Scientific investigations of Stradivarius violins--an updated review article


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Recently, we published a review article about the current scientific understanding of Stradivarius violins in AsiaChem, the newsletter of the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies.

Our article is the cover story of the inaugural issue:  https://www.facs.website/asiachem-magazine

It provides a brief summary on the controversial issue of varnish composition. We also covered acoustics research and wood research in a very concise way. 

Moreover, there are interesting parallels between Italian violins and Chinese guqin. Some lessons may be learned from cross-comparisons. 

The article is free to download: https://a17713b8-80cd-4c9e-9ae9-2995c6d8a2b8.filesusr.com/ugd/df0506_823ddb6438974fcfaf1fb75f8e557af2.pdf

Feel free to post your questions in this thread. There are still many unanswered questions about Stradivarius violins. My guess is that we know ~70% of their unique material properties and ~10% of their unique acoustic properties.  

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16 minutes ago, Bruce Tai said:

Recently, we published a review article about the current scientific understanding of Stradivarius violins in AsiaChem, the newsletter of the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies.

Our article is the cover story of the inaugural issue:  https://www.facs.website/asiachem-magazine

It provides a brief summary on the controversial issue of varnish composition. We also covered acoustics research and wood research in a very concise way. 

Moreover, there are interesting parallels between Italian violins and Chinese guqin. Some lessons may be learned from cross-comparisons. 

The article is free to download: https://a17713b8-80cd-4c9e-9ae9-2995c6d8a2b8.filesusr.com/ugd/df0506_823ddb6438974fcfaf1fb75f8e557af2.pdf

Feel free to post your questions in this thread. There are still many unanswered questions about Stradivarius violins. My guess is that we know ~70% of their unique material properties and ~10% of their unique acoustic properties.  

Thanks for sharing. It starts with a claim that is not likely to be documented regarding reproiducibility of sound of violins. It is in fact wrong, as late literature and experiments on this theme has proven it to be incorrect. Texts like this should not enter a serious scientific article and journal. There are no peer reviewers in a chemical journal like this that has any authority nor knowledge whatsoever to take such lines out of the articles. Chamistry articles are never going to tell anything of significance on acoustic matters! 

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At least this article presents some discussion and data on how wood structure changes with age -- something I had not seen before.  Could help explain why older instrument sounds 'old' which apparently most people like.

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9 hours ago, Anders Buen said:

Thanks for sharing. It starts with a claim that is not likely to be documented regarding reproiducibility of sound of violins. It is in fact wrong, as late literature and experiments on this theme has proven it to be incorrect. Texts like this should not enter a serious scientific article and journal. There are no peer reviewers in a chemical journal like this that has any authority nor knowledge whatsoever to take such lines out of the articles. Chamistry articles are never going to tell anything of significance on acoustic matters! 

 

Anders, have you tried to put four-channel recorders like Zoom H2n at the audience head position in a concert hall and record top Strads vs. other violins? 

We are analyzing such recordings (from 10 years ago) and we are surprised by how top Strads project their sound to the audience. Too bad I only had one H2n back then. Had I known how informative it would be, I would have bought 12 and scattered them around. 

For anyone interested in the carrying power of top Strads, I highly recommend putting a few inexpensive H2n recorders to do four-channel recording (2 front, 2 back) at the audience ear positions. Compare the signals to the on-stage, overhead mics. The results are very surprising for me. Don't trust me, but verify yourself. 

 

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5 hours ago, Bruce Tai said:

 

Anders, have you tried to put four-channel recorders like Zoom H2n at the audience head position in a concert hall and record top Strads vs. other violins? 

We are analyzing such recordings (from 10 years ago) and we are surprised by how top Strads project their sound to the audience. Too bad I only had one H2n back then. Had I known how informative it would be, I would have bought 12 and scattered them around. 

For anyone interested in the carrying power of top Strads, I highly recommend putting a few inexpensive H2n recorders to do four-channel recording (2 front, 2 back) at the audience ear positions. Compare the signals to the on-stage, overhead mics. The results are very surprising for me. Don't trust me, but verify yourself. 

