Having read about the wonderful sound of a Stradivarius — and now finally having heard one played — I was interested by an article in Nature News (“Old violins reveal their secrets,” Phillip Ball) about efforts to uncover what gives the great violins made by Stradivari and Guarneri their special sound and cache.
Apparently, a study has identified “a measurable sound quality” that is unique and distinctly different from factory-made instruments.
The study was conducted by George Bissinger of East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.
He focused on the properties of the key vibrational resonances or ‘modes’ of the instruments, recording the frequencies of these modes, the radiativity (the sound radiated for a certain applied force to the strings at the bridge), the degree of focusing in specific directions (directivity), the flexibility of the wooden body plates, and the amount of damping of the sound. “The radiativity is closest to what the violinist hears and thus bears most directly on the quality perception,” says Bissinger.
Almost all of these features showed no discernible trends from bad to good instruments. In fact, the two Stradivarius instruments showed respectively the highest and the lowest degrees of directivity in the sample.
But crucially, the best violins showed a more even radiation of sound across the range of acoustic frequencies that they generate. In particular, the greater strength of their lowest-octave response can partially account for the richness and sweetness of tone that violinists say they detect, says Bissinger. “They generally like a big sound low down,” he says.
But is it the instrument or the musician?
Bissinger argues that, ultimately, a ‘great’ violin is created by a great violinist. He cites the case of the famous violinist Jascha Heifetz, who played a del Gesù. Heifetz was once approached by a fan after a concert, who complimented him on the “beautiful tone” his violin had had that night. Heifetz turned around, bent over, and put his ear close to the violin lying in its case and said, “I don’t hear anything”.
I’m confident that those of us who attended Joshua Bell’s performances last weekend — or any time — felt that the person playing the violin has a lot to do with the joy of the evening.