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Researchers Explore the Secret of the Stradivarius

One of the most enduring mysteries in all of music is why the violins of two classic Italian luthiers are so revered for their sound. Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744) both worked in the Northern Italian city of Cremona and the richness of their instruments has been dubbed by many as the “Cremonese sound.” The “Stradivarius” violins are probably the most well known to the public as they have sold at auction for more than $2 million. However, the violins of the Cremonese masters are sought after the all over the world and most of history’s violin virtuosos preferred their instruments, such as Niccolò Paganini’s Guarneri-crafted “Il Cannone.” As such, researchers have tried to find what gives these instruments their sound. Two recent studies have come to very different conclusions: one has shown evidence that the quality is not in the perfection of the instruments but rather their subtle “imperfection.” The other study poses something very radical and challenging – that the Cremonese sound is all in our heads.

Dr Franco Zanini, an Italian physicist and violinist, has used high-energy particle acceleration to compare a Guarnerius violin with contemporary models. The secret seems to be in “harmonic rejection.” The imbalances in the wood and construction that is not perfectly symmetrical cancel out unwanted harmonics. It has long been thought that some quality in the local timber available to the Cremonese masters accounts for their quality.


However, Claudia Fritz, an expert on violin acoustics at the University of Paris, has tried to turn research such as this on its head by asking if the difference in sound is real in the first place. Blind tests between normal violins and Cremonese violins have been done many times, but one question had not been tested: can accomplished violinists tell the difference in a controlled study? In a blind study of world-class violinists attending a competition in Indianapolis, only 8 out of 21 participants favored the classic violins over modern violins.


Does that mean someone out there needs to ask for a $2 million refund from Christy’s? Definitely not, as these violins will continue to be a source of intrigue and fascination due to their legend and their rarity.


photo credit: cremona daniel via photopin cc

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