Why Scientists Can’t Recreate the Sound of Stradivarius Violins: The Mystery of Their Inimitable Sound

In his influ­en­tial 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion,” crit­ic Wal­ter Ben­jamin used the word “aura” to describe an artwork’s “pres­ence in time and space” — an expla­na­tion of the thrill, or chill, we get from stand­ing before a Jack­son Pol­lock, say, or a Michelan­ge­lo, rather than a pho­to­graph of the same. Writ­ing in the age of radio, pho­tog­ra­phy, and news­pa­pers, Ben­jamin believed that aura could not be trans­mit­ted or copied: “Even the most per­fect repro­duc­tion of a work of art is lack­ing in one ele­ment” — that rare thing that makes art worth pre­serv­ing and repro­duc­ing in the first place.

Let’s grant, for the sake of argu­ment, that musi­cal instru­ments have aura — that the very sounds they make are its man­i­fes­ta­tion, and that, no mat­ter how sophis­ti­cat­ed our tech­nol­o­gy, we may nev­er repro­duce those sounds per­fect­ly. As Hank Green explains in the SciShow video above: “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.” Can sci­ence solve the mys­tery?

At heart, the ques­tion seems to be whether the aur­al qual­i­ties of a Stradi­vari instru­ment can be plucked from their time and place of ori­gin and made fun­gi­ble, so to speak, across the cen­turies. Anto­nio Stradi­vari (his name is often Latinized to “Stradi­var­ius”) began mak­ing vio­lins in the 1600s and con­tin­ued, with his sons Francesco and Omobono, until his death in 1737, pro­duc­ing around 1000 instru­ments, most of which were vio­lins. About 650 of those instru­ments sur­vive today, and approx­i­mate­ly 500 of those are vio­lins, rang­ing in val­ue from tens of mil­lions to price­less.

Green sur­veys the tech­niques, mate­ri­als, physics, and chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of Stradi­vari vio­lins “to under­stand why Stradi­var­ius vio­lins have been so hard to recre­ate.” Their sound has been described as “sil­very,” says Green, a word that sounds pret­ty but has lit­tle tech­ni­cal mean­ing. Rather than rely on adjec­tives, researchers from diverse fields have tried to work from the objects them­selves — ana­lyz­ing and attempt­ing to recre­ate the vio­lins’ shape, con­struc­tion, mate­ri­als, etc. They’ve learned that time and place mat­ter more than they sup­posed.

The wood of a Stradi­vari vio­lin “real­ly is dif­fer­ent,” Green says, “but because Stradi­vari nev­er wrote down his process, researchers can’t quite tell why.” That wood itself grew in a process over which Stradi­vari had no con­trol. The alpine spruce he used came from trees har­vest­ed “at the edge of Europe’s Lit­tle Ice Age, a 70-year peri­od of unsea­son­ably cold weath­er … that slowed tree growth and made for even more con­sis­tent wood.” We begin to see the dif­fi­cul­ties. One researcher, Joseph Nagy­vary, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of bio­chem­istry at Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty, recent­ly made anoth­er dis­cov­ery. As Texas A&M Today notes:

[Stradi­vari and fel­low mak­er Guarneri] 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.

Per­haps we can­not dupli­cate the sound because none of us is Anto­nio Stradi­vari, work­ing with his sons in the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry in Cre­mona, Italy, build­ing vio­lins with a unique crop of alpine spruce while fight­ing unsea­son­ably cold weath­er and worms.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

Watch Price­less 17-Cen­tu­ry Stradi­var­ius and Amati Vio­lins Get Tak­en for a Test Dri­ve by Pro­fes­sion­al Vio­lin­ists

Why Stradi­var­ius Vio­lins Are Worth Mil­lions

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

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Comments (9)
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  • Mike M says:

    Stradi­vari made great instru­ments, but there are also many excel­lent mod­ern instru­ments. Blind test­ing has shown that nei­ther play­ers nor lis­ten­ers can dis­tin­guish nor do they nec­es­sar­i­ly pre­fer Stradi­vari vio­lins when direct­ly com­pared to the finest mod­ern instru­ments. There is a mythos behind these fine old instru­ments that is more leg­end than sci­ence.

  • John H says:

    In rela­tion to Mike M’s com­ment, on an arti­cle about the blind test­ing which sup­port­ed his com­ment I came across the fol­low­ing state­ment. Sounds like either the place­bo effect or brand mar­ket­ing.

    The find­ing also leaves open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Strads do sound bet­ter than mod­ern instru­ments under cer­tain circumstances—when the lis­ten­er knows they are hear­ing a leg­endary instru­ment. “If you know it’s a Strad, you will hear it dif­fer­ent­ly,” Fritz says. “And you can’t turn off that effect.”

  • Barry R says:

    David Ois­trakh plus his strad (on loan to him for 10 years) plus Tchaikovsky vio­lin con­cer­to will con­vince you that ” strads do mat­ter”.

  • Philip says:

    Chips me a dig­gleswitch!! Nacho Cheeze Dori­tos taste much bet­ter than Cool Ranch Dori­tos. Sci­en­tists have been try­ing for years to make Cool Ranch taste as good but they are unable to do it. And Ford sucks! Any­body who owns a Chevy knows that for a fact.

  • Philip M Wagner says:

    Mind con­trol. It’s all about pro­gram­ming the sheeple.

  • David A Cartwright says:

    I heard, many years ago, that there may have been some chem­i­cal in the glue that Stradi­var­ius used that caused an extra res­o­nance when the instru­ment was being played and that this fac­tor is respon­si­ble for the dif­fer­ence in the qual­i­ty of the sound. I don’t know if any­one has con­duct­ed any research to prove or dis­prove this the­o­ry in the inter­ven­ing peri­od.

  • Nick Vertucci says:

    I know some­one who has a Stradi­var­ius Junior. It’s one of the miss­ing ones

  • Edward Chan says:

    Same with the famous Ital­ian, Tul­lio Cam­pag­no­lo!

  • Craig W Brinker says:

    It’s been solved.
    In the fin­ish were ground up indus­tri­al Ruby’s emer­alds and diamonds..but even as just small specs their still Crys­tal’s and sound like light through a crys­tal shat­ters it splin­ters and that is what caus­es the unique sound .
    Texas A+M is very aware of this
    One of their pro­fes­sors from what I heard yrs ago was sued for chip­ping the fin­ish off a mil­lion dol­lar strat so he could exam­ine it under an elec­ton micro­scope .

    And in their was the find of Crys­tal’s.
    Bril­liant idea if you think about how light and sound inter­act going through a prism

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