 

1. You really shouldn't reply to utter nonsense - helps nobody.

2. The issue of carrying power, the ability of "top Strads" to throw the sound to the back of the audience is perfectly well known for a very long time. That it is not a hearing artifact it is also known and very easy to prove. 

3. One thing you should be at least aware of ( and I believe you are... ) is that present day Strads might not sound like 50 years ago or, 100 years ago. Might not have the same timbre color, might not sound as flexible or as snappy on the note. I was impressed on how different a few I knew sound now compared with 40-50 years ago. I have two excellent recordings of the same solo piece by a great violin player, 30 years apart. Violin sounds pretty much identical. Same violin is now in the hands of a wonderfully talented young soloist and while a lot might seem better there is a very noticeable loss of color. It's tamer and duller.  I know positively the previous owner did not want it like that.  The work done on them, the adjustment philosophy, the strings etc etc etc changed things.  

And thank you for a wonderful article and for all the work which went into it.

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1 hour ago, Carl Stross said:

1. You really shouldn't reply to utter nonsense - helps nobody.

2. The issue of carrying power, the ability of "top Strads" to throw the sound to the back of the audience is perfectly well known for a very long time. That it is not a hearing artifact it is also known and very easy to prove. 

3. One thing you should be at least aware of ( and I believe you are... ) is that present day Strads might not sound like 50 years ago or, 100 years ago. Might not have the same timbre color, might not sound as flexible or as snappy on the note. I was impressed on how different a few I knew sound now compared with 40-50 years ago.

 

1. Carl, Anders is an acoustician, by profession.  What are your qualifications for describing his opinions as "nonsense"?

2. Where, when,  and by what method has this been "proven"?

3. That's no surprise. It's well documented that our hearing changes as we age. ;)

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12 hours ago, Bruce Tai said:

 

Anders, have you tried to put four-channel recorders like Zoom H2n at the audience head position in a concert hall and record top Strads vs. other violins? 

We are analyzing such recordings (from 10 years ago) and we are surprised by how top Strads project their sound to the audience. Too bad I only had one H2n back then. Had I known how informative it would be, I would have bought 12 and scattered them around. 

For anyone interested in the carrying power of top Strads, I highly recommend putting a few inexpensive H2n recorders to do four-channel recording (2 front, 2 back) at the audience ear positions. Compare the signals to the on-stage, overhead mics. The results are very surprising for me. Don't trust me, but verify yourself. 

 

I started my long time average analyses of violins by a test like that in Oslo Concert house with Henning Kraggerud with the Ole Bull del Gesu he had on loan then for a movie recording I think, (the one with the long-holes). There was also two white violins made by a well respected Norwegian maker and former engieneering teacher, Harald Lund. He was of course there too. Urs Wenk Wolff, the maker brother of the violinist Ragin Wenk Wolff (she plays a Strad) was also present, as well as a bow maker friend of mine. He invited me in. I learnt a lot from that session, e.g. that white violins often are louder than varnished ones. The insturmentation was not super, an older DAT recorder and a mic with that. 


Then I had the chance to attend the VSA Oberlin Vioin Acoustics Workshop nine years in a row. And have met many of the central makers and researchers in the field. 

I come from a maker and player family running back to just before 1920 (the maker business). Hardanger fiddles, traditional instrument with similarities to the violin, or barque violin may be closer. I have learnt to make from my fahters uncle who statede making again after retiring from transport. (He had the first car in the Willage An A-ford I think). I am not a properly trained maker, not was any of the makers in the family. They did have a german maker in the shop for a while who was a pro. I manage on my own and have built 12ish insturuments and repaired quite a few.  I made my first instrument at 13 with some help of course. 

We have research now conducted and lead by Claudia Fritz and co workers, many makers, VSA, also reseach groups in France I guess, which indicates that the old, fine Strads or del Gesus does not stand out as superior to good modern ones. These are double blind tests, which is important. Also documented in loundspeaker reseach e.g. by e.g. Floyd F Toole and co-workers. If you see the speakers, the rating will be influenced by the look. 

