by Alex Pilote, Athens Science Café
When discussing string instruments, the name Stradivarius is synonymous with excellence and superior craftsmanship. But why is this? Are the violins bearing this name crafted with a more skilled hand? Do they outperform all others? Or perhaps there’s a scientific explanation behind this? The question of the superior reputation of Stradivarius violins is centuries old, but research utilizing tree rings has been able to shed light on a possible explanation for the quality of sound produced by his instruments.
What separates Stradivarius instruments from others?
Stradivarius violins are those crafted by Antonio Stradivari during the late 17th and early 18th centuries and are considered to produce a resonance of sound superior to all others. Only about 600 of this virtuoso’s violins now survive, driving auction values to the tune of tens of millions of dollars . The superior sound of these instruments has historically been attributed to various physical or supernatural factors, including assertions that the wood was salvaged from ancient cathedrals or that “secret ingredients” were used in the curing and manufacturing processes .
However, scientists Lloyd Burkle (of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University) and Henri Grissino-Mayer (of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Science at The University of Tennessee) hypothesize that the true explanation for their superior sound lies in the wood these instruments are made from [3-5]. These researchers knew that violin-makers have focused for centuries on wood quality, building their instruments from spruce and maple trees in order to ensure superior acoustical and mechanical properties . The woody cells of these species are densely packed and rigid, allowing for a better resonance within the instrument and resistance to the stress of centuries of use.
What do tree rings have to do with this?
As you probably learned in high school biology, trees form rings each year; but these rings are not all formed equally. Rings grow thicker in years with ample water and nutrients and thinner in years where these elements are lacking. This means that trees growing in the same region (i.e. under similar growing conditions) will form a similar pattern of ring widths. Researchers can take advantage of this phenomenon and attribute these ring patterns to past climate attributes, like precipitation or temperature. A “master pattern” (or chronology) can be made for a region by sampling many trees, and ring width patterns can be extended back hundreds of years by sampling dead trees and even wooden structures (like old cabins, barns, and churches). This master pattern can then be used to date wooden objects (like string instruments) in history by identifying where it’s tree ring pattern falls within the chronology. For example, the pattern of tree rings may confirm that wood from a violin formed during Stradivarius’ lifetime, or they may reveal a violin to be a more contemporary forgery (more on this later). Dating artifacts with the use of tree rings is a facet of the larger discipline of Dendrochronology, the study of tree rings in order to better understand the past .
Burkle and Grissino-Mayer created chronologies from trees in alpine forests, including the Italian region in which Stradivari would have gathered his lumber, and then dated the tree rings found on the faces of multiple confirmed Stradivarius violins. Though Stradivari was a masterful craftsman, these scientists found that he was also quite lucky in that he was using wood formed during a climatic anomaly known as the Maunder Minimum . This was a period of reduced sun activity which lasted about 70 years and resulted in cooler temperatures across western Europe. The cooler climate led to long winters and cool summers, in which trees would have produced slow, even growth and especially dense wood. Coincidentally, the beginning of the Maunder Minimum is 1645, the year after Stradivari was born. Thus, the researchers hypothesize that the wood he used for constructing his now highly revered violins was harvested from forests grown in optimal conditions for his needs, and that this climatic period set up a skilled craftsman to become a lasting name in the world of classical music.
This fame has come with some consequences, though, as forgeries and frauds involving Stradivarius violins have come across international headlines [9-10]. However, tree ring research can play a role in these investigations as well. Researchers can now use the chronologies made for the confirmed violins to determine the validity of those that are in question. Supposed forgeries have been found to actually be made from trees felled years after Stradivari’s death .
This research acts as an example of how past climate can have lasting effects on our everyday lives, even in ways you may have never considered. So next time you listen to your classical playlist on Spotify, you may think of how those instruments are the product of Earth’s climate.
About the Author
|Alex J. Pilote is a PhD candidate in the Plant Biology department at the University of Georgia, studying water relations and drought resistance in wild sunflowers. When out of the greenhouse, he can be found running, hiking, camping, or attempting to work on his house. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
 Gough, C. 2000. Science and the Stradivarius. Physics World 13: 27–33.
 Burckle, L., Grissino-Mayer, H.D. 2003. Stradivari, violins, tree rings, and the Maunder Minimum: a hypothesis. Dendrochronologia 21: 41–45.