sure to vis­it the “Strad3D” Web site, which fea­tures fas­ci­nat­ing excerpts from Eugene Schenkman’s film about Zyg­muntow­icz’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with physi­cist George Bissinger on a project using 3D laser scans, CT scans and oth­er tech­nolo­gies to ana­lyze the acousti­cal prop­er­ties of vio­lins by Stradi­vari and Giuseppe Guarneri. As Zyg­muntow­icz told Strings mag­a­zine in 2006, “What makes those vio­lins work is more know­able now than it ever was.” H/T Kot­tke

Note: if you have any prob­lems watch­ing the video below, you can watch an alter­nate ver­sion here.

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  • Derek says:

    If you are inter­est­ed in vio­lin mak­ing and are look­ing for a detailed guide with plans, vis­it

  • Alwyn Carvalho says:

    It’s good to see mod­ern vio­lins find­ing promi­nent place in a soloist’s career, espe­cial­ly with the find­ings of The Dou­ble Blind Exper­i­ments, but still the price is steep enough to com­mend blind test of yet cheap­er mod­ern instru­ments.

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