Mycowood for Maestros: Fungal Violins

Mycowood for Maestros: Fungal Violins

• Hankering for a Stradivarius but don’t have 5 million dollars to spare? Produced in Italy around the turn of the 18th century, only ~600 of these prized violins remain. Their secret lies in the “Little Ice Age” (1645 -1715) when Europe suffered long winters and cool summers which caused trees to grow slowly and uniformly  : ideal conditions for producing wood with excellent acoustic qualities. Low density, high speed of sound and a high modulus of elasticity,  these qualities are essential for ideal violin tone wood.

• Traditionally, wood used in the manufacture of musical instruments is treated with primers, varnishes or minerals to strengthen the adhesion between cell layers. Unfortunately, they also clog up the cell lumen and reduce the speed of sound. The increase in density has an adverse affect on the radiation ratio (R= speed of sound (c)/density (ρ)), reducing the speed of sound and its resonance frequencies.

Fungus Amongus! Swiss researcher, Prof. Schwarze has discovered that two species of fungi (Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes) decay Norway spruce and sycamore in a way that their tonal qualities are improved. “The unique feature of these fungi is that they gradually degrade the cell walls, thus inducing a thinning of the walls. But even in the late stages of the wood decomposition, a stiff scaffold structure remains via which the sound waves can still travel directly.” Don’t worry, the fungi are fumigated with a dose of ethylene gas before the violins are crafted. In blinded tests, experts preferred the fungal violins over the Strads!  O.o

Think you can pick out the fungal magic?

Take the audio test here:

Images: Left, Norway Spruce (untreated on top, treated for 12 wks below); Right, sycamore (untreated top left, treated top right). From, Schwarze et al. Superior wood for violins- wood decay fungi as a substitute for cold climate. New Phytologist (2008) 179: 1095–1104

#scienceeveryday when it’s not #sciencesunday .

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55 Responses to Mycowood for Maestros: Fungal Violins

  1. Paul Platt says:

    Wow that’s really interesting Rajini Rao cheers 🙂

  2. Paul Platt says:

    Yes I did take the test and picked the fungi one correctly  🙂 hee hee 

  3. Rajini Rao says:

    Yay, me too! It had a richer, deeper tone (or so I imagined).

  4. Paul Platt says:

    Yeah and was some how  more balanced maybe mellow ( not the right word).. either way it’s more pleasing and less piercing to my ears  🙂

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    Agree, Paul Platt . Less tinny and new.

    But then, you have to decide quickly. If you over analyze, then confusion sets in. Especially with the npr link for the Strad vs. non Strad.

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Feisal Kamil , or it may be just chance. Haha!

    Small sample size as Chad Haney can testify.

  7. Paul Platt says:

    Rajini Rao Yeah I listened through speakers to both first then decided I had to put headphones on to be sure but I still chose the same one   🙂

  8. jst listnd breath catching

  9. Jim Carver says:

    After having played in the orchestra for a while and I can tell you…those violin players really string you along. 😉

  10. Jim Carver says:

    Love to hang around, but my small fish are fry.

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    We don’t want to get you into treble, Jim Carver , but you do know that you can’t tuna-fish?

  12. Jim Carver says:

    I can tune a piano, but I can only tune the bass.

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    You have my deepest symphony, Feisal Kamil . Until you return, we will just have to duet ourselves.

  14. Jim Carver says:

    Feisal Kamil Hopefully you won’t be on the Chopin block.

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Teehee, I’m sure he can Handel this.

  16. Crap. Another thread I’m late to. I’d dive in, but the laundry is just finishing its ring rinse cycle. 

  17. Jim Carver says:

    For sure, he can Shore it up…in a modern sort of way.

  18. I chose the treated wood sample correctly, for whatever that’s worth.

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    Come Bach after laundry, David Archer .

    Howard you know, Jim Carver , I’m a fan.

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Of course, you’re a Fun Guy, William McGarvey . Did you take the Strad quiz too?

  21. michel prins says:

    who needs violins anyway when you can have synthesizers that can produce any imaginable sound.

  22. Rajini Rao Not yet — but I shall.

  23. Synthesizers are only as good as the software, and the interface. The expressiveness of the human interface to a violin is so far unmatched by any synth frontend I know of. 

