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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