What Makes the Stradivarius Special? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Soprano Voice, With Notes Sounding Like Vowels, Says Researcher

What makes vio­lins made by the Stradi­vari and Guarneri fam­i­lies as valu­able to musi­cians as they are to col­lec­tors? And how do we mea­sure the opti­mal sound qual­i­ty of a vio­lin? One answer comes from vio­lin mak­er Anton Krutz, who spec­u­lates that these high­ly-prized clas­si­cal instru­ments sing so sweet­ly because they are “made with pro­por­tions and spi­rals based on Gold­en Ratio geom­e­try.”

Per­haps. But Joseph Nagy­vary, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in bio­chem­istry at Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty, dis­cov­ered anoth­er, less lofty rea­son for the dis­tinc­tive sound of these cov­et­ed instru­ments. As Texas A&M Today reports, dur­ing his 25 years of research on Stradi­var­ius and Guarneri vio­lins, Nagy­vary found that the two mak­ers “soaked their instru­ments in chem­i­cals such as borax and brine to pro­tect them from a worm infes­ta­tion that was sweep­ing through Italy in the 1700s. By pure acci­dent the chem­i­cals used to pro­tect the wood had the unin­tend­ed result of pro­duc­ing the unique sounds that have been almost impos­si­ble to dupli­cate in the past 400 years.”

Though vio­lins have always been made to imi­tate the human voice, the unique­ness of the Stradi­vari and Guarneri vio­lins, Nagy­vary set out to prove, results in espe­cial­ly human­like tones. In a recent 2013 study pub­lished in the stringed instru­ment sci­ence peri­od­i­cal Savart Jour­nal, Nagy­vary pre­sent­ed research show­ing, writes Live Sci­ence, that these prized Ital­ian instru­ments “pro­duced sev­er­al vow­el sounds, includ­ing the Ital­ian ‘i’ and ‘e’ sounds and sev­er­al vow­el sounds from French and Eng­lish.” Whether by chem­i­cal acci­dent or grand geo­met­ric design, “the great vio­lin mas­ters were mak­ing vio­lins with more human­like voic­es than any oth­ers of the time.”

Seek­ing, as Nagy­vary says in the short video above, to “define what was the stan­dard of excel­lence for the vio­lin sound,” he decid­ed to mea­sure the Stradi­vari and Guarneri-made instru­ments against the orig­i­nal mod­el for their tim­bre: the female sopra­no voice. To com­pare the two, he had Itzhak Perl­man record a scale on a 1743 Guarneri vio­lin, then asked Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera sopra­no Emi­ly Pul­ley to record her voice while she sang var­i­ous vow­el sounds. Nagy­vary ana­lyzed the har­mon­ic con­tent of both record­ings with a com­put­er pro­gram and mapped the results against each oth­er.

His project, writes Texas A&M Today, effec­tive­ly “proved that the sounds of Pulley’s voice and the violin’s could be locat­ed on the same map… and their respec­tive graph­ic images can be direct­ly com­pared.” The Guarneri vio­lin does indeed exact­ly mim­ic the tones of the singing human voice, repli­cat­ing vow­el sounds from Old Ital­ian and oth­er Euro­pean lan­guages.

Nagy­vary thinks his find­ings “could change how vio­lins may be valued”—for their sound rather than for the label inside the instru­ment. A vio­lin mak­er him­self, the for­mer bio­chem­istry pro­fes­sor also sug­gests a more prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion for his research find­ings: they might teach vio­lin mak­ers how to improve the qual­i­ty of their instru­ments. Nagyvary’s sci­en­tif­ic approach may offer luthiers the exact chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion and the mea­sur­able tonal qual­i­ties of the Stradi­var­ius, enabling them to final­ly dupli­cate these beloved Renais­sance instru­ments.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Vio­lins Have F‑Holes: The Sci­ence & His­to­ry of a Remark­able Renais­sance Design

Musi­cian Plays the Last Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

The Art and Sci­ence of Vio­lin Mak­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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