  24. Rajini Rao says:

    michel prins , don’t fret ; violins are a-choir-ed taste 🙂

  25. In that, Rajini Rao , we are in a chord.

  26. I don’t think liking violins would viola-te anyone’s sensibility. And! There’s always room for cello!

  27. And that’s straight from Da Capo (de tutti Capo)…

  28. Ron Scroggin says:

    On the other hand, a dense, massy solid body increases sustain, a quality many electric guitar players like. I think the less dense woods, and the lower mass hollow bodies soak up vibrational energy more quickly from the strings, producing more resonance but less sustain, like a violin. You can increase sustain “manually” by using a bow. The archetypal solid body electric guitar is the renowned Les Paul model.

  29. Chad Haney says:

    Size doesn’t matter

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    I found this paper to be a bit too dense (without the fungi!), but it may resonate with someone interested in acoustic parameters of wood:

  31. Ron Scroggin says:

    The Wood for sound paper looks pretty good and I am saving it for reference. Thank you.

  32. Chad Haney says:

    I thought Feisal Kamil is a FunGi

  33. Rajini Rao I confess I fell prey to the professional violinists’ problem discussed in the link; as the psychophysicists might put it:  no JND (just noticeable difference) to my ear between the Strad and the modern one.  

    At one point, when I picked out my Gibson Blueridge acoustic guitar, I sat with it and several competing alternatives (Martins, mostly) and ran through several chords, harmonics, tunings and pieces for each.  Eventually, there was something that just “spoke to me” about the Gibson.  I suspect that’s the case for many performers, and that some otherwise identical instruments are favored for different selections because of a similar sentiment.  Mark Knopfler’s preference for his National steel-body guitar for Romeo and Juliet over his Fender is but one example.  Mark Knopfler – Romeo and Juliet

  34. Rajini Rao says:

    Quite right, William McGarvey . It comes down to our ear and personal preference. I love Knopfler..

  35. Tom Lee says:

    Stradivari and Guarneri  violins vs other violins made by others in 1980, which instrument sounds better? Well, there is a debate. A new study now suggests may be they aren’t so different after all. Listen to the sounds and decide it yourself.

  36. Rajini Rao says:

    I remember your post now, Tom Lee ! Interesting that I made the same choice back then as I did today (the npr link is in my comment above).

  37. Tom Lee says:

    It’s an interesting subject, a blend of science, music, and human’s perception. The science evaluation is new.

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    There is a lot of physics in music, but I was surprised (and delighted) to find some biology and chemistry too, Tom Lee 🙂

  39. Chad Haney says:

    William McGarvey the Gibson spoke to you and said Kalamazoo.

  40. Jim Carver says:

    I personally don’t care for solo violin, as it meshes with the rest of the orchestra it is essential. I think any difference in resonance or tone timbre is probably drowned out by the other instruments and merely resides on those players abilities.

    I doubt that 1 person in 100 could tell the difference even in a live performance. I could tell if it was live, but something streamed over the internet? ;P 🙂

  41. Chad Haney Funny thing — this was forty-plus years ago at Marshall Music in East Lansing, Michigan, not so terribly far from Kalamazoo.

  42. Chad Haney says:

    Have you been to the factory?

  43. Chad Haney No, never did.

  44. Feisal Kamil I think they’re different firms; the EL firm was just local, as I recall.

  45. Would they make the music go all fungi?

  46. Your fugues would go fungal, your musicology would get fungal vision, and your playing would become prey to fungi mannerisms. Mycetoma would make your stride various and your musical problems would mushroom, until, afflicted by mycosis, you would vanish in a fairy ring of off-key delusions.

  47. Chad Haney says:

    Feisal Kamil I haven’t heard that one in a long time, like back in the early 90s.

  48. Chad Haney says:

    I feel better. I got it wrong too.

  49. Rajini Rao says:

    There is actually a PNAS paper that demonstrates that musicians themselves cannot distinguish between Strads and non-Strads, so you guys can safely conclude that you are in excellent company 🙂

    REF: Reference: Fritz, Curtin, Poitevineau, Morrel-Samuels & Tao. 2011. Player preferences among new and old violins. PNAS

  50. Chad Haney says:

    There was also a 50:50 chance.

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