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Wood Density May Explain Stradivarius Secret 318

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the don't-sit-on-it dept.
Whorhay writes "A Dutch doctor and a violin maker from Arkansas have compared five classical and eight modern violins in a computed tomography (CT) scanner. Apparently the 300-year-old violins are made of wood with a more consistent density than the modern violins. They aren't saying for sure that this is what gives the Stradivarius violins their unique sound, but it's the first scientific explanation I've heard for it that seems to have merit." Unfortunately science has yet to explain how how all three chords I know ROCK on my SG.
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Wood Density May Explain Stradivarius Secret

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Wood", "Stradivarius", and "Secret" made me think that the article must be about Dinosaur pr0n. :/

  • Harmonics (Score:5, Funny)

    by Bandman (86149) <bandman@@@gmail...com> on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:41AM (#24043913) Homepage

    It might go a log way to preventing them from producing undesirable harmonics.

    Anyone know of any studies which looked at the waveforms to find unique qualities?

    • Re:Harmonics (Score:5, Informative)

      by bigtomrodney (993427) * on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:45AM (#24044019)
      I wouldn't be all that surprised. Wood quality has always been a key factor in instruments. Even with electric guitars weight and density are considered a good thing. You'll find people complaining how heavy their Les Paul Custom is yet still play it for the sustain the extra weight provides. And Swamp Ash is a preferred material for Stratocasters and Telecasters because it is very hard while not being as heavy. High density again would provide for more fidelity in sound transfer.But hey, don't expect the science to devalue the old instruments. A '59 'Burst can still cost you $250,000.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Bandman (86149)

        Not being a guitar player, I have to ask...

        Is it the density, mass, or maybe the structure?

        Would a quartz guitar play amazingly?

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          Not likely. Jackson made and aluminum guitar, and I thought that it soundedking of harsh. My mahogany guitar sounds different than my ash guitar and my mystery wood guitar, they all have maple necks and the same model picukps. Mahogany is warm, ash is a little bright, etc.

          I also think a crystal guitar would buckle the first time you put the strings on. they run at 16+ pounds of tension per string.

          • by Bandman (86149)

            Ah. Bummer.

            You have to admit, it would look pretty cool with flashing lights going through it, though ;-)

          • Re:Harmonics (Score:4, Informative)

            by m50d (797211) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @11:01AM (#24045517) Homepage Journal
            Crystal, particularly Quartz, wouldn't buckle; it's far too brittle for that. It'd either stay solid or shatter, and given the strength of the stuff, I'd imagine the former. It might actually be worth making, though how the hell GP is proposing to get a quartz crystal large enough to carve a guitar out of I don't know (and if the top isn't carved from a single contignous piece of the original material, it's practically guaranteed to sound awful).
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          Quartz would sound aweful. However, B.C. Rich and Ampeg made acrylic guitars before. I don't know if they still do. Anyway, they sounded OK I suppose. The biggest drawback was the weight. I played one once and my shoulder was sore after the first song.
          • clearbody (Score:3, Interesting)

            by garyrich (30652)

            There's a reissue of the Ampeg/Dan Armstrong Clearbody out now. The original ones were OK with a pickup that slid from neck to bridge and were really cheap. The bass was a bit better than the guitar, the guitar had a plain boring tone. The reissue is way to expensive.

      • Re:Harmonics (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ari_j (90255) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:16AM (#24044563)
        Wood - all aspects, from density to shape - plays a huge role in guitar tone. I've always found this to be rather astonishing since the sound of an electric guitar comes from a vibrating piece of wire interacting with a small magnet. How is it that the thing holding the string above the magnet can play such a big part in what the magnetic field is doing? But it does, and that's pretty cool to me.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          I am not a guitar player. I might try my hand at making one, though.

          I can imagine that the wood affects the rigidity with which the bridge and (for guitars, the fret on) the neck hold the string, and hold the pick up under the string. Some frequency components of the vibration of the string get damped because the body and the neck absorb them.

          And, of course, the weight and shape and finish of the instrument change how it affects the musician. Do not underestimate this impact.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Xtravar (725372)

            And, of course, the weight and shape and finish of the instrument change how it affects the musician. Do not underestimate this impact.

