Study Finds the Accidental Genius of Stradivarius Violins
To this day the violins made by the Italian masters Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri Del Gesuin and Andrea Amati are regarded as among the finest musical instruments ever made.
Now an analysis of nearly 500 violins has found that their characteristic tone and sound is likely to have come about as a result of tiny errors made each time the trio’s craftsmen tried to replicate the original blueprint for their production.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that vital to the sound of what is now commonly known as a Stradivarius violin, is the shape and length of the its F-shaped holes, through which air escapes. The more elongated these holes are, the more noise the instrument can produce. This sound hole was found to be more power efficient than the rounder openings of earlier Medieval fiddles, lyres and rebecs, as well as taking up less space on the instrument.
The thickness of a violin’s back plate also contributes to its acoustic power, with a thicker back plate boosting a violin’s sound.
MIT’s researchers found that violins from the 17th and 18th century “golden age” crafted by Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri’s workshops in the city of Cremona, Italy, slowly evolved so that the F-shaped holes became more elongated and the back plates became thicker. But a computer model of the evolution of the trio’s instruments’ over time, compiled using the measurements of technical drawings of Cremonese-era violins from museums, collector databases and books, as well as X-ray and CAT scans of the instruments, suggests these small alterations were, initially at least, unintentional. In other words, the makers may have created violins with longer sound holes and thicker back plates not by design, but by accident.
Professor Nicholas Makris, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “We found if you try to replicate a sound hole exactly from the last one you made, you will always have a little error. You are cutting with a knife into thin wood and you cannot get it perfectly and the ‘error’ we report is about two per cent.”
What is not yet known is to what extent, if at all, violin makers realized that by making such tiny changes they could improve the tone and volume of the instrument they were crafting.
Comparisons between the sounds of two different instruments made by the same maker may have led to attempts to copy one rather than the other, leading to attempts to replicate the characteristically elongated F-shaped hole and thicker base plate.
Prof. Makris, who was assisted by violin makers from the North Bennet Street School in Boston, said, “People had to be listening and had to be picking things that were more efficient and were making good selection of what instrument to replicate. Whether they understood, ‘Oh, we need to make the sound hole more slender,’ we cannot say. But they definitely knew what was a better instrument to replicate.”
The researchers looked at instruments made by Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri because the consensus among experts and critics is that they were the best violins ever made. They did not examine other violins from the period, so it remains unclear whether other craftsmen were also making similar changes and developments to the shape and design of their instruments with equal success in improving their sound and tone.
Prof. Makris, originally an expert in ocean acoustics, became involved in the latest research after taking up playing the lute a decade ago.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, took seven years to complete and involved examining the acoustic dynamics of stringed instruments from the oud, lute and Medieval fiddles, to the guitar and ultimately the violin, a period spanning 800 years. During this period, sound-hole shape evolved from a simple round shape to a semicircle, which eventually morphed into a C-shape. This grew more elongated until it ultimately became the F-shape of the violin that we recognize today.
Prof. Makris’ team also found the overall shape of the violin’s ancestors slowly evolved to be more powerful and more acoustically efficient, although again not necessarily by design. He said: “We think these changes are still within the possibility of natural mutation. All of these subtle parameters of shape we have modeled and are able to make very good predictions on what the effects will be on frequency and power.”
The conclusions of Prof. Makris’s research may assist contemporary master violin makers looking to design more powerful, fuller-sounding instruments. But he warned that some of the Italian masters’ secret may never by fully unlocked—and that may be no bad thing.
“Mystery is good and there is magic in violin making. Some makers, I do not know how they do it, it is an art form. They have their techniques and methods. But here, for us, it is good to understand scientifically as much as you can,” said Prof. Makrin.
Stradivarius violins can today be worth millions of dollars when sold on the open market. In 2011, his “Lady Blunt” violin from 1721 – named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Blunt, who owned it for 30 years—was auctioned for $15.9 million.