New Study reveals Cremona masters' chemical treatments of spruce tops

Edited: July 7, 2021, 6:54 PM ·

EDIT: The original paper is online here:


Replies (40)

Edited: July 7, 2021, 2:19 PM · Andy thanks for that link. I'd like to point out that in my field (which is chemistry) the journal Angewandte Chemie (International Edition), where the study was published, is considered a premier, peer-reviewed journal.

I haven't read the whole article yet, but it's interesting that they found aluminum and boron which are not elements that I would normally expect to appear in wood. Alum (most commonly potassium alum) has been used since ancient times for a variety of purposes including tanning, textiles, and so forth, in addition to medical uses (astringent). In my course (a first-semester lab course for chemistry majors), the students synthesize potassium alum, and they have to write a long-form report on that experiment, so I will be sure to include this article among those they might bring up in their introductory paragraphs! It's really hard to find new and interesting stuff about alum.

I would have expected caustic potash treatment (KOH) to have weakened the wood, but I am not a carbohydrate chemist at all.

July 7, 2021, 4:04 PM · Some of the postulates in the paper may be a bit sketchy, like the claim that old Italian instruments have superior sound. This has failed to be validated by blind tests. The blind and double-blind tests have trended toward more opposite findings.
Edited: July 7, 2021, 4:23 PM · 9 out of 10 top soloists disagree with you, David
July 7, 2021, 5:15 PM · Ask the soloist who have participated in the blind testing, not those who are encumbered with maintaining the investment value of the old Italian instrument they own or borrow.
July 7, 2021, 5:51 PM · We're still waiting for Joshua Bell to give up his Strad and play a Burgess, then we'll talk.
July 7, 2021, 6:37 PM · This paper is one of chemistry results, not one on sound quality, but it does have the following claims:

"Subjective listening tests comparing Stradivari violins to modern instruments have shown mixed results. Blind tests using recorded passages, allowing listeners to do unrestricted A/B switching, have put Stradivari violins in favor,6 while blind tests with live performances have not.6, 7 We have questioned the validity of live listening tests because they fail to address memory decay and loudness matching issues.8 Our objective measurements have shown that Stradivari violins imitate the vocal tract resonance frequencies of female singers, which may contribute to their perceived brilliance."

Unfortunately, my reading of their reference [6] does not substantiate this claim significantly.

It was a comparison of 4 violins: "The violins used to experiment are Strad owned by Showa Academia Musicae(1734, Italy, Cremona), Pressenda(1829, Italy, Torino), middle class violin(: unknown year Germany, Dusseldorf), and the beginner's class violin(unknown year, Rumania, Reghin)."

The results of that study itself aren't entirely clear or supportive of the claim (most of the listeners couldn't reliably distinguish the beginner instrument from the Stradivarius), but whatever they were, the limited sample set of instruments alone is enough to discount substantive generalizations regarding comparison of the sound of "modern instruments" to "Stradivari".

While the main article might be in a distinguished peer-reviewed journal, all its the claims and references are apparently not as distinguished and subject to scrutiny.

July 7, 2021, 6:48 PM · While the average concert-goer probably couldn't conclusively distinguish the sound of a Stradivarius from that of any number alternatives, everyone can interpret "..plays the [Gibson] Stradivarius" as a mark of distinction.
July 7, 2021, 9:17 PM · I remember hearing that Stradivari used volcanic ash and that the logs used were floated in salt water.
July 7, 2021, 9:28 PM · Oh jeez, here we go again with another "modern vs old Italians" argument.

It's not necessarily about what the listener hears, but also about what the player feels he or she can DO with an instrument. If you have actually played many of those old instruments, you might understand why they are coveted. They have a response, especially to vibrato inputs, that is noticeably different. If you haven't played several old Italian instruments, you are just opining based on nothing.

It's true that listeners have certain preferences, but they almost always skew towards whatever is the loudest and the brightest. These qualities initially attract the ear, but they don't always have staying power. Eventually, loud and bright can also tire the ear, especially if the sound is one-dimensional.

July 7, 2021, 9:29 PM · Exactly!!
July 8, 2021, 2:20 AM · Yeah, here we ago again. The same tests that show listener preference towards modern instruments also show a strong bias towards the modern instruments in playing as well. The soloists didn't say, "Oh, I like the sound of this instrument best but it doesn't do what I want," or "This one sounds nice but this other is more responsive," or "This takes less work." No, in fact they said something like "This is the instrument I would use tomorrow if I needed a replacement."

And then don't accept the results when it isn't an Italian instrument from one of a few makers.

It wasn't uniformed listeners opining on something they know nothing of. The tests included informed listeners and players.

And certainly the number of times world famous soloists have used in the real world non-old Cremona instruments and fooled everybody is known.