            That's very true. There's nothing quite like the inspiration you get from jamming the first time with a new guitar.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by sjames (1099)

          Tie two pendulums of the same length to a single wood dowel. Mount it stably and start one of them swinging. Watch the other one.

          Even knowing that, it does seem like it wouldn't make as much difference as it actually does.

      • Re:Harmonics (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Doctor Faustus (127273) <Slashdot@@@WilliamCleveland...Org> on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:22AM (#24044701) Homepage

        Even with electric guitars weight and density are considered a good thing. You'll find people complaining how heavy their Les Paul Custom is yet still play it for the sustain the extra weight provides.
        That sustain comes at the expense of having a very simple clean tone. They're great for distortion, though.

        And Swamp Ash is a preferred material for Stratocasters and Telecasters because it is very hard while not being as heavy.
        A swamp ash Stratocaster is my ideal guitar for playing clean, since it brings out the fundamental note and higher harmonics without so much midrange -- that's great for getting an ominous sound when you want it. I suspect it's the hardness that lets the higher frequencies reverberate so well.

        You have to remember, though, that Fender sells many times more Stratocasters made of Alder than made of ash. Not everyone wants that sound.

      • Re:Harmonics (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Psychopath (18031) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:29AM (#24044843) Homepage

        I saw a special, on History Channel I think, where they thought that the trees that Stradivarius used to make his violins had unusual density qualities caused by the mini ice age.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by BrokenHalo (565198)
          I saw a special, on History Channel I think, where they thought that the trees that Stradivarius used to make his violins had unusual density qualities caused by the mini ice age.

          I would be surprised if, in his entire lifetime, Antonio Stradivari used much more than two trees. I say this because, as any violinist knows (and yes IAAV and violin-maker) most violins are made with a spruce belly and maple backs and sides.

          Given that these members were and are quarter-sawn (i.e cut radially across the trunk),
          • Re:Harmonics (Score:4, Informative)

            by budgenator (254554) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @05:31PM (#24051933) Journal

            There is quite a demand for old growth dunderheads ,logs to heavy to float all the way to the sawmill from the logging days. One of these logs pulled out of the mud in a river or lake bottom after a hundred years can fetch thousands or or tens of thousands of dollars at auction depending on condition and species.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Hey I don't normally post and too lazy to make an account. But on the side, I am a vibration expert. A few fundimentals that you actually bring up. Instruments such as a guitar or violin, use the chamber to cause the amplification of certain frequencies.
        This amplification is called Resounance.
        Resounance is a multiplier to a force frequency and is a function of mass and stiffness. If we all remember D = M/V so the more dense it is for it's size the more mass it has.
        The more mass the lower it's natural re

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by petermartin (999539)

        You'll find people complaining how heavy their Les Paul Custom is yet still play it for the sustain the extra weight provides.

        Nigel: The sustain...listen to it...

        Marty: I'm not hearing anything.

        Nigel: You would, though, if it were playing.

    • by An ominous Cow art (320322) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:47AM (#24044043) Journal

      It might go a log way

      Nicely played. :-)

    • Re:Harmonics (Score:5, Informative)

      by tompaulco (629533) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:05AM (#24044361) Homepage Journal
      Acoustically, a consistent density would tend toward one resonance frequency (and it's harmonics), whereas an inconsistent density could have many resonance frequencies and their harmonics, which would probably be less pleasing to the air. I know it wouldn't work well for a violin, but when designing subwoofer boxes, it is recommended to use particle board for reasons of both structural rigidity and almost complete lack of resonance frequency.
      • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:14AM (#24044515) Journal

        This is all too complicated. I'm just going to wait for "Violin Hero" to come out. The delux package comes with a kettle drum, brass and woodwind section, conductor's baton, etc.

        • by robertjw (728654)

          This is all too complicated. I'm just going to wait for "Violin Hero" to come out. The delux package comes with a kettle drum, brass and woodwind section, conductor's baton, etc.

          The first version of consists entirely of tracks from
          Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd by the London Philharmonic Orchestra

          • by Bandman (86149)

            I'd buy that so fast, you have no idea

          • Or if they're really cruel, they could include some Philip Glass.

            Nobody quite does mindlessly repetitive 12-minute songs played at breakneck speeds like Glass does...

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          This is all too complicated. I'm just going to wait for "Violin Hero" to come out. The delux package comes with a kettle drum, brass and woodwind section, conductor's baton, etc.

