Fungi: A New Revolution in Violin Making

2010/02/19
By Amy

(Concerto No. 2 in G Major 1st Movement by Joseph Haydn Cadenza by Ferdinand Küchler)

Stradivarius violin; photo by Giant Ginkgo

A few months ago, an important discovery was made in the world of violin making. A test was done to see whether a violin like the Stradivarius could be created. Amazingly, it was with the help of Francis Schwarze of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research and a Swiss violin maker, Michael Rhonheimer. The test was to see if fungi treated wood could create similar wood that was used when Stradivarious created his violins. This article was published in Science Daily, New Scientist, and Live Science.

During Stradivarious’s time, he used wood with a low density, which was abundant in the cold weather between 1645 and 1715. The reason that scientists chose fungi in this experiment was because fungi break down rotting wood, and in doing this, they change the cell structure of the wood, which creates a lower density in the wood. This structural change makes a lighter wood that is similar to the wood Stradivarius used to create his violins.

Here is a video that shows how the weather affects wood, and about the history of the Stradivarious violins.

Dead Man's Fingers; photo by pellaea

This test used five violins. Four would be made from the same type of wood and one would be treated for six months, one for nine months, and the other two were untreated. The other violin would be a Stradivarius. The violins were treated with two different types of fungi. One was Physisporinus vitreus, which was on the spruce top half of the instrument and they other was Xylaria longipes (Dead Man’s Fingers), which was for the sycamore bottom half of the instrument. They tested these instruments by having a British violinist, Mathew Trusler, play the four instruments in front of an audience of 180 people at the Osnabrücker Baumpflegetagen conference in Germany, which focused on forestry. The instruments were played behind a curtain and the audience judged their tone. 90 out of the 180 people thought that the violin treated for nine months had the best tone quality and 113 of the people thought that it was the Stradivarius that was being played. The Stradivarius came in second with 39 people.

Photo by asluthier

This test will help create new violins, which can have high quality and be sold for around $25,000 instead of over two million. Also, more musicians will be able to afford quality instruments, which will increase the number of classical musicians. The only problem concerning this test is that violin tone quality is a subjective matter. To one person, a violin might sound dull and have no timbre, but to another person it might sound clear and have a vibrant tone. The average person can tell the difference between a $50 violin and a $1,000,000, but this test could have had different results if done with a different group of people. This test might have been more accurate if professional musicians or violin makers were used because they have trained ears that can pick out quality sounds better than the average person.

To get more information on the fungi used in this experiment, I contacted the microbiologist Moselio Schaechter. His blog, Small Things Considered, had a blog post about the Stradivarius violin test, so I asked him the following questions:

1. Do you know how and or why the process of this decaying of the wood by the fungi takes place?

2. Do you know if this is just these certain types of fungi or are there others that can create these instruments?

Here is an excerpt from Moselio Schaechter’s response to my email:

“Fungi are the ‘Great Recyclers’. They can digest almost anything (short of some man-made plastics), including wood. They are the reason why old trees become dust (in time). If it weren’t for the fungi, you couldn’t walk into a forest without a chain-saw. In fact, life would eventually come to a halt because so much carbon would be retained in old trees and other plants without being recycled into carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has a bad name now because of global warming, but some of it is essential for photosynthesis, that is, for life on Earth. So, fungi are essential for life on this planet.

It’s not surprising that the scientists who worked on the violins chose fungi to make the wood thinner. No other living organisms would have worked. The way fungi decompose wood is by making enzymes which they secrete into their environment. Some of these enzymes have the ability to chew (break down) constituents of the cell walls that make wood solid. These walls are stiff because they contain a complicated chemical polymer called lignin. The enzyme that works on it is called ligninase.

Some fungi are better at decomposing certain woods than others. This is why the scientists chose one fungus for the top of the violin, which is made of spruce, and another one for the bottom, which is made of sycamore. This way, they gave themselves the best chance of getting the desired thinness in the wood.”

How could different types of fungi make wood with different qualities?  Can fungi be used to improve the wood quality for uses other than violins and other instruments?  Are there any other factors that contribute to the lowering of wood density?

  • http://nashworld.edublogs.org Sean Nash

    This post is a huge mashup of some really good things.

    1. musical talent. i enjoyed these 6.5 minutes immensely.

    2. application of a scientific phenomena in words any educated human can understand.

    3. a solid tie to a first-string, primary resource way to take secondary, popular literature and chase it down to both a primary backup… as well as a tie to your personal passion. keep doing this. do it as often as you can. these connections will make your brain grow big and your wisdom deep.

