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 asor moreimportant 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.

SA: What do you think is the secret of the Stradivarius instruments and others from those golden years of Italian violinmaking?

JN: I began developing my theory in the early 1960s, when I lived in Switzerland and made annual vacation trips to Italy. During those trips, I observed repeatedly that in cities like Milan, the wooden artifacts—furniture and also violins, violas and cellos—suffered considerable damage from woodworm. The wood, some of it, had holes in it like Swiss cheese. When I asked violin shops about similar damage to Stradivari violins, they told me that in Cremona there is practically no woodworm damage.

So in Cremona, people must have used a preservative, an insecticide. I looked in archival data from Venice for historical insecticide use. Pretty soon, I connected chemicals with acoustical effects—chief among them borax, which is very well known as an insecticide and is also well known among chemists as a powerful cross-linker of polymers. Nothing would make wood tighter and harder and the sound accordingly more brilliant.

We also considered the use of materials against mold because the climate in northern Italy is very humid. They [violinmakers in Cremona] used various sugars made from fruit gums. Fruit trees are everywhere [in Italy] and in springtime exude a nice, colorful liquid through bark that dries to a glassy matter, very stiff, very brittle. They used it for candy making around 1500—that's how candy was discovered in Italy—and it was also found to be very good for preventing mold.

The last element of great interest I found was the use of very fine crystal powder to saturate the wood. Crystal powder is the ultimate weapon against woodworm because woodworm would not be able to chew on crystals. Many kinds were used, but quartz from the mountains was a major component, as was Venetian glass, colored glass.

Now, if you mix fruit gums with quartz powder, that makes the outer surface extremely brilliant, very hard and very brittle. This theoretically would result in a very brilliant sound, but not only that. Other fillers like shellac or animal glue can also produce brilliant sound, but their sound would also generate a high-frequency hissing noise. The Stradivari violins are very brilliant and are also not noisy because their coating is brittle and breaks up into of millions of fragments. Theoretically that allows vibrations at certain given noise frequencies to be strongly damped, leading to a clearer sound.

Also, the wood used by Stradivari was not naturally seasoned wood. It was stored in water for a considerable amount of time. Once you soak the wood, the wood pores are more open, so aqueous solutions can penetrate it much deeper.

SA: Youve been making re-creations of the instruments. Could you describe what goes into those?

JN: With my theory, the historic evidence was there. All I had to do was make a couple of hundred violins with different compositions and explore the effect of various chemicals on the sound. That's how Ive spent the past 25 years, and we have explored the use of many, many compositions.

We explored a variety of fruit gums and animal proteins—egg white and so on—with a dozen or so soluble salts and insoluble crystals. We've also classified materials that make the sound mellow and not brilliant, like linseed oil and walnut oil, which makes the wood look very beautiful but the sound very mute.

SA: One of your recipes involves shrimp boiled in lye—not exactly the first thing Id think of if I had to think of a magic formula!

JN: I used shrimp shell chitin in 1976 to 1984. I worked with chitin originally for nutritional reasons, to lower serum cholesterol in animals. Chitin is good--it made the sound brilliant--but it also made the sound noisy. And its not traditional. Stradivari had nothing to do with it. It was my own invention, and I have not used that since 1984.

SA: What is new with your research?

JN: We are in the process of having jury panels evaluate the sound of our instruments. Weve made a CD recording in which Zina Schiff, violinist, alternates her Stradivari with my violin, and we do not identify which track was made on which violin. So far, none of the 20 or so people I asked could identify all the tracks. Generally the error rate is 50 or 60 percent. In a true/false test, the 50-percent test is the random noise, so basically they can't tell.

Eventually we are going to identify it on our Web site. Let the critics guess first.


Click here to see if you can pick out the sound of a Stradivarius.

SA: How well have your re-creations been received, either as replicas or instruments in their own right?

JN: Of course, I have made many bad violins in my studies, because you have to explore various limits. But I would say at this point we can reproduce the brilliance of the Stradivari violin. And, of course, with our new sound analyzers, we keep analyzing the sound of many excellent violins, so we get a better library, a better appreciation of what is the desirable sound to copy.

What I wish I could I have done is get more authentic samples of varnish for analysis, but I have not received any new samples in 15 years. The dealers sent out the word--anyone who owns a Stradivari violin was warned not to let me close to the violin because I may even scratch off some varnish with my fingernail!

SA: Which is understandable.

Charles Choi is a writer for Scientific American.