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Bruce Tai

Chemical distinctions between Stradivari’s maple and modern tonewood

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So Don, would he make a couple of violins from modern woods, end up throwing them against the wall and start placing orders from the magical forest again?  Somehow I think he could make new wood work.  He might not have to do anything different at all.  Presumed lesser makers reportedly give him a run for his money using modern wood.

I haven't noticed any bias from Don, favoring either modern or antique  instruments. He does his experiments, and posts what he finds. I think that's really valuable, and far exceeding typical biases.

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Had a hard time in upper level chem courses, did you now?  ;):lol:

Not really. BSc in Chemistry and MS in Engineering with 3 patents and multiple papers in refereed science journals. You?

 

 

Tai demonstrates via NMR spectroscopy that hemicelluose levels were lower and lignin oxidation levels were higher in historical compared to modern maples, making this obviously related to age.  

 

 

And so what? Wood oxidizes as it ages. No revelation there. What does that have to do with the sound of a violin? It is more likely to make it worse, not better.

 

The fact is that Stradivarius violins were highly prized and valued when they were new and he was a “modern maker.” Stradivarius made his violins with what was then “modern maple.” It isn’t like he started with 300 year-old maple. So the authors are silly when they write, “His maple also appeared to be transformed by aging and vibration, resulting in a unique composite material unavailable to modern makers” because it was a material that was unavailable to Stradivarius and the contemporary Cremonese makers back then, too. 

 

 

See his Figures 2 and 3.  He also sorted the historical and modern maples into different groups by inorganic element constituents using mass spectrometry.  See his Figure 6.  He clearly demonstrates that the Strad wood and the control samples differ greatly. 

 

And again, so what?

 

First of all, the modern maple samples are not control samples - they are comparison samples. In this case, control sample would be something like maple taken from other Cremonese instruments of the same period or samples of 300 year old maple from old furniture or fence posts. 

 

Second of all, there is no evidence that the trace inorganic materials found in the old wood makes any contribution to tone. But that doesn’t prevent this pure unadulterated hand-waving:

 

Therefore, it is conceivable that high-frequency vibrations could have gradually altered the ultrastructure of wood fibers, acting in concert with hemicellulose decomposition over time. The interactions among mineral preservatives, age-dependent chemical changes, mechanical vibrations, and the composite nature of wood are extremely complex, and the potential outcomes are not well understood.”

 

Yeah, I guess so.

 

 

He details where his samples came from.  I find no fault there either.

 

Really? Details? Then please tell me what exactly what violins and cellos the samples came from and where and how they were taken from the instruments, because there are no details in the paper or the appendix. I’d love to be able to check the provenance of the instruments. The only reference to an actual violin is to the so-called “original neck removed from the 1725 Stradivari “Brancaccio” violin,” and it is of unprovable provenance and should be assumed to be a fake in absence definitive proof of authenticity. Oh, and how do you know that the samples weren't contaminated somewhere along the way?

 

 

I love the part where he discusses differences between Nag's methodology and his own as well as the differences in findings. 

 

The only speculation I find is about the role (if any) played (pun intended) by vibration. 

 

 

Seriously? Wow! So you don’t think that analyzing a few wood samples of unknown provenance in tests that have no relationship to the tone of the alleged instruments from which they came, and then using those results to conclude that they are somehow representative and contributive to the tone of ALL Stradivari violins isn’t speculative? Just wow.

 

 

There's nothing in his methodology to argue about.  Why do you have a chip on your shoulder?

Actually, there is lots more to argue about in the methodology, starting with the test materials. But there is much more to argue about in their conclusions that this data has any bearing on the sound quality of Stradivari’s violins or that it has anything to offer to modern violin makers who continue to build violins with tone quality equal to Stradivari's best using contemporary wood. Just like Stradivarius himself used when he was a “modern maker.”
 
And chip on MY shoulder? Did you read your own first sentence? Oh my.

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I haven't noticed any bias from Don, favoring either modern or antique  instruments. He does his experiments, and posts the results.

I admire him and his lack of bias.  But actually violin making-wise you two are kind of silently at odds.  Do you know how?

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I admire him and his lack of bias.  But actually violin making-wise you two are kind of silently at odds.  Do you know how?

Don and I have spent a little time together, and we're a little bit at odds in some ways, and very much in agreement on others.

It would be nothing short of foolish for me to try to make a judgement on who is right and wrong. We approach this business from highly different perspectives and backgrounds, and I think both perspectives are really valuable.

 

That said, it hasn't been my impression that he and I disagree on a lot.

 

Looking back. that's kind of the way it was in the Weisshaar shop too. There was a lot of exposure to talented people from various backgrounds, enough to overwhelm any "rote" training that anyone might have wanted to put in place (but not enough to exclude it).

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I'm afraid I have to side with GeorgeH - he states it rather more bluntly than I would, but I can't see that the paper sheds any light on the supposed superiority of Strads.

I concede that it contains some facts, but I can't begin to see how I could apply them to make any deductions that are logical.

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Q for any biochemist/chemherbologist?! out there...

Are we certain that all odd chemicals found in the wood is applied only after its felled?

Am think of a tree growing in heavy polluted atmosphere, would it accumulate pollutants into its heartwood?

