8 December 2003

Musical Instrument Quality Linked To Climate

by Kate Melville

There has been considerable debate surrounding the reasons why instruments crafted in the late 17th and early 18th centuries are tonally superior to modern instruments. Theories range from the skill of the craftsman to secret techniques such as a special varnish, the drying of the wood, the storage time, or even the use of old wood from historic structures. Lloyd Burckle of Columbia University, and Henri Grissino-Mayer of the University of Tennessee, have proposed an alternate hypothesis - climate. Their research was published in the journal Dendrochronologia.

Burckle and Grissino-Mayer propose that the superior sound quality of instruments from this era may be explained by the climatic regime that gripped Europe and perhaps much of the world from AD 1645 to 1715. Known as the Maunder Minimum, it was a period characterized by a scarcity of sunspots and a reduction in the Sun's overall activity. The less intense solar radiation and activity coincided with a sharp decline in temperature during the Little Ice Age and a period of very cold weather in western Europe. The Maunder Minimum is clearly seen in tree-ring records from high-elevation forest stands in the European Alps. The long winters and cool summers of this 70 year period produced wood that has slow, even growth - desirable properties for producing quality sounding boards.

Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, Italy, perhaps the most famous of violin makers, was born one year before the beginning of the Maunder Minimum. He and other violinmakers of the area used the only wood available to them - from the trees that grew during the Maunder Minimum. Burckle and Grissino suggest that the narrow tree rings that identify the Maunder Minimum in Europe played a role in the enhanced sound quality of instruments produced by the violinmakers of this time. Narrow tree rings would not only strengthen the violin but would increase the wood's density.

The onset of the Maunder Minimum at a time when the skills of the Cremonese violinmakers reached their zenith perhaps made the difference in the violin's tone and brilliance. Climate conditions with temperatures such as those that occurred during this time simply can not and do not occur today in areas where the Cremonese makers likely obtained their wood.