Fungi Could Help Make Cheap Violins That Sound Like A Stradivarius

Oh, stock photos. Never change.

Violins made by Antonio Stradivari can cost millions of dollars because of their reputation for superior sound. That sound may be due to the wood used, which came from trees which grew during an unusually cold period from 1645 to 1715. The cold weather yielded wood which grew slowly and evenly, with low and uniform density and great elasticity. Trying to recreate wood of this quality has proven difficult. Now Professor Francis W. M. R. Schwarze of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology may have discovered a way to recreate a similar wood for affordable student violins.

[Schwarze] discovered two species of fungi (Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes), which decay Norway spruce and sycamore — the two important kinds of wood used for violin making — to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved. […] Before the wood is further processed to a violin, it is treated with ethylene oxide gas. “No fungus can survive that,” Professor Schwarze said. That ensures that fungal growth in the wood of the violin is completely stopped. [Science Daily]

The fungi decayed the cell walls in the wood, leading to lower density but high uniformity and relatively unchanged rigidity, making for a better violin. Schwarze named the final product mycowood and built violins with help from violin makers Martin Schleske and Michael Rhonheimer. Violinist Matthew Trusler played a 1711 Stradivarius and a cheap mycowood violin (treated for 9 months with fungus) for a panel of experts while obscured by a curtain. The experts couldn’t tell the mycowood version wasn’t a real Strad.

It should be noted this isn’t the first time experts haven’t been able to tell whether a sound is coming from a Stradivarius or not. As Professor Schwarze points out, “There is no clear-cut, scientific method for measuring tonal quality.” Anyone who has listened to what’s popular on the Billboard Charts could have told us that.

With funding from the Walter Fischli Foundation, they’re now building 30 more mycowood violins, with plans to eventually give many young musicians the chance to afford a cheap violin that sounds like a million bucks.

[Sources: Shutterstock, Science Daily via Geekosystem, Gizmodo, 80 Beats]