Chemists Say What Makes a Stradivari Different


Saw an interesting article in the NYT today...

Short version: some scientists have identified chemical differences in the maple used in a Stradivarius and a modern day violin. Old wood, vibrations passing throgh the wood from playing, and different construction methods all contribute to chemical differences in the wood.

Whether this makes any difference in the sound is up for debate (as is whether it would make any difference in an electric guitar since we are dealing w/ pickups), but I thought some folks might find it interesting

Here's a link to the full article:
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Hasn't there been a fair amount of tests where in double blind experiments, violin virtuosos prefer the non-Stradivarious? (ie: they are listening to someone else play in the same room and not playing themselves)


Silver Supporting Member
I'm not convinced that the info is relevant to acoustic guitars, let alone electrics. A violin is designed to sound best when the strings are continually being driven by the bow. A guitar has its strings plucked. A pizzicato on a violin dies out in half a heartbeat. I wouldn't want a guitar that sounds like that.


Another popular theory — that Stradivari was using a varnish with magical sound properties — has not been substantiated by any chemical analyses.
Thumbs down for the improper use of the word. Otherwise a rather informative article.

Another variable to consider is how time and mineralization affects the wood's density.

Hasn't there been a fair amount of tests where in double blind experiments, violin virtuosos prefer the non-Stradivarious? (ie: they are listening to someone else play in the same room and not playing themselves)


Gold Supporting Member
thanks for posting that about ACOUSTIC violins with NO PICKUPS in 'em.

this thread will go south in 3... 2... 1...


I hereby call on the Washburn company to infuse its guitars with aluminum, calcium, copper and other elements
Gonna stand back and wait for the results.



Blind-tested soloists unable to tell Stradivarius violins from modern instruments

Following the controversial 2010 study in Indianapolis, researchers in Paris invite ten professional musicians to compare twelve instruments

A modern instrument was the clear winner and a Stradivarius the loser in a double-blind test of old Italian and new violins, conducted at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Vincennes, Paris. In a follow-up to the controversial experiment conducted in Indianapolis in 2010, ten professional soloists compared the tonal qualities of twelve instruments – six by 18th-century Italian luthiers and six by contemporary makers. The results, published on 7 April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed those of the 2010 study, which showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old.

French acoustics specialist Claudia Fritz, US violin maker Joseph Curtin and strings expert Fan-Chia Tao, who led both studies, made a number of changes to the test set-up. ‘One criticism was that only players of the top rank could be expected to get the best out of a Strad, and to give an informed judgement about tone quality,’ said Curtin. ‘Secondly, top-level musicians are more experienced at playing many instruments under different conditions.’

This time the number of instruments was increased from six to twelve and only ‘renowned soloists’ were invited to participate. Instead of a hotel room the tests took place in a rehearsal room and concert stage, and the evaluation periods were increased to two 75-minute sessions. Participants compared six new instruments with five Strads and one by an 18th-century Italian master.

The players were told to judge each violin as if they were looking for an instrument that could best replace their own for an upcoming concert tour. Each player wore modified welders’ goggles and performed under very low ambient lighting, to ensure they could not identify the violins by sight. The soloists used their own bows throughout the study, and were allowed to compare test violins with their own instruments whenever they wished. When they were on stage, they were also given the option of playing with piano accompaniment, getting feedback from a chosen listener, and hearing the violins played by another soloist.

In one test the participants were asked to reject instruments they didn’t like and rank their four favourites in order, with the researchers awarding four points to each player’s top instrument. Rejected instruments had a point deducted from their overall score. In the second test all the violins were tested again in the concert hall. At the end of the test the players were given a series of violins and 30 seconds to guess whether it was old or new. In total, 33 of the soloists’ guesses were wrong and 31 right, with 5 indeterminate.

The final results showed that one modern instrument garnered a total of 26 points, being the top choice for four players, second choice for another four, and rejected by two. Conversely, a Stradivari ended up with a score of -9. Its closest rival was a modern instrument, which had a score of -7.

The results revealed the two most-preferred instruments to be modern, while in third place was a violin from Stradivari’s ‘golden period’. At the opposite end of the scale a Stradivari drew the poorest result and a modern instrument was placed second-last.