          And, of course, more cow bell. :-P

          Cheers

    • by gad_zuki! (70830)

      What about "learned" harmonics? I imagine violin players grow up listening to recordings of strads and have internalized their timbre. They may not sound better than a similiar instrument, people have accepted the differences and flaws as superior.

  • by CXI (46706) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:43AM (#24043957) Homepage
    Here's an article from 2004 about the fact that the Little Ice Age [wikipedia.org] was most likely responsible for slowing tree growth and creating perfect wood for violins: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0107_040107_violin.html [nationalgeographic.com]
    • by zippthorne (748122) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:44AM (#24043987) Journal

      So.. you blame Global Warming?

    • by crow (16139) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:45AM (#24044017) Homepage Journal

      So I suppose someone could carefully manage a tree farm to produce some new perfect instruments.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by peragrin (659227)

        It would have to be an indoor tree farm, as things like cool temperatures, sunlight, humidity would all have to be carefully controlled. If a little ice age can slow the growth of the trees down you would have to duplicate that, over a period of 30-50 years to grow the slow growth trees large enough for timber.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by robertjw (728654)

          It would have to be an indoor tree farm, as things like cool temperatures, sunlight, humidity would all have to be carefully controlled. If a little ice age can slow the growth of the trees down you would have to duplicate that, over a period of 30-50 years to grow the slow growth trees large enough for timber.

          Wouldn't it be possible to find a natural climate that caused slower tree growth. I live in Colorado, and trees tend to grow slowly here, probably due to the dryness and possibly altitude. Would an ash or maple from Colorado produce a superior instrument?

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            I personally know of a small growth of pine trees in Eastern Washington that have taken nearly 30 years to grow to a height of 15-20 feet. If these trees had gotten more than a few inches of water a year they'd probably 2 or 3 times that height.

            Apparently pine trees are considered fast growing trees [arborday.org] and here's some info on what is considered, slow, medium and fast growing rates [arborday.org]

            âoeThe designation slow means the plant grows 12â or less per year; medium refers to 13 to 24â of growth per year; a

    • by b4upoo (166390) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:47AM (#24044061)

      There is much confusion among musicians as to what causes tone qualities in various instruments. Violins may well be locked to resonance
      more than other instruments. But for brass and woodwinds the hardness of the material is overwhelming as an influence. What is not clear in any instrument is to what degree the hardness of the surface coatings are vital as opposed to the hardness of the material underneath the coatings. Dr. Adolf Sax from whom the saxophone gets its name was the genius who discovered the importance of surface coatings.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by The Gaytriot (1254048)
        Yes, one of the things I remember reading about early wooden string instruments is that the maker would use ground up locust shells to make a kind of lacquer for the instruments. They figured since they could hear locust swarms coming from miles away, their wings and bodies had properties which allowed them to project sound well.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Slashidiot (1179447)
        I also think there is some other reason why Stradivari violins are so good. It's called bias. Yes, they are fine instruments, no doubt, about the best there is, no doubt. But can you detect a Stradivarius without knowing it is one? And telling it apart from a Guarnerius or Amati? Or even a good quality modern instrument?

        There is a good bit of knowing it is an expensive instrument in hearing a big difference. The player plays a much bigger role. A good player on a good day with a cheap violin can sound be
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by gstoddart (321705)

          It's called bias. Yes, they are fine instruments, no doubt, about the best there is, no doubt. But can you detect a Stradivarius without knowing it is one? And telling it apart from a Guarnerius or Amati? Or even a good quality modern instrument?

          Thee and me, probably not.

          According to this [sonoma.edu]:

          A common question: In a blind test, could a nonmusician or "uneducated" listener tell the difference between a Stradivarius and some other violin? The answer is that it depends. If the other violin, whether old or modern,

          • by Slashidiot (1179447) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @11:59AM (#24046637) Journal
            Actually, one of my uncles (the rich one) is a violin collector. He has several antique violines, most of them italian. He actually owns a Guarneri, which are regarded as the best violins, second only to the Stradivarius. It is a wonderful instrument, but the difference with other much less appreciated violins is quite small. It does have a "wider" sound, but you can only tell if you listen carefully, and repeatedly, comparing with another violin. I can hardly tell apart a 10.000$ violin from a 1.000.000$ violin.