What you are proposing can happen.  In fact, certain plants are noted for absorbing salts and toxic heavy metals (primarily from groundwater, be it noted) to a point that makes them dangerous to livestock.  That sort of thing gives a different set of lab "fingerprints" from what we see here.  Because the issue is sure to be raised again somewhere, I would like to see Bruce address possible absorption during growth (not that I consider it likely), along with the possibility of accidental contamination from soaking in sea water during marine transport (which has come up before). :)

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I'm afraid I have to side with GeorgeH - he states it rather more bluntly than I would, but I can't see that the paper sheds any light on the supposed superiority of Strads.

I concede that it contains some facts, but I can't begin to see how I could apply them to make any deductions that are logical.

Part of why I "cracked" on George is that nowhere does Bruce's paper explicitly tie the observed physical condition of the wood to any "superiority" of Strads as a result of that condition.  What the paper says in essence is "People who worry about violins always seem to make a big fuss over Strads.  When we looked at some pieces we have good reason to believe came from Strads using some gee-whiz science, and compared the results with those from some wood we had which didn't come from Strads, we found differences.  We think that the difference shows that the Strad samples are older and were soaked in inorganic fungicides.  We hope violin makers find this useful somehow"  That, gentlemen, is it.  No, "Like WOW!, we found Stradivari's SECRET!", like some other noted researchers I could name.  Reacting to Bruce's paper as if it was in that vein strikes me as unnecessarily argumentative, and worthy of censure.

 

FTR, my own views are that Strad's "secret" (shared with the other Cremonese makers, BTW) involved reiterative testing and modification of the violin during construction, rather than any Cremonese Sheep Dip, but if a researcher finds credible evidence of one, I'm not going to stick my fingers in my ears, and go "La, la, la" about it. :)

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What you are proposing can happen.  In fact, certain plants are noted for absorbing salts and toxic heavy metals (primarily from groundwater, be it noted) to a point that makes them dangerous to livestock.  That sort of thing gives a different set of lab "fingerprints" from what we see here.  Because the issue is sure to be raised again somewhere, I would like to see Bruce address possible absorption during growth (not that I consider it likely), along with the possibility of accidental contamination from soaking in sea water during marine transport (which has come up before). :)

plus possibility that the tree might grow differently in polluted air. Perhaps stunted growth, thicker cell walls... who knows.

Here's a scary thought... :)

I won't be around to see/hear it but perhaps in 100yrs time some plain ole CHINESE FACTORY violin freshly made from CHINESE LOCAL LUMBER might out-sing every Strad still surviving then.

Better tone, better projection... and maybe even glows with piezo energy when you dim the lights. :lol:

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I find this kind of scientific research very interesting and i'm glad someone is doing it.   However, to the layman the paper implies a link to tonal quality by invoking the Stradivarius name.  

To see how the press interpret such a paper look no further than the title of The Strad's coverage of the paper:

 

"Research suggests chemical wood treatment may account for the ‘Stradivarius sound’"

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I'm afraid I have to side with GeorgeH - he states it rather more bluntly than I would, but I can't see that the paper sheds any light on the supposed superiority of Strads.

I concede that it contains some facts, but I can't begin to see how I could apply them to make any deductions that are logical.

Have reread paper after sleep... I'm afraid you both are both wrong AND right.

Paper just compares wood old and new.

Nowhere says anything about old wood superiority... EXCEPT that it came from some Strads.

Is it your own reading-between-the-lines that insinuates a Strad has to sound good?

In my other world, it would be same as doing spectral analysis on Ash taken from a vintage Rolls Royce vs modern Ash from a modern Morgan Three Wheeler built yesterday where I've collected the shavings off the Malvern factory floor.

I'm sure the fancy lab gizmos will tell me the Silver Dawn's ash has been marinated in decades of soot, tar, lead and other heavy metals... but that data don't give no clue how to make the Morgan sound any better :)

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I find this kind of scientific research very interesting and i'm glad someone is doing it.   However, to the layman the paper implies a link to tonal quality by invoking the Stradivarius name.  

To see how the press interpret such a paper look no further than the title of The Strad's coverage of the paper:

 

"Research suggests chemical wood treatment may account for the ‘Stradivarius sound’"

And may God save us from the !@#$%^&*() popular media.  They'll print anything that fits, and sells advertising space. :rolleyes:

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What the paper says in essence is "People who worry about violins always seem to make a big fuss over Strads.  When we looked at some pieces we have good reason to believe came from Strads using some gee-whiz science, and compared the results with those from some wood we had which didn't come from Strads, we found differences.  We think that the difference shows that the Strad samples are older and were soaked in inorganic fungicides.  We hope violin makers find this useful somehow"  That, gentlemen, is it

 

Your interpretation is quite different from what the authors think is "Significant" about their work:

 

"There have been numerous attempts to elucidate the “secrets” of Stradivari violins, to explain why functional replacements have not been reproduced over the past two centuries. Whether there are systematic differences between Stradivari violins and later imitations has been heatedly debated. Our analysis of Stradivari’s maples from three independent sources showed reproducible differences in chemical compositions compared with modern maples. Stradivari’s use of mineral-treated maples belonged to a forgotten tradition unknown to later violin makers. His maple also appeared to be transformed by aging and vibration, resulting in a unique composite material unavailable to modern makers. Modern chemical analyses may, therefore, improve our understanding of Stradivari’s unique craft and inspire the development of novel material approaches in instrument making."

