Dr. Berend Stoel from the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), in collaboration with renowned luthier Terry Borman, has put classical violins in a CT scanner and discovered that the homogeneity in the densities of the wood from which the classical violins were made may explain their superior sound production.

Experts are fascinated by the fact that classical Cremonese violins from the famous masters such as Stradivari (1644 – 1737) and Guarneri del Gesu (1698 – 1744) are still unparalleled in their abilities of tonal expressiveness and projection. 300 years of technological advancement has not provided substantial improvements towards paralleling the achievements of the classical Cremonese violin makers.

It is obvious to look for clues in the material properties of the wood from which these violins are made, however until now it was impossible to study this without risk of damage to these instruments, each valued at several million dollars.

Previously, at the Division of Image Processing, Department of Radiology, Dr. Stoel developed a computer program, in collaboration with pulmonologist Dr. Jan Stolk, that calculates lung densities in emphysema patients from Computed Tomographic (CT) scans, in order to demonstrate the efficacy of certain medical treatments.

Based on his knowledge of measuring lung densities non-invasively, Dr. Stoel designed a new computer program to study wood densities from CT scans. Subsequently, he and Borman scanned in five Cremonese and seven contemporary violins and analyzed the wood densities.

The average wood density of the classical and modern violins did not differ significantly. However, the differences in wood density between early and late growth were significantly lower in the ancient violins.

Since differentials in wood density impact vibrational efficacy and thereby the production of sound, it is possible that this discovery may explain the superiority of these violins. This insight offers new possibilities into replicating the tonal qualities of these ancient instruments, the researchers conclude.

Citation: Stoel BC, Borman TM (2008) A Comparison of Wood Density between Classical Cremonese and Modern Violins. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002554