            When you get to a certain quality, you start getting diminishing returns, and there is really no difference from a certain point on.

            It's like encoding music. You can easily tell a 32kbps file from a 128kbps file, but it's harder to tell a 160kbps from a 256kbps. And anything over that is just a waste of bits. A Stradivarius might sound as good as an uncompressed WAV file, but there are many violins that sound as good as a 320kbps mp3. (What a great analogy, better than cars).
        • Magic........ (Score:4, Interesting)

          by tinkerghost (944862) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @12:29PM (#24047191) Homepage
          I admit I took violin & cello for 3 years - it was that or sing & nobody should be subjected to that.

          But can you detect a Stradivarius without knowing it is one?

          Yes, a trained professional can pick a Strad' out of a crowd of violins just by the tonal qualities. The resonances & harmonics have a distinctive gestalt.

          And telling it apart from a Guarnerius or Amati?Or even a good quality modern instrument?

          Dito.

          There is a good bit of knowing it is an expensive instrument in hearing a big difference.

          No, there is a difference that you can clearly see in the waveforms between a good instrument and a great instrument.

          A good player on a good day with a cheap violin can sound better than that same player on a bad day with a Stradivarius.

          God no. Ignoring the sense of pacing, emotion, and the hundreds of details a violinist can put into a piece, a cheap violin sounds just that - cheap. Even on a bad day, a mastercrafted violin has a sense of warmth & a clarity of tone that a cheap instrument can't match. It's like saying a trashcan lid is just as good as a Zildian cymbal.
          That being said, there is a diminishing return & once you get into those instruments that are made by the masters of their craft, then the differences become minute. The difference between an instrument hand crafted by a master of the art & any mass produced ones will be detectable.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by turbidostato (878842)

          "But can you detect a Stradivarius without knowing it is one? And telling it apart from a Guarnerius or Amati? Or even a good quality modern instrument?"

          Sure almost anyone would. Not to say you are not (partially) right, but not on this one. I never had the chance to listen to neither and Stradivarius nor a Guarneri but I had listened to a decent collection of violins of different qualities and ages and certainly the differences among them are conspicous and, in general, there will be a concordance among

      • Dr. Adolf Sax from whom the saxophone gets its name

        Ah, the other famous Belgian.

        P.S. it's Adolphe.

    • by sm62704 (957197)

      TFA I saw yesterday (New Scientist) said that it was possible that the wood's age may have something to do with its even density.

      A good luthier should test this by finding some antique wood and making violins out of it.

  • by blahbooboo (839709) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:45AM (#24044003)

    Well, perhaps this is the final verdict? However, in the past the claim was the wood was from logs that were at the bottom of a swamp or something. Also, it was thought to be the chemical treatment. I suspect this is just the latest theory.

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/Stradivarius-Violins-Mystery-Solved-41462.shtml [softpedia.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I heard something similar from a violin maker in Indiana. He said the wood was treated by submerging it in the acidic bogs around Cremona. Supposedly this efficiently removed the pectin [wikipedia.org] leaving only the cellulose.
    • by jbeaupre (752124)
      The story I heard long ago rejected the old story of him tapping on trees. Instead he bought his wood from local suppliers. To easily move and manage their inventory, the suppliers kept the logs floating in water (canals or lagoons, I forget). This surreptitiously altered the wood.
  • New news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by demonbug (309515) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:45AM (#24044015) Journal

    They aren't saying for sure that this is what gives the Stradivarius's their unique sound but it's the first scientific explanation I've heard for it that seems to have merit.

    This idea (and papers supporting it) have been around for years... a quick Google Scholar [google.com] search turns up papers going back to at least 2003. The only new part was the use of CT imagery, as far as I can tell.

  • Little Ice Age (Score:2, Redundant)

    by SputnikPanic (927985)

    I remember watching something on History or Discovery a couple of years ago where they postulated that the higher density of the wood used for Stradivarius violins was attributable to the Little Ice Age [wikipedia.org]. It was quite an interesting program all around.

  • Unfortunately science has yet to explain how how all three chords I know ROCK on my SG.

    Actually, Rob, they have explained it. Please see the explanation on Wikipedia for the power chord [wikipedia.org]. Note that they reference Townshend as a popular example of the power chord ;) Next up, you should extend your skills and bend those fingers to play the Hendrix Chord [wikipedia.org].