 

The clear meaning of this is that the authors think that no one has produced a violin as good as a Strad in the past 2 centuries, and that they have uncovered one of the “secrets” of Stradivari violins, i.e. "mineral-treated maples" that is "a forgotten tradition unknown to later violin makers." There is no other way to interpret it. 

 

And it isn't just me interpreting it that way. Read the NYT article.

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I do find what you quote excessive, and would not have put it that way myself, but I won't simply damn the entire paper for it.  Most of it is professionally unexceptionable, and certainly does make the point that the Strad material has been modified in some way common only to those samples, and not the others tested.  I don't find the entirety of it oozing with bias, nor do I believe in the least that there is anything questionable about the sources of the samples tested simply because Tai, et al, didn't give the equivalent of photos of the owners happily holding the violins as the researchers shaved some off.

 

Part of what I'm keying on is that you seem to be objecting to the act of publishing itself, and will throw up any argument you can to discredit the paper's authors.  We are going through a great deal of such partisan nonsense here over certain issues, and if that's your underlying position, you can stick it. :P

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Your interpretation is quite different from what the authors think is "Significant" about their work:

 

"There have been numerous attempts to elucidate the “secrets” of Stradivari violins, to explain why functional replacements have not been reproduced over the past two centuries. Whether there are systematic differences between Stradivari violins and later imitations has been heatedly debated. Our analysis of Stradivari’s maples from three independent sources showed reproducible differences in chemical compositions compared with modern maples. Stradivari’s use of mineral-treated maples belonged to a forgotten tradition unknown to later violin makers. His maple also appeared to be transformed by aging and vibration, resulting in a unique composite material unavailable to modern makers. Modern chemical analyses may, therefore, improve our understanding of Stradivari’s unique craft and inspire the development of novel material approaches in instrument making."

Umm... that foreword para... isn't that the scientific paper equivalent of a playbill poster or a trailer for the next Hollywood blockbuster sequel?

Always gotta have some spicy rah rah rah & tittilating innuendo to attract the eyeballs... but once you get into the real meat of the contents, it's usually overhyped.

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George, while I can't disprove any of your claims, my interpretation of the paper tended to go more along the lines of Violadamore's in post # 32. Not that your higher level of skepticism won't be valuable. I reckon lots of us can pick out parts that we're less than comfortable with.

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 I reckon lots of us can pick out parts that we're less than comfortable with.

 

I'm uncomfortable with any wording implying "Strads are super" as a preconception or a conclusion, rather than plainly saying "Some people think Strads are super", to stay away from that minefield.  You can't totally avoid admitting that there's something perceived as unique about Strad-era Cremonese fiddles.

 

I'll note that being P.I. on a multiplayer project can turn one's hair white (the more stakeholders, the whiter and faster), and I've seldom seen a multi-author publication totally free of some sort of warts.  We have no information on how the final phrasing of parts of the paper was arrived at.  I'd suspect there's some politics involved.  It's still a very fine and useful paper. :)

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I believe the first discussion here, that I can recall, about degradation, as it pertains to sound qaulity, was brought up by me, at the time I think it was Janito who was calling my "theory" bs, and as I recall at the time I had tracked down several microscopic photos showing "perforated" wood cells that had been degraded by both time and uv light. So on a personal note it's nice to see my "theory" of the "swiss cheesing" of wood over time has been validated. Hows that for conformation bias :lol:

 

That being said I do feel the real and most likely not provable point brought up in this paper, which Don mentioned, is the violins "memory" factor and or will playing violins improve tone over time? I think it does but it matters quite a bit about how much playing and how much time.

 

First I would add that not only is the cell degradation happening, but the one thing I don't recall reading in the paper was how time dramatically effects the saps and other non water based fluid/semi fluid components. Not only does "Swiss cheesing" happen over time, but also "case hardening" as the saps loose fluid they become much more crystalline, much more stiff and much harder., which in time will alter the specs of that piece of wood from it's original measurements.

 

So to me it is 3 factors that have determined Strads ad DG's as the "benchmark" for tone quality {we're talking the top ones that have been performing for hundreds of years} Older violins can all have the 2 in common, but it is only the ones that have been in demand and in service that will have the third component, and that is the playing factor.

 

This is now going into thought experiment land so please forgive my thinking out loud.

 

Related to wood and what I would call "elasticity memory"  the question is does it have it?, and then does it have it in two states?, one static, the other dynamic, and if so what are the differences between the two? and can they be measured? And if they can be measured, are the measurements helpful and or duty specific for what "We" would want to know?

 

So static load I think we  can all agree exist, we see it as "wood" creep, or simply take a beam, add a load, it will bend, take the load off, it will return to the shape it was, leave the load on long enough, then take it off, the wood will not return, it has developed a permanent bow., it may creep back a little, but it now has a bow. I think that's self explanatory...

 

So now lets think about the dynamic states of a static loaded device that transfers string driven energy though the medium and that for each individual note it has it's own individual frequency pattern that will interact with the medium properties.

 

I like to think of it like I had a top made of thick ice, and a hammer, when I strike the ice top in the bridge location the ice will crack, staring from the point of impact, and spread across the top and show as multiple fissure patterns. Think of each individual note as its own individual "crack pattern"  that will repeat itself every tome that note is played, as of course this is wood and will not crack, just a way to visualize whats going on.

