Stradivarius' secret

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on December 9, 2003). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint). A fuller disclaimer is available.

While I’ve never had the opportunity to hear one in person, nearly anyone involved in the world of music is aware of the near-legendary quality of the instruments created by Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari. It appears that scientists may have narrowed down one intriguing factor in what makes a Stradivarius sound the way it does — it’s all in the wood.

…a tree-ring dating expert at the University of Tennessee and a climatologist at Columbia University offer a new theory — the wood developed special acoustic properties as it was growing because of an extended period of long winters and cool summers.


Grissino-Mayer at Tennessee and Dr. Lloyd Burckle at Columbia suggest a “Little Ice Age” that gripped Europe from the mid-1400s until the mid-1800s slowed tree growth and yielded uncommonly dense Alpine spruce for Antonio Stradivari and other famous 17th century Italian violinmakers.


“I think it is very, very interesting, and it seems to me a valid observation,” said Helen Hayes, president of the New York-based Violin Society of America, which hired Grissino-Mayer to examine “The Messiah.”

“But on the other hand, nobody in this field … would ever say that if you put the best wood in the world in the hands of a mediocre maker that you would get a good instrument,” she said. “So it is never a complete explanation. Nor is the varnish nor any of the other things they have talked about. I would dare say there is no one piece of the puzzle.”

(via Marginal Revolution)

10 thoughts on “Stradivarius' secret”

  1. I wanted to comment on this earlier but have been busy so I had to wait a day or two. The wood is the key to it all. I remember a while back a famous instrument maker was impressed by a quartet of young musicians. He hand crafted four instruments from one single piece of wood and donated them to the quartet. Because all the instruments were made from the same piece of wood they all had the same tonal characteristics.

    I tried to Google and find the maker of the instruments but was unable to.

    I also remember a story a couple of years ago about a salvage company picking up old growth timber from the bottom of the Great lakes. Giant hardwood logs lost off ships and barges over 100 years ago. When asked about the cost of getting this wood from the bottom of the Great lakes his reply was it cost a thousand time more than harvesting from a forest. When asked if he thought he could sell it and still make a profit he said its already 100% pre-sold. Instrument makers have already bought it all.

    Clearly they think the wood is very, very important!

  2. I have seen pictures of Stradivarius violins and
    Amati violins. The age rings of the wood were no closer
    together than violins made today. The quality and age of
    wood is very important in violin making, but it can not be
    said that it is all in the wood. I have seen pictures of
    intricate wood carvings produced by stradivarius that are
    mind boggling. Violin makers who have made violins for their
    whole lives are always astounded by the exacting work of
    Stradivarius’s violins. He was an amazing violin maker.
    They also gasp at the amazing properties of his varnish.
    Anyone who had studied his wonderful work would not
    belittle it to any extent.

    perfect work on these violins

  3. I am in possession of more than one authentic Stradivari fiddle. And, I have had the opportunity to remove the tops in order to close cracks in them. The mystery of the magnificent tonal qualities is no mystery at all. Careful selection of wood, careful attention to the thickness of the back, belly, and ribs, and a fine quality varnish of soft, flexible gum-based resins all work together. Great age is also an important factor in the curing and maturation of the whole instrument. Many instruments have been altered from the original state by the thinning of the tops, which is a dangerous thing. Even so, a “poor sounding” Stradivari is still worth a king’s ransom. Those instruments which have been well cared for, and not thinned by zealots, possess the tonal qualites which make the Stradivarius the premier concert instrument. But then, there is Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu…..I have a few of them too!! If I had to decide which ones must be given up, I think I would go crazy trying to make up my mind. The real reason Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu fiddles sound so well, is that they both gave glory to God by the insignia each placed on their labels. God simply blessed them in return.

  4. I believe, the type and quality of wood has a lot to do
    with the sound quality of a musical instrument, such as,
    violin, harp or guitar. I have a keen ear for acoustic
    guitars all my life. I can tell which ones have great
    tonal sounds. I play in a Mariachi Band for many years,
    and I know which wood constructed instruments sound extremely well as opposed to others. I have a Mariachi
    Harp that has an excellent sound quality.

                   Theodore Valenzuela

  5. I believe I have one of the 1714 Stradivarius Violins, but don’t know how to authenticate it. My father got it in Italy in WWII and recently passed only to just let us all know he was in possession of it. It’s hand written in the 14 part of the 1714 and I’ve been told the sound is unbelievable. How can I authenticate it and sell this for big bucks?

  6. My grandfather bought a violin at an action. Inside the violin has Stradivarius Cremenenlis anno 1713. EC & GAS with circles around these letters. Also has the numbers 516 and 623. Can you tell if it is a copy or not.
    Thanks !!!

Comments are closed.