    • Actually, Rob, they have explained it. Please see the explanation on Wikipedia for the power chord.

      I think he was referring to the characteristic sound of the SG.

  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:51AM (#24044115) Homepage Journal

    The varnish on a Stradivarius [sciencenews.org] is what biochemist Joseph Nagyvary thinks is relevant. Cheaper varnishes may be too rubbery and as a result damp high frequencies. He's built some violins based on his ideas, though apparently a good musician can still tell the difference between one of his and a Stradivarius.

    One problem with the wood density idea is that not all Stradivarius violins have the sound for which they're famous.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by querist (97166)

      Actually, I believe that your statement "... not all Stradivarius violins have the sound..." may support the wood hypothesis, not refute it.

      The ideal test (if possible) would be to obtain several Stradivarius violins, have them categorised by top-notch professionals as "have" or "not have" with regard to "the sound", and then compare them.

      A reasonable (though maybe not accurate) "assumption" would be that the varnish is identical on all of the sample violins. That way, the only variable to be examined would

      • by steelfood (895457)

        Why not test both?

        After all, a little varnish can be had from parts of the violin that don't affect sound. Granted, it would scratch the thing, but it's a very small scratch.

  • by fermion (181285) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @09:52AM (#24044125) Homepage Journal
    Every once in while I hear that someone has tried to restore an instrument such as this. In some cases, they try to sand down the instrument so it is perfectly flat, and destroy it. It seems that the violin makers tried to not only get very good wood with proper and uniform density, but also made a fairly good attempt to compensate for non uniform density by varying the thickness.

    This is a problem with woodwork. It is difficult to get dense wood. Only 20 years ago it was easy to get good dense wood that could be built and oiled so it would last a very long time. Now all I see is light junk wood.

  • I'd like to know how long they were trying to determine the differences without considering wood density. Other than the shape and size, what other differences could there be?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by phizix (1143711)

      I'd like to know how long they were trying to determine the differences without considering wood density. Other than the shape and size, what other differences could there be?

      Craftmanship.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Gizzmonic (412910)

      I'd like to know how long they were trying to determine the differences without considering wood density. Other than the shape and size, what other differences could there be?

      Uh...the motion of the ocean, baby.

  • ... somebody has discovered "the secret of Stradavari" yet again.

  • There have been other studies to try and explain it.

    I recall there being one a while back about the wood having been treated by soaking in wine.

    Then another about varnish.

    Now this about the density of the wood.

    What if it is a mix of all the factors?

  • by swm (171547) * <swmcd@world.std.com> on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:00AM (#24044255) Homepage

    There was a TV show some years back about a physicist who tried to figure out what makes violins sound good. He found a few interesting things.

    High-frequency response depends on the shape of the bridge. All those curly-cues cut into it control the transfer function from the strings to the body.

    Mid-range response depends on the shape of the f-holes in the body. In this range, the bridge is rigid. The strings push on the bridge, and the bridge rocks the portion of the top plate between the f-holes back and fourth so that it radiates sound.

    Bass goes from the strings, through the bridge, down through the sound post to the back panel, and is radiated by the back panel. Stradivarius shaped the back panel of his violins asymmetrically, so that the center of percussion was right where the sound post pushes on the back panel. IIRC, getting the center of percussion under the sound post was a distinguishing characteristic of Stradivarius violins.

  • ... that I have read about.

    The first was the precise age of the wood. The second was a kind of mold that grows "exclusively" in the wood of Stradivariuses. Etc.

    This one sounds no more plausible than the others.
  • Every time I see a Gibson SG mentioned I can't help but think of Angus Young from AC/DC. That, in turn caused me to picture Rob on stage with an SG, shirtless, and in short pants.

    BRRRRRRRR! It is going to take a while to recover from THAT one!

    I, for one, prefer my Les Paul ...