 

So each note will sound and then dissipate over and over again.Every note again is a an individual frequency pattern that will start, get sent in motion, travel across the instrument with a specific vibration pattern, the question is, does this create "paths of elasticity" 

 

I think we need to think of wood grain at this point like electricity or conduit in that each note played needs to find a way out, and like electricity, it will find the easy way out, it will exploit microscopic grain weakness, and develop patterns, just like Chladni patterns were we can see the path of the energy.

 

So then the question is, after all of these individual notes have been played for hundreds of years, over and over again, as these are written pieces of music that will be performed over and over again, in these areas of the grain where the main bulk of energy travels though, do they create a "memory" by there being an increased elasticity in these grain fissure pathways? Does the energy build up and dissipate in these grain pathways and does the repeated heating and cooling in these pathways alter the grain structure making it more pliable, or more easy to travel, an increase in radiation based on a clearer easier path out?  I think the answer is yes.

 

Here again it seems to be only these overtly "famous" concert level Strads,DGs that have been desired by soloist's over the years that have had the opportunity, and or it s the one variable that only they can have and no others can.

 

I think a demonstration, experiment of dynamic energy creating a temporary to permanent alteration of the properties of any given piece of wood is to do the "coat hangar" experiment . By taking a piece of rib material and bending ot back and forth, somewhere off the middle, as if trying to break a coat hangar, we see that the wood 1. heats up, like a coat hangar would 2. becomes very flexible and elastic and the point of the bending. Now we can return the piece of wood to the straight position, it may demonstrate a slight kink in the area of bending, but by all accounts it lays flat. If we let it cool down and then take each end and bend it into an arch we will see the area that was bent will deform the natural arch by being weakened and wanting to bend where it had been hyper bent before, it developed a memory. Or if we were to let this piece cool down, and then go do the same bending action, we would see that it would reach a rubbery state much quicker that it did before it's initial "coat hangar" bending. So to me "notes" are the same as the coat hangar effect, just on a much more microscopic level.

 

And so when you couple swiss cheese with case hardening and coat hangers the end results are bench mark violins :D 

 

I do wish he sampled some furniture and other lesser violins from the same period , just for a bigger control and to see if other lesser violins had the same properties or not...

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Part of what I'm keying on is that you seem to be objecting to the act of publishing itself, and will throw up any argument you can to discredit the paper's authors.  We are going through a great deal of such partisan nonsense here over certain issues, and if that's your underlying position, you can stick it. :P

 

This is fascinating coming from one of the most acerbic (and amusing and helpful) commenters on this site.

 

Science is meant to be debated. That is part of the fun. I have no objection to the act of publishing - I do object to hyped speculation being presented as scientific conclusions. 

 

If this article was only about a few old violins and cellos having old wood maybe treated with fungicides, it wouldn't have made the NYT. You know that. And that is really all the article is about.

 

But the authors clearly hyped it into something more as the "Significance" statement with its exaggerated and unsupportable claims clearly shows. 

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Our paper in PNAS is highly technical and hard to digest for non-scientists.

Perhaps some lay summary and Q&A will help. These were originally written for reporters but not violin makers.

 

 

I. Study summary

Hwan-Ching Tai, PhD

Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University

 

Unique wood properties provide new insights into legendary Stradivarius violins

     For professional violinists, the small town in Northern Italy called Cremona has always been shrouded in mystery. Cremona was not only the birthplace of the modern violin, which was invented by its luthier resident Andrea Amati around 1550, but also the home of the most celebrated of all violin makers: Antonio Stradivari (AS, 1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù (1698-1744). For the past two centuries, leading violin virtuosos have shown almost unanimous preference for Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesù” instruments, over the works of thousands of other talented makers who enthusiastically imitated the famous duo. Why it is almost impossible to reproduce the playing qualities of Stradivari and Guarneri violins, despite all the technological advances since the industrial revolution, has become one of the greatest enduring mysteries in Western culture. The key to this mystery may be hidden in the wood, caused by initial chemical manipulation and followed by age-dependent transformations, according to a new study led by Professor Hwan-Ching Tai of National Taiwan University, in collaboration with Chimei Museum in Taiwan, which owns the largest collection of antique violins in the world.

 

     The Stradivari and Guarneri families of violin makers not only lived and worked as neighbors, but both families also learned their craft from Nicolo Amati, the grandson of Andrea. After 1750, the Cremonese tradition of making superlative violins suddenly came to a halt for reasons unknown. Later makers have meticulously copied Stradivarius and Guarnerius instruments with respect to wood choice, geometry, and construction methods. Many of these masterful copies are now 100-200 years old, and yet they could not reproduce the unique tonal qualities of the finest Cremonese instruments so coveted by concert violinists.

 

    The secret of Stradivari violins has been historically attributed to his varnish by many experts, partly because it enhances the dichroic and reflective properties of flamed maple wood in a very striking manner which is extremely difficult to reproduce. However, chemical analyses of Stradivari’s varnish conducted by various research groups have failed to identify any extraordinary ingredient or property that appears to be associated with unique tonal qualities. Many leading violin makers today no longer view Stradivari’s varnish as the answer to superlative tone.

