Chemical Clues To The Stradivarius Sound | February 2, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 5 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 5 | p. 29 | Concentrates
Issue Date: February 2, 2009

Chemical Clues To The Stradivarius Sound

Analyses reveal identities of wood protectors in instruments
Department: Science & Technology
A violin made by Cremonese master Guarneri.
Credit: Terry Boman
A violin made by Cremonese master Guarneri.
Credit: Terry Boman

Scientists have long puzzled over why violins and cellos made by the 18th-century masters Antonio Stradivari and Joseph Guarneri del Gesù of Cremona, Italy, sound so superior to other instruments. Ideas abound: It's the wood; it's the varnish; it's the glue. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemistry professor emeritus at Texas A&M University and violin maker, has argued for decades that chemical treatments used to protect the wood from worms and fungus are the true source of the famed Cremonese sound. Now, Nagyvary and Texas A&M colleagues Renald N. Guillemette and Clifford H. Spiegelman have new evidence to support that argument (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004245). The researchers used electron imaging, X-ray methods, and other techniques to examine samples from four instruments made by Stradivari and Guarneri, as well as instruments made during the same period in other parts of Europe. The Cremonese instruments "showed the unmistakable signs of chemical treatments in the form of chemicals which are not present in natural woods," the authors report. The chemicals identified include borax, BaSO4, CaF2, and ZrSiO4. Untreated, natural wood might not be the right material for violin makers hoping to duplicate the Cremona sound, the authors suggest.

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