Joseph Nagyvary set the world of violinmaking afire in 1977 with his research into the legendary Stradivarius violins. The instruments made by Antonio Stradivari in the 17th and 18th century, along with other instruments made in the northern Italian city of Cremona, are widely recognized by violinists as superior to any made since. Controversially, Nagyvary suggested that the chemistry of the instruments is as¿or more¿important than their craftsmanship.
A native of Hungary, Nagyvary fought briefly as a guerrilla in an unsuccessful student movement against the Communists in 1956 and afterward fled to Zurich. There he studied chemistry under Nobel laureate Paul Karrer and had his first formal violin lessons on a violin that once belonged to Albert Einstein, which sparked his infatuation with the violin and helped to turn his attention toward the science behind music. "I remember that taking out the violin from its glass cabinet was almost a religious experience for me," Nagyvary says. "I often wondered if he [Einstein] was considering at all what made its sound so pleasing and sonorous, or whether he was thinking about the waves of the universe."
It has been 25 years since Nagyvary, 68, announced his theory to the American Violin Society. Scientific American recently interviewed the professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University, who believes that "the holy grail of violinmaking is now within our reach." For an alternative view, see "The Acoustics of Violin Plates," by Carleen Maley Hutchins; Scientific American, October 1981, and "The Physics of Violins," by Carleen Mayley Hutchins; Scientific American, November 1962. --Charles Choi
SA: When a person first hears a Stradivarius, what about its sound makes it so valuable to the trained or the untrained ear?
JN: A Stradivari sound is very lively. It flickers, it constantly trembles, it moves like candlelight. There are some 600 Stradivaris around, so tone is not uniform--some have a fat sound with a big woof note, and others are more lean. But on average, a Stradivari is a good combination of darkness and also brilliance, a very pure tone.
Most concert audiences really cannot tell the difference between a Stradivari and another fine violin, and many critics can't either. Only the very few experts who are really trained and have special talent for discriminating between sounds can appreciate the beauty of the Stradivari tone.
SA: What scientifically is so special about a Stradivarius? If you tried to figure out the sonic fingerprint of one, is there something unique?
JN: Most experiments involve hooking up a sound generator to the bridge of the violin, shaking the instrument and measuring the vibration of output from different parts of the violin. These are called frequency response curves and have been done for over 50 years. They give some valuable information, but they can all be criticized because they have nothing to do with the real sound as the violin is being played.
Even from these tests, it appears Stradivari violins and all Cremona-made violins in good condition have a very strong sound emission in a certain high-frequency range, between 2,000 and 4,000 hertz. This is the range where human hearing is the most sensitive. The larger the room, the more audible these frequencies become. That means a Stradivari, even if it's not very loud in a small room because the walls promptly absorb [the frequencies], projects very well in a concert hall.
Actual, direct analysis of the sound of the violins as they are played is possible by anyone nowadays because you can buy high-speed sound analyzers for very low cost or even get free analysis off the Web. Then you find the great violins also have a significant low-frequency component that defines the sonority and adds darkness. Like the voice of Pavarotti, a beautiful sound needs a low, dark component in addition to several high frequency components that tickle the ear and brain with their flickering, transient change.