‘Soloists readily distinguished instruments they liked from those they did not but were unable to tell old from new at better than chance levels,’ the report concluded. ‘Given the stature and experience of our soloists, continuing claims for the existence of playing qualities unique to old Italian violins are strongly in need of empirical support.’

The research team is preparing two further papers based on the study. The first will cover projection in the hall. The second will explore correlations between the players’ evaluations and those of the listeners in the audience.

The soloists taking part in the study were: Olivier Charlier (France), Pierre Fouchenneret (France), Yi-Jia Susanne Hou (Canada), Ilya Kaler (pictured, Russia), Elmar Oliveira (US), Tatsuki Narita (France), Solenne Païdassi (France), Annick Roussin (France), Giora Schmidt (US), and Stéphane Tran Ngoc (France).

‘For me, the really important finding is that whereas soloists readily separate instruments they like from those they don’t, they seem unable to tell old Italian instruments from new ones,’ said Curtin. ‘Whatever it is that top players are looking for in a violin, it is clearly not related to age or country of origin.’
Color me a fanboy if you will, but I would like to know what Paul Smith thinks of these findings. He is, as far as I know, the last of the 'old guard' of solid body guitar luthiers, and the 'field theory' that he most often espouses, i.e. "Uncontrolled moistrue leads to instability, and is a sustain-killer." at least SEEMS-on fist glance-to jive with Stradivarius's modus operandi.
The legend is that Paul in effect tap-tuned his earliest instruments, going through the wood warehouse with a mallet and tapping each piece of wood-checking for the 'magic'-prior to purchasing it. I'll bet Stradivarius was just as obsessive-albeit in a different way.
PRS uses epoxy to glue the fingerboards on, after taking an inordinate amount of time to dry the wood only to re-humidify it prior to use.
I have wondered if Stradivarius were alive today and had access to modern knowledge and techniques, would Stradivarius be the Paul Reed Smith of violin builders?


Well, we are comparing a 1700s Strads to modern era violins, because, the word has been going around for over three centuries, that Stradivarius and Guarneri, Amati, etc. violins sound and play superior to the "all other".

1. The "all other" of today and the "all other" of 18th, 19th, and first half of 20th centuries are totally different things. Many, many different things in fact.

2. What makes for a "superior" or "better" or the "ideal violin sound" might have also changed over the different periods over the centuries. We see this a lot in visual arts, especially looking at the "ideal" male or female type of physique - it varies dramatically through the time periods. We also know what was considered ideal guitar sound in the '80s and '90s and how it compares to today.

3. We really don't know how some of these old violins sounded when they were new, 10 y old, 50 y old, 100, 200 etc. But we have accounts of players and sophisticated listeners that praise them for their tonal qualities and projection.

4. Just like with 59 Les Pauls, not all Strads are expected to be magical - some mediocre instruments are definitely in that pool, and these will sound poorer that any better instrument from any era.

5. You have several generations of top instrumentalists that praise them, and it becomes a bit of a myth too. Now we're talking classical music here, in this genre thy don't get to have punk-rockers that come in to rebel against tradition, among the rest. They do things almost all the same, generation after generation, and this includes the preference of the "top instrument".

But was Stradivari top notch violin maker? No doubt at all! But I just thing that there are waaaaaaaay to many variables that are in place waaaaaaaay before we get to the talk on minerals, lacquers, rings in the wood, dry & cold winters, etc. Personally, I'd love to hear a blind test of a Strad and another violin of the same age, but by an unknown maker. I think that would have been a bit more apples to apples.


One thing that has always bothered me with these tests (not so much the violin one, as it corrected for this): as a musician what you hear whilst playing is radically different (far more nuanced) than what you hear as a listener, no matter how well trained your ears are. I'd fail most listening tests (Tele vs Les Paul, or whatever), but can both hear and feel the differences of different instruments when I have to go from brain to fingers to ears. This probably comes down to the vast differences in brain activity between playing and listening to music.

Which is the truer experience? The truer test? There are arguments both ways. For me, I'll take the experience of the professional doing what they are trained to do (play) over passive listening any day.
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Short version some scientists have identified chemical differences in the maple used in a Stradivarius and a modern day violin. Old wood, vibrations passing throgh the wood from playing, and different construction methods all contribute to chemical differences in the wood.

Whether this makes any difference in the sound is up for debate (as is whether it would make any difference in an electric guitar since we are dealing w/ pickups), but I thought some folks might find it interesting.