 

     On the other hand, Joseph Nagyvary, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, was a pioneer in examining Cremonese wood for unusual properties. The acoustic signature of a violin is largely defined by its front and back plates, which are made of spruce and maple, respectively. Nagyvary has published two studies to suggest that maple wood in Stradivari and Guarneri violins had been chemically manipulated to cause severe degradation in the organic matrix. But Nagyvary’s finding was at odds with long-held beliefs of violin restorers, who felt that Stradivari’s maple was drier and more elastic than modern maple. Concert violinists often express the opinion that old violins sound different from new violins, that old Cremonese violins sound different from old violins of other regions, and that Stradivari violins possess some special magic even compared to his cellos. The new study led by Tai provides new analytical insights which may partly explain these paradoxes and century-old opinions. The authors examined maple specimens taken from four Stradivarius and one Guarnerius instruments, whose market values currently range around 5-15 million US dollars each. These samples came from either wood shavings or neck blocks removed during restoration.      

 

    In this study, all historical maple specimens analyzed have shown a common feature, which is hemicellulose degradation, around one-third over 300 years. Hemicellulose is one of the three major components of wood cell wall, along with cellulose and lignin. Hemicellulos is also the most hygroscopic component, and its degradation led to reduced moisture absorption and reduced internal damping. By elemental analyses, Cremonese maple appeared to have been infused with salts of sodium, potassium, and calcium. Common alchemical substances such as alum, borax, zinc sulfate, and copper sulfate have also been identified. The combination of these minerals probably served two purposes. The first is to offer biocidal protection against fungi and worms, and the second is to stabilize the moisture content to prevent wood cracking during cold weather with low humidity. All Stradivari violin and cello samples showed signs of mineral treatment, and so far mineral treatment has only been observed in Cremonese instruments, but not in antique instruments from other regions or countries.

 

    More surprisingly, maples from Stradivari violins and his cellos actually showed very striking differences in their thermo-oxidation patterns. As wood was gradually heated to 600 oC, there was an extra peak in the heat-releasing curve of Strad violins which was not present in Strad cellos and natural maple. This extra peak has only been observed in fungus-degraded wood and suggested reduced molecular adhesion between cellulose and lignin in the wood, which was likely caused by high frequency vibrations associated with the violin. Thus, the chemical analysis of Cremonese wood has provided some plausible explanations to the musicians’ observations that there exist properties commonly associated with old instruments, properties uniquely found in Cremonese instruments, and properties specific to Stradivari violins but not his cellos.

    

    As for the conservation of 300-year old instruments, the new study has brought some good news and some bad news. The good news is that crystalline cellulose, the strongest structural component of wood, appears to be stable and well preserved in all Cremonese maples analyzed. The bad news is that the decomposition of hemicellulose is unstoppable and will eventually loosen the matrix around crystalline cellulose and weaken cell wall structures. The oldest surviving violins to date are about 450 years old, made by Andrea Amati, and they are still playable. But it is unclear if the legendary tone of Stradivarius and Guarnerius instruments can still be sustained for another 100 or 200 years as the chemical decomposition continues. Their violins, as opposed to cellos, may be particularly at risk, because the new study has revealed reduced molecular adhesion between cell wall fibers only in violins but not cellos. On the other hand, many violin makers believe that, even if we can build exact replicas of Stradivari violins using authentic materials and methods, it will still take 50-100 years of playing for them to reach a mature, expressive tone. If we intend to build functional replacements of these aged and heavily repaired Cremonese masterpieces, now would be a good time to start.

 

     The commercial supplies of spruce and maple tonewood of comparable quality as those chosen by Stradivari have always been available in Europe, according to experienced violin makers. But one cannot purchase commercial tonewood today which has been treated with minerals, and certainly not in the Cremonese manner. Although wood treatment with various minerals can be traced back to ancient Rome, it was not a widespread practice and has become obsolete over the past 50 years. The possibility that violins could be built with mineral-infused wood was all but forgotten by violin makers, both in Italy and beyond, for more than two centuries. It remains possible that the wood suppliers were responsible for the time-consuming mineral infusion process, and that Cremonese makers simply bought pre-processed boards without understanding the underlying alchemical formulations. Current analytical evidence is still insufficient to ascertain the original recipe and condition of mineral treatments, and it is equally difficult to judge the acoustic effects of minerals on the violin. Adding calcium and aluminum ions may promote crosslinking between wood fibers, partly compensating for the decomposition of hemicellulose and reduced fiber adhesion in Strad violins, and this may potentially explain why many restorers consider Stradivari’s maple to be more elastic than usual, generally assessed by tapping and listening. The combined effects of minerals, aging, and vibrations are very complex and little understood, but these three factors have given Stradivari’s maple very different properties compared to their modern counterparts. Because Stradivari’s maple and modern maple exhibit such different material properties, it would be difficult to imagine that they would vibrate similarly and produce similar acoustic signatures. This may explain why modern makers have had so much difficulty in reproducing Stradivari’s tone over the last 100 years, despite devoting extraordinary attention and efforts.

 

     The unique properties of wood is not the only critical factor in violin acoustics, and it should be noted Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesù have also perfected the geometrical model of violins and fined tuned each instrument with their creative genius, and that their instruments have been maintained, modernized, and repaired by the most abled restorers. The unparalleled success of Stradivari and Guarneri probably originated from a coincidental combination of many critical factors. After two centuries of serious investigations on all aspects of violin making in Cremona, just as we think we know all the key factors involved, the new study by Tai reminds us that there may still be many unknown factors hidden within the wood. It is premature to claim that the “secrets of Stradivari” have already been rediscovered through modern science, but chemical analyses have indeed uncovered certain unknown properties about Stradivari’s wood which have eluded our attention for centuries, opening up new avenues for further experimentation. Using chemically altered wood may not only apply to violins, but makers of other wooden instruments such as pianos, guitars, and lutes, or even those across different cultures, may also borrow a trick or two from the Cremonese masters to expand tonal possibilities. Current studies have only examined the maple back plate in Cremonese violins, but the spruce front plate is even more important for the overall acoustics. The material properties of Cremonese spruce have never been examined by modern scientific methods, and they may yet hold additional chemical secrets which our eyes cannot tell.  

