A few changes in violin design and construction could raise quality

For many decades, the key criteria for having a violin with beautiful sound was to have an instrument built by one of less than half a dozen makers during a period of thirty years or so, hundreds of years ago. Any other source or style was, almost by definition, inferior. This researcher and lover of fine music posits that a lighter fingerboard and a different type of wood could ensure a violin with equally beautiful sound. Bet this viewpoint is really popular with the owners of Stradivarius.

New Violin Design Could Change The Instrument Forever

A Texas A&M professor says altering the fingerboard and returning to original woods will produce sounds to rival a Stradivarius.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & CommunicationsMARCH 5, 2019

Joseph Nagyvary applyies glue to a violin fingerboard.
Joseph Nagyvary applies glue to a violin fingerboard.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Nagyvary

The fundamental design of the violin has been changed only once since the times of Antonio Stradivari, considered the ultimate master craftsman of the instrument. But new research by a Texas A&M University professor suggests that a modification could be made to the instrument that will enhance its tonal quality and how it is played.  His findings could rock the music world, so to speak, and alter the way the stringed instruments are constructed in the future.

Professor Emeritus Joseph Nagyvary at Texas A&M has conducted violin research for 40 years. After exhaustive tonal frequency tests, chemical analysis, and detailed measurements of key parts, he believes that making violin fingerboards lighter and shorter would bring their sound closer to that produced by the instruments of Italian masters centuries ago. His work is published in the latest issue of the music journal The Strad.

Nagyvary has passionately tinkered with violins most of his 85-year-old life. He first learned to play in Switzerland on an instrument that once belonged to Albert Einstein. He explains that old masters like Stradivari and Guarneri made their fingerboards from poplar and maple woods then prevalent in Italy.

“Their violins have been unmatched in sound and quality for 220 years,” he said, noting that a Stradivari violin today can be valued at $10 million, and a Guarneri even more.

“But towards the end of the 18th century ebony came into vogue, and all the original fingerboards were replaced with that. It is three times heavier, and added weight is never beneficial to a violin. Plus, procuring ebony is becoming controversial – it is a rainforest wood that is environmentally protected in much of the world.”

Joseph Nagyvary holds a violin (left) and a viola with poplar wood fingerboards.
Joseph Nagyvary holds a violin (left) and a viola with poplar wood fingerboards.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Nagyvary

Nagyvary considers the alterations that French restorers made around 1800 as adulterations that should be partially remediated. He believes that using the original type wood and a slightly shorter fingerboard would give these modified instruments a sound quality much closer to the original intent.

However, scientific claims are not easily adopted by hyper-traditional violin makers and players.  Violin purists might claim that his new instruments may not miss a beat, but they would miss the mark completely.

“I know my research is solid and the findings are accurate,” Nagyvary said.

“And other scientists have made related recommendations. But getting the music world to agree to them is no easy thing.  Dramatic changes like these can take years or even decades to be accepted.”

About 30 years ago at Texas A&M, Nagyvary was the first to prove a theory that he had spent years researching: that a primary reason for the pristine sound, beyond the excellent craftsmanship, was the chemicals Stradivari and others used to treat their instruments due to a worm infestation at the time.

His findings were verified in a review by the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific organization.

He knows his current research will sound a sour note to violin purists.

“A lighter instrument and a different type of wood are the key things,” Nagyvary said. “My claims are not theoretical, but material ones that can be easily tested. I have violins to show, and I can advise other makers. This could prompt a retrofitting of many types of stringed instruments, renewing activity in violin shops around the world.”

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