Full text for those behind a paywall:

In the violin-making world, two names reign above all others: Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri.

Both masters lived during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in a small town in northern Italy called Cremona, and garnered a reputation for making the best stringed instruments in the world. Since then, luthiers have tirelessly tried to imitate Stradivari’s and Guarneri’s craftsmanship, copying their wood choice, geometry and construction methods. But their efforts have met with little success.

For hundreds of years, the best violin players have almost unanimously said they prefer a Stradivari or a Guarneri instrument.

Why nobody has been able to replicate that sound remains one of the most enduring mysteries of instrument building. A new study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that answers may lie in the wood: Mineral treatments, followed by centuries of aging and transformation from playing, might give these instruments unique tonal qualities.

“If you compare Stradivari’s maple with modern, high-quality maple wood that is almost the same, the two woods are very different,” said Hwan-Ching Tai, a professor of chemistry at National Taiwan University and an author of the paper.

In the study, done in collaboration with the Chimei Museum in Taiwan, Dr. Tai and his colleagues used five analytical techniques to assess wood shavings from two Stradivari violins, two Stradivari cellos and one Guarneri violin. Their measurements yielded several major findings.

First, they found evidence of chemical treatments containing aluminum, calcium, copper and other elements — a practice lost to later generations of violin makers.


The original neck of the 1725 Stradivarius violin nicknamed “Brancaccio.” CreditChimei Museum
“Modern luthiers don’t do this,” said Henri Grissino-Mayer, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who studies tree rings and did not participate in this research. “This paper is the first to convince me that some type of mineral infusion into wood might cause superior sound in a musical instrument.”

It is unknown whether the tonal results of these treatments were coincidence, or whether the Cremonese masters knew beforehand that the chemicals would have an effect, Dr. Tai said.

The researchers also discovered that one-third of a wood component known as hemicellulose had decomposed in Stradivari and Guarneri’s instruments. Because hemicellulose naturally absorbs a lot of moisture, the effect was that the instruments had about 25 percent less water in them than more recent models.

“This is fundamentally important because the less moisture, the more brilliant the sound,” said Joseph Nagyvary, a luthier and a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University who was not involved in this study.

In comparison with other violins, Stradivari and Guarneri instruments are known for possessing rich, dark bass tones and a quality known as brilliance, or the ability to project a clean, high-frequency sound that “tickles your ear from far away,” Dr. Nagyvary said.

Dr. Tai’s team also found a property in the Stradivari violin samples but not the cellos: When they heated the wood shavings of the violins, they found an extra peak in oxidation, which implies a detachment between wood fibers.

This detachment, possibly the result of centuries of vibrations from playing, may give the instruments greater expressiveness, Dr. Tai said, adding, “Top violinists often feel like these old violins vibrate more freely, which allows them to express a wider set of emotions.”

Dr. Tai’s interest in Cremonese violins goes back a decade, to when he was a graduate student specializing in neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology. A friend told him about Dr. Nagyvary, who, in the 1980s, was the first to suggest that Stradivari and Guarneri had used chemically processed wood to make their instruments. Today, Dr. Tai’s lab focuses on the neurochemistry of Alzheimer’s disease, and he is still a hi-fi audio and classical music buff.

During the winter of 2006, Dr. Tai visited Dr. Nagyvary in Texas and got hooked on the mystery of the famed violins. He spent the next several years on a 60-page review of research on Cremonese violins.

Over the years, he said, many hypotheses about the secret properties of Stradivari and Guarneri instruments have come and gone.

For a while, people suggested that luthiers had simply used trees that have since gone extinct — but in fact those trees still exist. In 2003, Dr. Grissino-Mayer and a colleague said Stradivari’s secret had to do with the fact that he had lived during an extremely cold period, known as the little ice age, and that the trees around him were growing differently. How exactly that may have produced better instruments, however, remains unclear. Another popular theory — that Stradivari was using a varnish with magical sound properties — has not been substantiated by any chemical analyses.

Dr. Tai hopes that decoding the secrets in the wood of Cremonese violins will help guide attempts to build replicas that can preserve the sounds of Stradivari and Guarneri.

With their continued decomposition, many Stradivari and Guarneri instruments will lose their acoustics in the next 100 years, he said, adding, “These instruments will not last forever.”

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