   

 

II. Q&A

by Hwan-Ching Tai

 

1. Your main research area is Alzheimer's disease. How did you come to conduct this study on violins?

   As a PhD student at Caltech, I studied the function of neuronal synapses under the advice of Prof. Erin Schuman. My friend Andrew Hsieh was an undergrad student back then, and he told me about a biochemistry professor in Texas A&M University, Joseph Nagyvary, who tried to rediscover Stradivari’s secrets through scientific investigations. I was really interested because I learned some violin as a child and because I was really into classical music and hi-fi audio. While I was in Houston visiting my cousins for Christmas in 2006, I paid a visit to Professor Nagyvary and became intrigued by his research. At that time, he just published a Nature paper (vol 444, p565) which was the first to scientifically examine wood samples from Cremonese violins. Nagyvary was convinced that chemists could help rediscover the lost secrets of great Cremonese makers, and I was curious to know if he was onto something big. I started Cremonese violin research by reading the chemical literature on varnish analyses and wrote a comprehensive review article, published in the Journal of the Violin Society of America. It was the first ever review article published on the subject and caught the attention of many violin makers and restorers who struggled to understand 50 years of scattered scientific literature. As a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, conducting research on Alzheimer’s disease under the supervision of Prof. Bradley Hyman, I collaborated with Chimei Museum in Taiwan to record famous violins to analyze their sound. As I started my tenure-track position at Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University, I managed to acquire Cremonese wood samples from several sources and decided to carry out detailed chemical analyses.

     Although the study of postmortem human brains (to understand neuropathology in Alzheimer’s disease) and the study of Stradivari’s wood appear to be unrelated, they both represent very complex biological tissues with plenty of hidden molecular properties for an analytical chemist to explore. It is very fortunate that my department and my university have been supportive of interdisciplinary and original research that ventures beyond traditional academic boundaries. 

 

2. How would you describe the sound of a Stradivarius compared to other violins?

    If we were to survey 200 top violinists from the past 200 years, probably half of them would prefer the sweet, brilliant, and sophisticated (producing rich tonal textures) tone of Stradivari violins, with the other half favoring “del Gesù” violins for the deeper, darker, and more powerful tone. Hardly any violin virtuoso would say that their favorite violin in the world is not made by these two masters. Of course such a survey has never been done but this is the general feeling of the violin community. 

    The unique tonal quality of each violin becomes much more apparent if one could compare in a single session a dozen top-quality instruments at the distance of a few meters. Not all Stradivari and “del Gesù” violins in existence today are capable of producing superlative tone, as many have become damaged and worn out over three centuries. Another intriguing property of the best Stradivari and Guarneri violins is their ability to project the sound with great clarity to the back rows of the concert hall, more clearly than the newer and louder violins owned by many orchestral players. The physical basis for this “projection” advantage remains quite elusive, and when I recently experienced this phenomenon in a recital given by Yossif Ivanov on the famous 1699 “Lady Tennant” Stradivarius, the feeling of proximity almost seemed like some sort of auditory illusion.  

 

3. What are some of the leading theories explaining what makes Stradivarius violins so special?

    First of all, there cannot be any single factor which is the magic bullet. Stradivari and “del Gesù” were creative geniuses and achieved much greater results than other violin makers in their town and their own families. They also had access to the materials and know-how which have been passed down from the Amati family, plus their own experiments. People have always been debating if there had been special materials or know-how possessed by Stradivari and “del Gesù” which later became lost secrets.  

    A widely publicized theory over the internet is that Stradivari lived during the “little ice age” and that the colder weather caused trees to grow more slowly and resulted in denser wood for superior violins. However, actual tree ring and density measurements from Stradivari violins showed that he did not select spruce and maple which grew densely. According to European violin makers, it has never been an issue to acquire the same types of spruce and maple that Stradivari used for front and back plates, respectively.

    It is true that Stradivari and “del Gesù” have more or less perfected violin models in terms of shape and geometry. But people have carefully copied these models for about 200 years and failed to produce violins of similar playing qualities. So the combination of geometry and age is insufficient to explain the duo’s unparalleled success.

    During the 19th and 20th century, many experts used to believe that the varnish was the secret. It was extremely difficult to reproduce the visual effects of Stradivari’s varnish and therefore it was assumed that the unique varnish was the key to unique tone. As more research has been done on Stradivari’s varnish, it now seems less likely that his varnish could exert any extraordinary acoustic influence compared to numerous varnish systems developed by later makers. Hence the varnish may be the key to visual distinction but not to acoustic distinction.

   Some believe that Stradivari and “del Gesù” had extraordinary abilities to fine tune their instrument geometry to a near-perfect state for each individual instrument. However, we must realize that their fine tuning was done with the baroque setup and subsequent modernization and repairs should have negated the effects of such fine tuning.