I have seen quite a bit of fine violins through this and follow the work of many fine violin makers on FB, and I must say I am impressed by their work. The instruments looks absolutely outstanding. Not all, but many. 
I have also heard many instruments and I think I am pretty stable at judging instrument sound. Something that may evolve through time. I calibrated myself against the ratings makers gave to "the Landon del gesu project meeting in Oslo some years ago. My scaores correlated welle with the average ratings there.

It is always an element of taste in evaluations of sound and looks. My impression is that many makers of today produce instruments at the same level or even better than many of he old instruments. I think we never have had so many great insturments produced as we do today. I cant document it, this is what I believe. 
I am educated in science, physics to be preceise. And think that wood is wood. 

I am more interested in Hardanger fiddles than violins.

I participated in a blind test once with a Strad a del Gesu and three modern violins. I rated ta US made insturment and a frech made insturment before any of the fiolne violins. Many other who did paricipate in this, did so too. I thought the Strad was a del Gesu and vice versa. 

I recommend attending the VSA workshops. We occasionally visit the art school workhop where the makers have their workshop. Seeing this and the VSA copetition one get a very good impression on the work. Many are very deicated, also within themes they do not say so much about publicly. And you might learn on two hand, or just see somebody has done something smart.
Many have a background in repairshops where they have worked on fine old instruments. They know much about their pros and cons. When tdid the players become happy with the instruments. So it may be much the quality of the seutup in a shop that makes the insturments sound great.

The Strads and del Gesus were originally baroque. They probaly sound different with a modern bridge and a Baroque. The strings also matter a lot. Why not look more into matters slike that?

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Anders has done some interesting acoustics study on Stradivari violins. I often quote his articles when writing my own. I am not trying to convince him but to learn from him. 

Scientists know very, very little about how ear drum vibrations are converted into a pleasurable signals called music. As a neuroscientist by training, I suspect that we need to eventually build brain-machine interfaces to shed light on this process. The brain-machine interface today will not do the job. I am talking about 30 years from now. 

Psychoacoustics experiments have shown that subjective evaluation of sound is easily biased, while blind tests are not very useful because our auditory memory is very fleeting. Measurements can capture the acoustic wave at the mic very well, but we have little clue on how waveforms carry pleasurable attributes. We can measure how violin bodies vibrate using laser vibrometry. But even computer simulations cannot accurately predict how body vibrations produce sound waves (surprise!!). Acoustics and psychoacoustics are really in a super primitive state compared to most scientific areas. It is the most difficult to understand among our five senses. 

I heard the Lady Tennant Strad in the national concert hall of Taipei and the feeling of proximity is truly incredible when I closed my eyes. It feels like I am 10 m away when I am really 25 m away. Never experienced this in any other concert. This is why I am inspired to search for possible acoustic explanations for Stradivari's carrying power. 

 

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Today, musicians still prefer these antique instruments for their superior acoustic qualities that cannot be reproduced by later makers.

I did'nt like this sentence. Is it is probably not correct. And it certainly is not based on any evience or research in the article.  

Having said that, I am going to read the article because of the Chinese instrumet there, new material to many of us. E.g on varnish.  

Edited by Anders Buen
Corrected spelling error.
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I guess a players must feel blessed if a patron or Institution let you borrow a famus named instrument. Some own their own insturment, an investment with good propescts of inreasing faster in value than the bank rates. 

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I am guessing that only 20% of Strad and del Gesu violins are in good enough condition to be soloist instruments. Although I have not heard the instruments of the best living makers, I suppose that their best works can match the best old Italian violins outside this top 20% range. I do believe that we are in the second golden age of violin making. So I am trying to understand why this top 20% are preferred by top soloists and collectors. It is incredibly difficult to involve them in acoustic experiments. But this is too much to explain to the general audience. Also, it is just my personal belief. 

