Stradivari’s Rainbow

Stradivari’s Rainbow

Photo by Kim Pardi courtesy WikiCommons

Photo by Kim Pardi courtesy WikiCommons

In 1704, the year that Stradivari built the violin now known as the “Betts,” Isaac Newton published his second book, Opticks. In it he explains the refraction of white light into its component colors by a prism. A century later, Keats famously lamented Newton’s explanation, which to his mind drained the beauty and mystery from the rainbow. In the poem “Lamia” he wrote, “Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold Philosophy?”

I suspect most people today can find charm in a rainbow, all the while knowing it can be explained scientifically. Still, the underlying worry that scientific knowledge comes at a cost to our aesthetic or spiritual life lives on, and perhaps nowhere more than in the violin world. The science of the violin has lagged far behind that of the rainbow, in good part because the technology needed to accurately measure sound and vibration was not developed until the 20th Century. By then Stradivari had become a kind of figurehead for the persistence of mystery in an age of analysis.

As a young violin-maker, I thought of violin science with suspicion, even hostility. Though I had been devoted to science as a child, in my teens I fell in love with the violin, and with it the worlds of art and literature. By the time I took up making, I was a failed violinist and violist, but still needed to think of myself as an artist, as someone who relies on intuition and a sense of beauty more than “cold philosophy” to find a way forward. Mine would be the path of the poet, the painter, the dreamer. At a Violin Society of America meeting in the early 1980s, I attended a lecture entitled “What Researchers Can Do for Violin-makers.” As the speaker stepped up to the podium, I turned to a fellow maker and said, “What they can do is quit!” And I meant it. I didn’t want scientists poking around in my art.

I was hardly alone in feeling this. Here is violin-maker James McKean in his recent memoir “Art’s Cello,” explaining why he never weighed the tops or backs of his instruments: “I knew that all the lab-coat violin-makers did. It was the kind of thing they loved – hard numbers they could compare. Graphs, charts, printouts, and oscilloscopes. I found all that kind of thing worse than useless. It distracted from the most important measurement of all: what your hands tell you.”

The man whose lecture I so objected to was Norman Pickering, a brilliant engineer, musician, inventor, string-designer, and researcher whom I later came to revere. Years after that particular lecture, I was chatting with him before a talk I was about to give on, yes, violin acoustics. After scanning the meager audience he said (as though preparing me for the utter lack of interest my talk would likely generate), “there’s a special kind of silence that comes at the end of an acoustics lecture.”

And so there was. It may have been due to a sense that, because the Old Italian makers didn’t know much about violin acoustics (nobody did back then), nor should we. If you want to make a Strad, you need to think like Stradivari, so best not clutter your mind with non-Stradivarian concepts.

Even top scientists said to be wary. When I interviewed Cambridge Professor Jim Woodhouse, a leading figure in violin research, he put it this way, “Scientific advice should come with a government health warning – may be harmful to your instrument! Science can be useful in sending you in the right direction, but if you follow some theory to the point where you start to think, ‘I don’t want to do this, but science says I must,’ then the science is probably wrong.”

Much of it was wrong. The violin has inspired super-sized portions of bad science, every morsel of which seems to make the headlines. A fair percentage also gets served up at violin-making conferences – or at least it used to, so there was every reason to think twice before applying the latest scientific theory to your next violin. Scientists work with hypotheses, which can later be revised. Violin-makers work with wood, and as the old saying goes, Twice cut and still too short.

The majority of violin-makers, at least those of my generation, were not scientifically inclined. We had instead, I believe, a yearning to recover whatever the Cremonese might have known about violin-making in the early 1700s. We were fascinated by ancient varnish formulas, esoteric wood treatment processes, arcane geometrical systems. These would not so much explain the mystery of Old Italian violins as allow us to partake in it. We would become Old Italian makers. We would pick up where the Cremonese left off, and a new Golden Age would begin.

In 1985, seven years after building my first instrument, I moved to Ann Arbor, where I met University of Michigan professor Gabriel Weinreich, a former Bell Labs physicist who had become one of the top experts on violin acoustics. Through conversations with him I discovered that virtually all my “intuitive” ideas about how the violin worked were wrong. Some ideas were metaphorically true, meaning they were literally false. Others were just plain wrong from any angle. My early resistance to violin science began to seem silly. No-one objects when scientists try to take the mystery out of cancer. Bad violin sound may not be life-threatening, but why object to research that could lead to a cure?

People don’t object, or not exactly. Instead, they say that science isn’t up to the task. You’ve read the newspapers: For centuries scientists have struggled in vain to unravel the mystery of Stradivari’s sound. You can always say, “that’s just the media,” but this kind of thinking has crept into the work of serious writers, thinkers, and historians. Tony Faber, in the Afterword to his generally excellent book “Stradivari’s Genius,” recounts a visit to Cremona’s town hall, where he hears someone play a 1715 Stradivari known as the ‘Cremonese.’ Reflecting upon this experience (and on past plans by its caretakers to subject the instrument to a battery of scientific tests) Faber writes “The Cremonese stands as a symbol of science’s failure to come to grips with the secrets of Stradivari.” He goes on to describe some of the technologies that have been used to study the violin (including x-ray diffraction and dendrochronology), and concludes that, “Little has been accomplished.”

The question becomes, I suppose: what constitutes an accomplishment? High on the list (at least in the public mind) would be the discovery of some physical reason why Old Italian violins sound better than other violins (assuming that they do). Violin-makers would naturally appreciate clear-cut recipes for building instruments that sound like the best Old Italians. Scientists, however, define success largely in terms of doing good science.

Doing good science inevitably involves publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. Compared with larger, better-funded fields such as optics or particle physics, the number of violin-related papers in the literature is vanishingly small. Few of the important papers have made the headlines, probably because they can’t be spun to solve the riddle of Old Italian sound. No one ever opened the morning news to read Helmholtz Discovers Traveling Kinks in Bowed String, or Schelleng Creates Minimum Bow Force Diagram, or Weinreich Proposes Sound Hole Sum Rule, or Woodhouse Relates Playability to Bridge Admittance.

Scientists may be drawn to the violin by its mystique, but once in the field, they tend to work on problems that are not easy for violin-makers or players to understand and therefore care about. As Weinreich likes to say, “Scientists are interested in scientific questions. If the answers are helpful to violin-makers, then that is gravy.”

Over the past several centuries, many distinguished scientists have taken an interest in the violin. Has their work been in vain? By any reasonable accounting, the answer must be no, for we now have a remarkably detailed understanding of how the instrument works at a basic physical level. While there is still much to be learned, I hope to show in upcoming posts that violin science has reached a point where it is directly useful to both makers and players.

Photo by Kim Pardi, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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