  • by fm6 (162816) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:09AM (#24044431) Homepage Journal

    So, there's some big mystery about Strads that makes them sound better than other violins? Or do people just think they sound better, because a single Strad goes for millions of dollars? Jon Rose adheres to the second theory:

    As any honest violin dealer will tell you (and there are a few) the sound of a violin can be priced in a range from $50 (bad, but playable), to $10,000 (good-sounding) to $20,000 (extremely good tone and projection) to $100,000 (simply over-priced). The rest is snotty-nosed hubris. As has been proven on a number of occasions, most notably by the BBC in 1975, a well-made, top modern violin can sound just as good if not better than the prized golden age models. In a recording studio, behind a screen, the violins of Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Charles Beare were played back to them. The instruments were a Strad, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill (a modern instrument less than a year old). None of the esteemed violin experts really had a clue which violin was which. Furthermore, two of them couldn't even tell which was their own instrument. They were left mumbling platitudes about the personal relationship between fiddle and player — bloody obvious if you spend most years of your life playing the violin.

    His full rant here [abc.net.au].

    • by sm62704 (957197)

      In a recording studio, behind a screen, the violins of Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Charles Beare were played back to them.

      The test was worthless. Have you ever heard a digitel recording that you would confuse with a live performance?

      Neither has anyone else.

      • by fm6 (162816)

        And they put the CD player behind a screen for what reason? I think you're misreading the sentence.

    • by jamrock (863246) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @12:34PM (#24047311)
      It's all subjective, and opinions are colored by a variety of factors. Here's a great story from the science blog The Frontal Cortex:

      In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn't stop the experts from describing the "red" wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its "jamminess," while another enjoyed its "crushed red fruit." Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

      The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was "agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded," while the vin du table was "weak, short, light, flat and faulty". Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

      Read the complete article here [scienceblogs.com].

  • by wbtittle (456702) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:11AM (#24044459) Homepage

    Who alternately and randomly played a strad and a fake strad for an audience and for experts. Turned out that the well made violin was dubbed a strad equally often as the strad even by experts.

    What really makes a strad sound good is the musician playing it.

    How many entry level violin players play a strad?

    There is no magic, there is just LOTS of practice.

  • by Monkey_Genius (669908) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:11AM (#24044465)
    Why is it that people seem to seek the most complex answer for these type of things? It's the wood. It's the varnish. It's the 'Little Ice Age'. Why not Stradivarius was the best violin craftsmen? Ever. Like other artists before him, he had a unique understanding of how to make this particular instrument and polished his abilities to perfection, the results of which the musicians and listeners still enjoy hundreds of years later.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Why not Stradivarius was the best violin craftsmen? Ever.
      Because there were several other people living in the same town at the same time who made comparable violins.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by E.T.123 (1319195)
      I agree. Anyone ever thought that maybe our buddy Stradivarius may have gone outside one day and went "that's a cool tree, i think ill make a violin out of it"? I doubt that he knew that the tree he used was going to be scientifically evaluated by scientist hundreds of years later and that it was a good density. Maybe he was just good at making violins? Or for all you people into cover-ups and aliens here is a thought. Maybe because he was of some otherworldly origin he could tell which trees would sound th
  • The SG's design carries the neck through to the tail, effectively making the instrument one piece with two attached side pieces. This differs from standard Gibson practice, attaching the neck at the heel, as in my ES-335.

    Most players feel that this audibly contributes to sustain, enhancing the harmonic effect of Rob's power chords (all three).

  • Where's Sealand?
  • This actually kind of old news. These violins were made with wood from trees that went through the Little Ice Age [wikipedia.org]. Cold weather hinders growth in trees and the resulting wood has densities different than what can be found anywhere in the world now. Even if you found a tree that old, like a redwood, it would have rings/growth from after this time period and the harmonics would be different. That's what makes these violins so special... they're literally irreplaceable.
  • by Riktov (632)

    Come on, everybody knows there are no violins or violinists in Arkansas.

    There are only fiddles and fiddlers.

  • Maybe it's just because they're so expensive that only virtuosos can afford them / are allowed to play them?

  • Define the terms.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mtconnol (1170419) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @10:54AM (#24045397)
    I agree with some previous posters that the question isn't "What made Stradivarius instruments so great" as much as "how are we defining 'great' in this context?"

    I have played fiddle for 10 years, mostly bluegrass and Irish music. I've also spent time in an orchestra as a clarinet player, as well as a smattering of other instruments. The world of bowed strings and the prices associated with Strad-grade instruments has always astonished me. I can't name another type of musical instrument people are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for, and I think there are a couple of factors behind it:

    1. Most classical violinists play in the company of others, i.e. in an orchestra, where 'one-upmanship' can play a big role. If your instrument isn't as expensive as your stand partner's, you might fear the perception that you value your craft less highly! In fact, I'm told some orchestras won't audition players unless their instrument cost a certain (quite high) dollar amount.