In any case, many of us have played old instruments, new instruments, famous instruments and less famous instruments. This is not so difficult to do. But again, unless these attempts are done in controlled conditions, so basically never, they mean nothing.

July 8, 2021, 5:47 AM · I think it's worth noting that there are plenty of crappy old Italian instruments, too. But no one plays on them.

When people speak colloquially of "old Italian violins", it is presumed they mean the good ones. And not just the good makers, but the best instruments that those makers produced.

July 8, 2021, 7:09 AM · It takes a soloist one to two weeks to get accustomed to a new instrument. It can take month until he can unleash its full potential. That's why I'm always skeptical about those blind tests.
Edited: July 8, 2021, 7:43 AM · The "old violins vs. new violins" debate can rage on the side. Personally I think we live in a "golden age" of violin making. If I had $5 million I'd much rather buy 100 great modern violins than one Strad -- investment value be damned. However, I think that's not what this thread is about.

The fact is that many people -- including modern makers -- are still curious to learn the methods of the old masters in as much detail as possible. Don't modern makers, after all, build their instruments on models of Strad, del Gesu, and so forth? Don't many modern makers strive to use varnish formulations that they believe are consistent with those of the Cremonese school? They do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

New science like this paper come along rather infrequently, so it's interesting when they do. Does any of y'all luthiers have comments on the wood treatments that have been proposed in the article? Ever dabbled in alum or borax or caustic potash? Ever brined your spruce? If so, maybe this thread can right itself thereby.

July 8, 2021, 10:12 AM · The use of alum can possibly be traced to alchemy, which was popular at that time and which ascribed certain characteristics to alum in the alchemical process. Not all alchemists were in search of direct transmutation of base metals to gold or the production of the philosopher's stone. I've studied this history extensively as it was the precursor of the chemical science that I studied.
July 8, 2021, 11:15 AM · Paul, adding sodium chloride doesn't seem like a good idea to me, since it becomes highly hygroscopic at relative humidity levels exceeding 70%. Huge changes in the sound, weight, and moisture content of the wood wouldn't seem desirable, when the humidity level goes a little above or below 70%.

I would suggest instead that sodium chloride (salt) content would be more attributable to the accumulated perspiration from players over many years.

July 8, 2021, 11:23 AM · Would salt gather on the inside of the top? That appears to be what they were digging around in to get samples.
Edited: July 8, 2021, 2:58 PM · Stephen, much has been learned about respiratory output, including that from speech, sneezing and coughing, during the covid pandemic.

There is a high volume of air exchange between the interior and exterior of violins during playing, and with a violin, the ff holes are very close to the nose and mouth.

There can also be high levels of wind-borne salt near ocean coastal areas. This is thought to be one of the causes of the recent building collapse in Florida... accelerated corrosion of the concrete reinforcing steel rebar.

Edited: July 8, 2021, 2:35 PM · Why can't we just accept that these old instruments are a product of careful craftsmanship and excellent marketing? I know a couple professors who've had the chance to play Strads and their prognosis is always the same: beautiful instruments with rich history, but not really better or worse than their personal violins. I feel like we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to find a reason for their elusive superiority at this point. First age, then dense wood, then varnish, now metallic salts...
July 8, 2021, 6:21 PM · It's not human nature to just accept things, Cotton. We must explore and push, even when the actual answer is right in front of us.
July 8, 2021, 6:28 PM · Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.

-- Winston Churchill

Edited: July 9, 2021, 10:25 AM · The study on violin chemistry (the topic of this thread, remember?) only factually gives the chemicals found... not factually how they got there or why, and certainly nothing about what those trace elements do to the acoustic properties of the wood. The most logical speculation (to me) is that they were added to prevent mold and insect damage during the seasoning of the wood, and does nothing directly to the sound. Indirectly, perhaps it prevented excessive wood degradation over the following 300 years.

One statement in the study did not get much attention, but I see as FAR more important to acoustics: that the natural degradation of hemicellulose in maple is much faster than in spruce, which could modify tone in ways difficult to reproduce with new wood. My speculation. I'm not getting into "better" or "worse"... just different.

July 10, 2021, 2:59 AM · Don, I'm curious, do you have any definitions and numbers regarding the degradation of hemicellulose? Like EV batteries which on average have their storage capacity decline at an average of 2.3% per year (we finally have *that* number)?

And does that degradation increase if the instrument is continually played, as opposed to instruments kept in museums, or is time a primary factor? Thanks in advance for your insight.

Edited: July 10, 2021, 6:23 AM · "I feel like we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to find a reason for their elusive superiority at this point. First age, then dense wood, then varnish, now metallic salts..."

Exactly! The same goes for stonehenge and the pyramids. Just accept that they were built by aliens and move on.

