Letting Fungi Munch on Violin Wood Makes for a Better Sound

By Veronique Greenwood | September 11, 2012 12:37 pm

violin
Infected wood, soon to be carpeted in white fungus

File this under “news luthiers can use”: A Swiss materials scientist reports that siccing certain species of fungi on wood intended to be made into violins can result in instruments with superior sound quality, purportedly as lovely as that of a Stradivarius.

While we feel compelled to point out that many sound tests have found Strads and other high-end instruments indistinguishable, it’s true that the best violins are made from wood with particular physical characteristics: it should have a uniform density and carry sound easily, but should still be quite stiff. These are qualities that violins made by the Stradivari workshop several hundred years ago possess, which may in part be attributable to a series of cold years during the trees’ growth and certain wood treatments (there’s plenty of speculation, as you might imagine).

But there may be a way give wood these characteristics by letting fungi digest it a little, says Francis W. M. R. Schwarze, a professor at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. His research, which has produced a violin that listeners have mistaken for a Strad and which he presented recently in a symposium talk, indicates that fungal rot from Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes turn Norway spruce and sycamore wood into model violin material. Specifically, the fungi eat away at the cell walls of the tree wood, making the density lower and more uniform, while maintaining the wood’s rigidity.

Schwarze is working to build 30 more fungally treated violins, in order to develop a reliable way execute the process. He hopes that his work will yield cheap, beautiful-sounding violins for all. It’s an interesting idea—stay tuned for more from him.

Image courtesy of EMPA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Physics & Math
  • http://www.fvchej.com Kathleen O’Lane

    With all due respect:
    You have got to be kidding! Bring that fungally treated instrument into your environment, and poof! You have unhealthy fungal exposure. In other words, a contaminated object. All fungi have the potential to be harmful to humans, or to mutate to become harmful, and/or to merge with other fungi in the ambient environment to produce mutated and potentially harmful strains,…. and, unless you know something that I do not,…. once fungi gets into wood, you cannot get it out, so what in the name of Heaven are you thinking?!
    The idea of something so special and held so close to the face emitting spores and/or mycotoxins upon the face and respiratory system of a musician does not bode well for me at all.

    • Veronique Greenwood

      @Kathleen, they treat the wood to kill the fungus before it’s ever made into anything. So no worries about spores and such.

  • scott

    Plenty of fungi pose no harm to humans. Physisporinus and Xylaria are not pathogenic fungi.

  • David_42

    Someone doesn’t seem to understand basic genetics, either

  • Jaehooon

    Wow…so centuries after Stradivarius, we are FINALLY able to create something of similar quality. It’s amazing that the solution is fungus, instead of something a bit more…sophisticated, to say.

  • Strato

    We have made almost 200 guitars in the last 5 years. One of the timbers we use has a decorative pattern caused by a fungal attack while the tree is still alive. Initially this timber was used for the look but now we have discovered that those instruments generally sound better.

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