    2. I can say as a violin player that the instruments are basically impossible to perform systematic A/B tests with. For example, I can't A/B two different brands of string on my instrument, because changing the strings takes at least 5-10 minutes, by which point my short-term aural memory is already gone. Furthermore, it's next to impossible to change strings without shifting bridge and tailpiece position, both of which affect tone as well. Need some more nails in the coffin? Rosin buildup on the strings and string age also affect the tone _more_ than different brands of strings do. It's a different picture than, for example, factory built electric guitars, where you could set up two identically built solidbody guitars with your A and B stringsets, and (at least within a first order) you could claim equivalence between your two string-testing platforms.

    In the absence of the ability to perform systematic tests, it seems like string players go for a lot of "magic" - $90 sets of strings, rosin with gold flecks in it for "warmer, richer tone" - and a lot of other bullshit, including price-performance equivalence. Like Lotus owners, violinists are usually limited far more by their technique than their instrument (once you get into the 10-20K range), and yet there is still a push to buy the 100K instrument!

    As for the Strad instruments: scientific inquiry into things like wood density, varnish, etc, seems pretty disingenuous if no one can reliably detect the qualities the instruments are supposed to have. If, as the earlier posters mention, Strads can't be reliably detected in double-blind conditions, it seems obvious that any investigation into their unique properties would be chasing one's own tail. Even if there is an amazing, one of a kind Little Ice Age, shipwreck-sunk virgin blood Stradivarius, none of those attributes are relevant if they don't impact the sound. And if "what makes Strads so great" isn't about the sound, then WTF is the point of the investigation? Dense wood really isn't great for its own sake.

    Whew. rant over.

    Find a music teacher. http://www.learningmusician.com/ [learningmusician.com]

  • by infodude (48434) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @11:00AM (#24045503) Journal

    That it was the volcanic dust they used to finish rubbing the wood before varnishing, which stayed in the wood to leave a very hard layer under the varnish - it floated my boat.

  • by grizdog (1224414) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @11:17AM (#24045799) Homepage
    Over the years, instrument makers have spent considerable time trying to "recreate" the wood that Stradivarius used, to the point of immersing the wood in water with the same mineral composition that the river water had that the logs travelled which probably made their way to Cremona back then. And of course finding wooden items from the same period, and cannibalizing them for their wood to try to make a violin. Obviously, nothing has worked.

    I'm a woodworker and some of my friends have tried to make violins. They all looked good and sounded terrible. It's definitely a tough business.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @11:32AM (#24046111) Journal
    Obviously we aren't there yet, not even close; but in principle the future(possibly even a future some of us will live to see) will hold nanolevel assembly techniques that will allow us to construct objects out of pretty much any material or mixture of materials that plays well with existence. I find it extraordinarily unlikely that the best possible violin is made of some sort of naturally occurring wood, finished with simple hand tools and crude chemistry. How long, though, will we resist such a conclusion?

    The same could be asked of wine. In principle, a team of analytical chemists with the right equipment and no reverence for the past could characterize(and possibly, at some future time, economically duplicate) whatever vintage has the experts drooling this week.
  • by swschrad (312009) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @11:32AM (#24046129) Homepage Journal

    for a long, long time now. every real violinmaker has a chunk of heavy old curly maple that was inherited from somewhere, in case they need it to repair a fine old instrument. they tap the wood to determine the density by the sound, like testing for the best watermelon in the bin.

  • by Brandybuck (704397) on Thursday July 03, 2008 @02:17PM (#24049229) Homepage Journal

    I suspect that what makes a Stradivarius better than other violins is the same thing that makes audiophile equipment better than other equipment: the will to believe.

    Higher quality makes a difference, but beyond a certain point the extra quality is all imaginary. I greatly suspect that the reputation of Stradivarius is simply due to high quality construction and craftsmanship. Beyond a certain point that reputation is name only. Trying to find secrets in the wood is pointless, in my opinion.

    But what the eff do I know? I can't tell the difference between $499 and $4.99 cables either.

FORTRAN is a good example of a language which is easier to parse using ad hoc techniques. -- D. Gries [What's good about it? Ed.]

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