Friday, April 30, 2010

Wood for Great Violins

The latest book I have been reading is Barron's Pocket Factbook of Natural History. Among the many intriguing facts now in my pocket is that the secret of the superior sound of Stradivarius violins may be that they were made from trees growing during the Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age lasted from about the 15th century to the 19th century. Within this period there were three distinct low points. Antonio Stradivari was born just before the beginning of the lowest low point (the "Maunder Minimum"), which lasted from about 1645 to 1715. Therefore, the wood he used for his violins came from trees growing during the Little Ice Age, and especially during the Maunder Minimum.

It is well known that wood growing during colder weather is denser than wood growing during warmer weather. The wider, lighter colored rings of a tree are created during the growing season, and are more porous (less dense) because they are transporting water. If the growing season is colder, the tree will grow less, these rings will be narrower, and the tree overall will be more dense. There will also be less variation in density throughout the wood, since the lighter rings will be closer in density to the darker rings.

It is believed that (among many other factors), wood with a more uniform density makes a better sounding violin. Since the trees growing during the Maunder Minimum would have the most uniform density in recent history, Stradivari and his contemporaries had a natural advantage over modern luthiers (violin makers).

I should note that the superiority of Stradivarius violins is controversial. Many blind tests have been conducted over the years, with experts unable to distinguish between a Stradivarius and other high quality violins. In one interesting test, the clear winner was a modern violin in which the wood had been treated with fungus.

Spruce treated with the fungus Physiporinus vitrius was used for the front of this violin, and sycamore treated with with Xylaria longipes was used for the back. These fungi are known for breaking down the cell walls within the wood, but leaving the structural compounds between the cells intact. This makes the wood less dense but just as strong. Because of the way these particular fungi selectively break down the wood, they decrease the variation in its density. This is a different means to the same end, of making the wood more uniform.

Other methods have been tried over the years for making the density of wood more uniform, although it is not believed that Stradivari used these methods. They include soaking the wood in water ("ponding") and boiling it ("stewing"). Ponding may inadvertently use microorganisms in the pond that work in a similar manner to the fungi described above. The common practice of air drying wood before using it also increases its uniformity.

After all is said and done, there is one thing everyone can agree on - the beautiful music created by the violinist would not be possible without the beautiful, majestic trees.


  1. It's no surprise that the quality of wood would affect the quality of a violin (or guitar or other similar instrument), but this detail on the Little Ice Age trees is fascinating!

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