   While personal genius, the right wood, the right geometry, the right varnish, and aging are all important for violin acoustics, Joseph Nagyvary was probably the first to propose that chemical manipulation of wood may have been the missing factor in our in efforts to reproduce superlative instruments. Our current study provides experimental support for Nagyvary’s theory.    

 

4. How did you persuade the violin owners to give you wood samples for your study?

   When violins develop cracks and other problems, the repair work often involves removing some original wood and gluing in new wood. These wood shavings usually ended up in the trash bin of the repair shop. But some violin restorers were kind enough to save some Cremonese wood shavings and share them with us or with our collaborators. Baroque violins had different neck lengths and angles, and therefore during modernization the neck had to be replaced, but the scroll was always saved and grafted onto the new neck. Most original necks had been disposed long ago but a small number were kept as souvenirs. One of these surviving Strad necks was acquired by Chimei Museum and generously donated to our research.   

 

5. What were the main differences in the wood of Stradivarius violins?

   Our measurements showed some definitive differences between Stradivari’s maple and modern maple. First, we found hemicellulose decomposition and lignin oxidation historical maples. These are expected to occur slowly in wood during dry aging. Second, we measured reduced moisture absorption in historical maples, which was expected due to the loss of hemicellulose. Third, we found evidence of mineral treatment in Cremonese maples. These minerals probably acted as biocidial preservatives in the beginning, but may also promote fiber crosslinking and provide moisture control. Fourth, we observed a very surprising difference between maple wood from Stradivari cellos and violins. Modern maple and Strad cello maple showed two oxidation peaks when gradually heated to 600 oC, but Strad violins exhibited an extra peak between the two original peaks. This extra peak implied molecular detachment between lignin and cellulose, which may have been caused by high-frequency vibrations associated with violins. 

    The most intriguing difference was the mineral treatment because it was intentional and artificial. The possibility of using mineral-treated wood to build violins has been completely forgotten in the tradition of European violin making for 200 years. The exact effects of mineral treatment on wood properties are still uncertain. The act of infusing mineral solutions into the wood helps remove sap residues and wood extractives, which may reduce mechanical damping. The minerals may provide biocidal effects for better preservation, absorb some moisture to enhance the dimensional stability of wood, and promote the chemical crosslinking of wood fibers.  

    Comparing Stradivari’s maple with new maple used for modern violins, they have measurably different organic compositions, different inorganic elemental compositions, and different moisture content. One can hardly expect them to exhibit similar acoustic and vibrational properties when the chemical compositions are so different.

 

6. What are some implications of your research?

    The most important implication is that we cannot judge the chemical composition of wood in antique instruments just by visual inspection. Therefore if we suspect that there may be hidden secrets in Stradivari violins, we should analyze the wood to search for unexpected properties or changes. Our study not only highlights the importance of analyzing wood properties, but also highlights a new direction for experimentation in 21st-century instrument making. For 200 years, building violins with air-dried wood has been the norm. But Stradivari’s maple had been chemically manipulated and differed from natural wood. Could this strategy help us build better violins in the future? And how about other wooden instruments across different cultures? Only further experimentation will bring us the answer.  

    Another implication of our study is that Stradivari violins will not last forever. The hemicellulose will continue to degrade and the signs of detachment between cellulose and lignin in his violins are worrisome. We are not sure if the brilliant tone of most Stradivari violins can still be sustained for another 100 years if they are played regularly. There are two possible strategies to help ensure that future generations can hear the famous Stradivarius tone. One is to avoid playing them and store them in environmentally controlled vaults. This is in fact the strategy applied to the most famous Stradivarius (the “Messiah”) and the most famous Garnerius (the “Cannon”) in the world. The second strategy is to accelerate our research and start building functional replacements as soon as possible. Even if Stradivari were here to build violins today, it might still take 50-100 years of playing for his new instruments to develop a lovely, mature tone.  

    Chemical analyses can never recover the full details of what Stradivari and his wood suppliers did. Take Coca Cola for example, if analytical chemistry can recover all the ingredient and procedure information, then chemists can instantly start a multi-billion dollar beverage company, but that has not happened. Chemists can at most uncover some critical clues about what the ancients could have done, and it will be up to the finest violin makers in the world to make well-guided experiments to see if they can equal or surpass Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesù.”

 

7. What are the next steps for your research?

    The most important goal is to analyze the spruce. The violin top plate is made of Norway spruce (Picea abies) from the southern slope of Italian Alps and it is believed to be even more important for the acoustics than the maple back plate. We have no idea what surprises or hidden secrets may be discovered within the spruce, because they have never been analyzed by modern chemical methods.

    Wood is an incredibly complicated composite material. Although scientists have been studying intact wood for several centuries, there are still many unknown properties which are beyond our measurement capabilities. Our results demonstrate that there has been a complex interplay between artificial chemical treatment, age-dependent chemical transformation, and long-term vibration in Stradivari’s maple. The potential outcomes of these interactions are little understood and will require decades of research using advanced future technologies to provide a better understand. It is premature to claim that our study has helped recover the lost secrets of Stradivarius, but our study has certainly highlighted where the remaining secrets may be hidden and provided some clues to what they may be. There is still much to learn about the Stradivarius, even after 300 years.   

