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
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