July 10, 2021, 8:42 AM · Dimitri, the only numbers I have seen come from the paper that is the topic of this thread... but I haven't researched it. In the paragraph right before "Conclusion", it states a half-life of 400 years for maple and 800+ years for spruce, and references are given.

I doubt that there is any good data on how environmental conditions affect these estimates, but I would bet that temperature and humidity have some influence. I wouldn't bet on playing.

I really wish folks would stop with the "better" or "superior" fixation, as tonal preferences (ignoring $$ and aura factors) are and always will be subjective. Tonal DIFFERENCES can be more objective, and examining those can be constructive. Arguing about old vs. new is not.

July 10, 2021, 9:43 AM · Also remember that just because a maker had a crackpot theory, that didn't necessarily make his violins better or worse. If Stradivari made every other fiddle wearing purple socks, are you completely hosed for not following his example?

That said, it is totally worth finding out what was in the head of a genius, even if it turned out to be wrong or irrelevant.

Edited: July 10, 2021, 9:52 AM · Incidentally, Churchill was specifically denigrating Stanley Baldwin, not making any observation about mankind. Churchill and the truth weren't exactly the best of friends either!
July 10, 2021, 3:06 PM · If it were discovered that Picasso mixed alum into his paints, you can bet people would be trying it.
Edited: July 10, 2021, 3:26 PM · My first thought was what Don said, proof of chemical treatment is no causal relationship to sound characteristics. Note that I didn't say better, as Don said, that is very subjective. The next experiment would naturally be to see if/how such treatment affects the tonal characteristics of the wood. Will it improve my instrument if I put moth balls in it? I'll make sure they're Made in Italy ;-)
July 10, 2021, 3:55 PM · I grew up hearing that pernambuco wood had been used for dock pilings before it ever found its way into instrument bows. So naturally I wonder how the wood for violins got from the mountains to Cremona.
I know the logs did not come down the mountains in the kind of massive diesel-powered trucks that rush down the California mountains with redwood trunks. I suspect they might have been floated into Venice and possibly milled near there before being carted inland. That would account for NaCl in the wood. The rest I leave to others' imaginations.
July 11, 2021, 5:09 AM · I suspect that pernambuco would have been too valuable to use as dock pilings, anywhere outside of Brazil. It was mainly brought to Europe to be ground up so the prized red dye could be extracted and used to dye expensive clothing.

Since making violin family instruments doesn't require the large timbers that ship building or building construction did, it might have been more economical to saw and split the trees where they were felled, leave what wasn't suitable in the forest to reduce the weight of what needed to be transported, and transport the usable billets out by sled or wagon. That's my speculation, having done some tree cutting for fiddle wood, and is also the way we did it (except that we used 4-wheel-drive pickup trucks rather than sleds or wagons).

It's possible that preservatives were applied to prevent the freshly cut and very moist wood from growing mold. Maple in particular is very quick to grow a blue/black colored stain when freshly cut.

July 11, 2021, 5:35 AM · I wonder how they said 'hemicellulose' in 17th century cremona
Edited: July 11, 2021, 9:11 AM · I think Pernambuco also has seen use in Brazilian railroad ties. Suggests the possibility of some commando raids to acquire Peccatte-vintage lumber.
July 11, 2021, 10:09 AM · If Stradivari did indeed wear purple socks dyed with Tyrian Purple, as would befit a luthier of his eminence, then that would explain the high value of his instruments historically and today. Tyrian Purple is, and always has been, one of the most expensive natural dyes you can get.
July 11, 2021, 10:54 AM · Begs the question of why the shellfish dye was never used to make purple violins. You'd think they'd fetch a higher price if they were the colour of royalty.
July 11, 2021, 10:56 AM · "If Stradivari did indeed wear purple socks dyed with Tyrian Purple, as would befit a luthier of his eminence, then that would explain the high value of his instruments historically and today."

Are we speaking of cause or effect?

July 11, 2021, 12:36 PM · Trevor, you don't think that the purple socks can be explained by some pernambuco shavings falling into his socks, combined with a more brown color prior to the existence of toilet paper, when people used whatever was handy? ;-)

Edited: July 11, 2021, 1:09 PM · Incidentally, there seem to be plenty of other studies out there.
Apologies if this has already been mentioned.
July 11, 2021, 2:12 PM · This was a hot topic on Maestronet recently. My take was that experienced materials researchers, as I once was, could appreciate the investigative chemistry that was performed, but be disappointed at the shoddy application of the scientific method used to make statements of fact not supported in the least by the research.

They discovered SOME unusual materials in SOME of the old instruments that represented a very limited sample size of old Cremona stringed instruments.

That's it. It is an interesting starting point for speculation, hypothesis and further testing. The opening paragraph of the Introduction was especially unfortunate and tainted an otherwise well done paper with more than a hint of confirmation bias.

Edited: July 11, 2021, 2:52 PM · David, I think Tony was a snakewood man.

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