Secret of a Great Violin Sound Discovered???

There is an article by Greg Flakus of Voice of America News on the discoveries of Joseph Nagyvary at Texas A&M University on why Stradivarius and other highly prized violins made about 300 years ago in northern Italy sound so wonderful. The crux of Mr Nagyvary's discover is a treatment of the wood in order to preserve it chemically changed the wood and gives it better resonance.

His discovery isn't met with cheers on all sides because part of the allure of a Stradivarius is the mystery of how it gets its sound. According to the article Mr Nagyvary has gone on to make a violin with treated wood and while Music Professor Brian Lewis says, "It has got a nice sound, I like it," it won't have the quality of these older instruments that have been played for thousands of hours affecting their resonance.

There is also something to be said for the basic design of the instrument. In an article by Andrew Hsieh on "The Science of Violin Making" he speaks about how the Amati violins of the 1650's were more bowed in shape than the Stradivari violin of the 1690's. However, he also goes on to say just copying the shape of the violins doesn't necessarily produce the same sound.

Volumes have been written about the acoustics of the violin. Numerous studies have been made of the wood, the varnish, the shape and now the treatment of the wood itself. In the award winning article "Science and the Stradivarius" Colin Gough takes an in-depth look at the components of the violin and how they function to create the sound (and how that sound and function alters at different frequencies).

"At low frequencies the bridge simply acts as a mechanical lever, since the response is independent of frequency. However, between 2.5 and 3 kHz the bowing action excites a strong resonance of the bridge, with the top rocking about its narrowed waist section. This boosts the intensity of any partials in this frequency range, where the ear is most sensitive, and gives greater brightness and carrying power to the sound. Another resonance occurs at about 4.5 kHz in which the bridge bounces up and down on its two feet. Between these two resonances there is a strong dip in the transfer of force to the body. Thankfully this dip decreases the amplitude of the partials at these frequencies, which the ear associates with an unpleasant shrillness in musical quality."

Later in the article he examines simple ways a professional can "adjust" a violin to get a better sound.

"One of the reasons for the excellent tone of the very best violins is the attention that top players give to the violin set-up - rather like the way in which a car engine is tuned to get the best performance. Violinists will, for example, carefully adjust the bridge to suit a particular instrument - or even select a different bridge altogether. The sound quality of many modern violins could undoubtedly be improved by taking just as much care in selecting and adjusting the bridge."

However, in the end Mr Gough was no closer to discovering the secret than countless other luthiers (violin makers).

Mr Hsieh's article also details the frequencies and functions of parts of a violin. He even refers to Nagyvary’s work on examining the composition of the wood and how the effects of microbes change the acoustical response of the wood. But in the end this is still inconclusive. Ultimately, there may be no way to truly duplicate them because they get better with age and we're never going to be able to duplicate that effect. Yes, perhaps Mr Nagyvary's violin will be amazing in 300 years, but it will still be 300 year younger than a Stradivarius.

Hilary Hahn doesn't play one of the great masters violins, but rather a duplicate copy of one - and is very happy with the sound she gets gets. Joshua Bell does play a Stradivarius, but he would still be amazing on a student model violin. In the end, while there are still secrets to be learned about what makes the perfect violin, it still comes down to the master holding the bow.

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