The signature of a Stradivarius – Cynthia Closkey

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.

(Article link via Coudal Partners; photo by Punchstock via

2 Responses to “The signature of a Stradivarius – Cynthia Closkey”

  1. Doug Bauman says:

    Hi Cynthia. This subject fascinates me, and I am glad you wrote about this. I too thought it was Bell who made the violin sing.
    A while ago I bought a violin or viola (Can you believe I don’t know which).
    Then I had this idea to photograph myself playing the instrument. So it turned into a whole exercise in music, photography and writing. Here is my original post.
    So as I was doing all this, I noticed that on the inside was inscribed:
    antonius stradiuarius cremonentus
    Faciebat anno 1723
    Yet there seems to be glue protruding from the cracks,
    This can’t be genuine.
    I type this into google, and it responds back:
    Did you mean: antonius stradivarius cremonensis
    I select this link:
    Bottom line: “Don’t expect your find to be genuine. The odds against finding the real thing are slim to none. Nevertheless, you might have a decent violin, and if you can play the instrument, that will be its own reward.”

  2. Wow, Doug! What a fun story.
    I hope you’ve started on those lessons, to make the most of your not-quite-Strad.

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Oct 3