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I believe the first discussion here, that I can recall, about degradation, as it pertains to sound qaulity, was brought up by me, at the time I think it was Janito who was calling my "theory" bs, and as I recall at the time I had tracked down several microscopic photos showing "perforated" wood cells that had been degraded by both time and uv light. So on a personal note it's nice to see my "theory" of the "swiss cheesing" of wood over time has been validated. Hows that for conformation bias :lol:

 

That being said I do feel the real and most likely not provable point brought up in this paper, which Don mentioned, is the violins "memory" factor and or will playing violins improve tone over time? I think it does but it matters quite a bit about how much playing and how much time.

 

First I would add that not only is the cell degradation happening, but the one thing I don't recall reading in the paper was how time dramatically effects the saps and other non water based fluid/semi fluid components. Not only does "Swiss cheesing" happen over time, but also "case hardening" as the saps loose fluid they become much more crystalline, much more stiff and much harder., which in time will alter the specs of that piece of wood from it's original measurements.

 

So to me it is 3 factors that have determined Strads ad DG's as the "benchmark" for tone quality {we're talking the top ones that have been performing for hundreds of years} Older violins can all have the 2 in common, but it is only the ones that have been in demand and in service that will have the third component, and that is the playing factor.

 

This is now going into thought experiment land so please forgive my thinking out loud.

 

Related to wood and what I would call "elasticity memory"  the question is does it have it?, and then does it have it in two states?, one static, the other dynamic, and if so what are the differences between the two? and can they be measured? And if they can be measured, are the measurements helpful and or duty specific for what "We" would want to know?

 

So static load I think we  can all agree exist, we see it as "wood" creep, or simply take a beam, add a load, it will bend, take the load off, it will return to the shape it was, leave the load on long enough, then take it off, the wood will not return, it has developed a permanent bow., it may creep back a little, but it now has a bow. I think that's self explanatory...

 

So now lets think about the dynamic states of a static loaded device that transfers string driven energy though the medium and that for each individual note it has it's own individual frequency pattern that will interact with the medium properties.

 

I like to think of it like I had a top made of thick ice, and a hammer, when I strike the ice top in the bridge location the ice will crack, staring from the point of impact, and spread across the top and show as multiple fissure patterns. Think of each individual note as its own individual "crack pattern"  that will repeat itself every tome that note is played, as of course this is wood and will not crack, just a way to visualize whats going on.

 

So each note will sound and then dissipate over and over again.Every note again is a an individual frequency pattern that will start, get sent in motion, travel across the instrument with a specific vibration pattern, the question is, does this create "paths of elasticity" 

 

I think we need to think of wood grain at this point like electricity or conduit in that each note played needs to find a way out, and like electricity, it will find the easy way out, it will exploit microscopic grain weakness, and develop patterns, just like Chladni patterns were we can see the path of the energy.

 

So then the question is, after all of these individual notes have been played for hundreds of years, over and over again, as these are written pieces of music that will be performed over and over again, in these areas of the grain where the main bulk of energy travels though, do they create a "memory" by there being an increased elasticity in these grain fissure pathways? Does the energy build up and dissipate in these grain pathways and does the repeated heating and cooling in these pathways alter the grain structure making it more pliable, or more easy to travel, an increase in radiation based on a clearer easier path out?  I think the answer is yes.

 

Here again it seems to be only these overtly "famous" concert level Strads,DGs that have been desired by soloist's over the years that have had the opportunity, and or it s the one variable that only they can have and no others can.

 

I think a demonstration, experiment of dynamic energy creating a temporary to permanent alteration of the properties of any given piece of wood is to do the "coat hangar" experiment . By taking a piece of rib material and bending ot back and forth, somewhere off the middle, as if trying to break a coat hangar, we see that the wood 1. heats up, like a coat hangar would 2. becomes very flexible and elastic and the point of the bending. Now we can return the piece of wood to the straight position, it may demonstrate a slight kink in the area of bending, but by all accounts it lays flat. If we let it cool down and then take each end and bend it into an arch we will see the area that was bent will deform the natural arch by being weakened and wanting to bend where it had been hyper bent , it developed a memory. Or if we were to let this piece cool down, and then go do the same bending action, we would see that it would reach a rubbery state much quicker that it did before it's initial "coat hangar" bending. So to me "notes" are the same as the coat hangar effect, just on a much more microscopic level.

 

And so when you couple swiss cheese with case hardening and coat hangers the end results are bench mark violins :D

 

I do wish he sampled some furniture and other lesser violins from the same period , just for a bigger control and to see if other lesser violins had the same properties or not...

I see they've got some excellent weed at the Marina tonight.  :lol:   The paper said several things you did too, it just phrased them in the language of Science, rather than Talk Radio. :lol::ph34r:

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Again this always leads to the "Why are they the benchmarks" and or considered so superior. I just think that to get anything out of any of these papers, you have to just assume, if you think it or not, that Strads and DG's will always be used as the benchmarks for tone. It was something I used to fight, but now I've just succumbed to fact that it doesn't matter what "you" personally think about this and that there will always be a implied superiority about these instruments, regardless of what anyone thinks about it one way or another.

 

Personally I think its great when a buncha rich dudes get together and play with their million dollar microscopes and let us peons see the results

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I see they've got some excellent weed at the Marina tonight.  :lol:   The paper said several things you did too, it just phrased them in the language of Science, rather than Talk Radio. :lol::ph34r:

see, smart nough' to think bout it' but too stupid to understands he just reads it :D must be that train to Bangkok they just put in :lol:

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