Also, the Chimei Museum in Taiwan has >1000 great violins. They have 5 Strads and 3 del Gesus that probably fall within the top 20%. They also have hundreds of first-rate violins from 1570s-1970, from the most representative makers. According to my fellow countrymen familiar with this collection, and the hundreds of international musicians they hosted, the Strads and del Gesus are truly a class above all the rest in terms of tone. These opinions are drawn from long-term experiences of a whole community. Blind tests >20 s apart between instruments without loudness matching is rather meaningless from a psychoacoustics point of view.  In loudspeaker A/B testing they know this very well--they use short passages <10s and match loudness to <0.2 dB. So do not dismiss top musicians and top collectors who worship Strads and del Gesus as simply chasing after vanity rather than tone. I believe they are right, but that's just me, after doing two recording sessions at Chimei. 

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52 minutes ago, Bruce Tai said:

I am guessing that only 20% of Strad and del Gesu violins are in good enough condition to be soloist instruments. Although I have not heard the instruments of the best living makers, I suppose that their best works can match the best old Italian violins outside this top 20% range. I do believe that we are in the second golden age of violin making. So I am trying to understand why this top 20% are preferred by top soloists and collectors. It is incredibly difficult to involve them in acoustic experiments. But this is too much to explain to the general audience. Also, it is just my personal belief. 

Also, the Chimei Museum in Taiwan has >1000 great violins. They have 5 Strads and 3 del Gesus that probably fall within the top 20%. They also have hundreds of first-rate violins from 1570s-1970, from the most representative makers. According to my fellow countrymen familiar with this collection, and the hundreds of international musicians they hosted, the Strads and del Gesus are truly a class above all the rest in terms of tone. These opinions are drawn from long-term experiences of a whole community. Blind tests >20 s apart between instruments without loudness matching is rather meaningless from a psychoacoustics point of view.  In loudspeaker A/B testing they know this very well--they use short passages <10s and match loudness to <0.2 dB. So do not dismiss top musicians and top collectors who worship Strads and del Gesus as simply chasing after vanity rather than tone. I believe they are right, but that's just me, after doing two recording sessions at Chimei. 

Since you brought up recording, with the advent of the internet it should be straightforward to set up a double-blind test that the entire world can hear for themselves.

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6 hours ago, David Burgess said:

1. Carl, Anders is an acoustician, by profession.  What are your qualifications for describing his opinions as "nonsense"?

2. Where, when,  and by what method has this been "proven"?

3. That's no surprise. It's well documented that our hearing changes as we age. ;)

1. Doesn't mean a thing to me. Would Karajan be an acoustician ? What is an acoustician in relation to violins or music in general ? And my qualifications are more than sufficient...   :):):)     By the way, what are yours ? :lol:    Bruce is very kind to offer the results of his research to all of us and for free. We should say thank you and avoid sounding like a...holes. 

2. All over the place, for the past 200 years or so and still going on even TODAY ! :) and by the method of direct testing....  

3. That is irrelevant. People who need their hearing for serious musical purposes keep tabs on changes and adjust accordingly. That's how some great conductors and pianists performed brilliantly into their late years. Besides, the tonal Stradiness of a top Strad is still perfectly discernible through a cheap transistor radio. I am pretty sure you could instantly recognize your mother's voice over a phone line and despite her having a bad flu. Bruce's research aims in that direction.  

 

 

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12 minutes ago, avandesande said:

Since you brought up recording, with the advent of the internet it should be straightforward to set up a double-blind test that the entire world can hear for themselves.

"The entire world" won't be able to tell. This is not about a like/dislike majority opinion. 

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1 minute ago, avandesande said:

I guess then we should keep passing around 19th century marketing baloney and keep quiet.

I don't know . Who's "we" ??? 

Lots of excellent, affordable violins around, both old and new. And lots of enthusiastic and talented musicians using them and being quite satisfied. What IS interesting is how exactly is the " 19th century marketing baloney" interfering with your ... activity ???

  

 

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9 minutes ago, Carl Stross said:

I don't know . Who's "we" ??? 

Lots of excellent, affordable violins around, both old and new. And lots of enthusiastic and talented musicians using them and being quite satisfied. What IS interesting is how exactly is the " 19th century marketing baloney" interfering with your ... activity ???

  

 

You know what I am saying, but continue to dissemble if you must.

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