    Thanks for this.
    ;)

  • Yoon Soo Lim

    Thanks for your post! I’m a friend of Ms. Baker and Mr. Nash. It’s my pleasure hearing you play and read about your research. I am a music teacher who always loved science! So first of all, thanks for making a video playing the Haydn Concerto. You have worked hard on learning the piece; your playing really makes your research post – rich.
    Secondly, kudos that you discovered fungi, the long-kept secret of famous Strads at your age! It’s been said that Stradivarious made many violins and destroyed most of them so that the this secret would not get discovered. Thank goodness he worked tirelessly to achieve this scientific formula for the violin – we would not know the golden sound of a Stradivarious violin! It was really cool to read that you were able to email Dr. Schaechter and get his expertise.
    Do you know which violinists have the Strads on loan now?
    I hope you will continue to make music and make new discoveries as you learn. Cheers!

  • Jack

    First off, great job with the violin and the post. Who would have known that the secret to instrument quality was fungal decay? Makes me wonder if I can sprinkle mushrooms on my piano to make it sound better. Different types of fungi all digest wood differently as one may digest certain parts of wood that others don’t. Just look at all of these wood digesting species:
    http://www.messiah.edu/Oakes/fungi_on_wood/Species%20List.htm
    The reason that decayed wood makes sense to make instruments better seems to be the fact that the body is the instrument’s resonator. Decayed wood may just hold and bounce tones better than plain wood. I can’t really think of any other use for reduced density wood though.

  • Ms. Ingrassia

    I happened to be reading the Daily e-reminder and saw Ms. Baker’s blog site. I am happy I checked it out! What a good connection you made between the natural world and musical instruments. The musical piece really compliments the article nicely! I really enjoyed the piece. Great work!

  • Matt C.

    Amy this was a very well done blog. I really enjoyed it. I was looking for some anwser’s to your questions but couldn’t find one, although I did find a website that shows you how to improve wood with Fungi. I thought it was pretty cool and thought you would be intrested in looking at it. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/EP1015199.html.

  • http://saddlebredrescue.com Erin

    Great job Amy! That Haydn piece was amazing. After reading your post I decided to find out about how fungus decays wood. There are two main types of rot, white rot and dry rot. White rot targets lignin and cellulose making it appear white. In late stages it appears white hence the name. Brown rot turns soft wood…brown. Common damage to the wood is splits across the grain, making the wood look like a checkerboard. Wood with brown rot can become structurally unsound very quickly and once all the nutrients are taken the wood may become dry and powdery. http://www.novaguard.com/fungus.html

  • Sam

    Nice post Amy! After reading your blog I looked up ways to keep wood from decaying. Th website I was looking at mostly said how wet wood can build up mildew and fungus which decays the wood. If the wood never gets wet than it won’t decay. Then there is something called brown rot that decays the wood without it visually being seen first. Then there is white rot that changes the color of the wood and makes it lose color. Then it loses it’s strength and sturdiness and takes on the same feeling as a sponge. There are many more ways wood can be affected and here is a website to read about these ways:
    http://www.pestproducts.com/decayfungi.htm

  • http://scionlineproject.blogspot.com Michael S

    Great post! I was doing a little of my own research and I came across a video of a person playing the violin. The violin they were playing had a great sound and had a great look to it. The title and description of the video said it was made of Chestnut wood and knowing that the Stradivarius is made of a Spruce wood, what would you consider to be a better material? Does the material matter at all?
    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NR6Fbzra_8g&feature=related ]
    Also is there ever a point where that wood of the violin gets too thick or thin?

  • Anna

    This is an amazing post Amy! You are very talented at playing the violin, and it is really refreshing that you tied in something you really enjoying into you blog post. I was researching why wood decays, I came across that the cells in the wood go through chemical changes that change the color of the wood. I was wondering, is this why violins and other wood instruments are glazed, or have a special type of paint on them? I also came across that trees go through a stage called compartmentalization. What this means is that trees go through a stage to prevent the outbreak of fungus. Some fungus adapts to the compartmentalization stage and still continues to grow on the wood. If fungus helps theses violins, would it be better for wood instrument makers if the wood didn’t go through this stage?
    I found this website very interesting. If you would like to read more the website is:
    http://www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/ygbriefs/p443wooddecay.html

  • Vincent

    Great post Amy. The video was also great. Stradivarius violins were made by Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius. He created violins during an oddly cold 70 years. This was from 1645-1715(some call it the little ice age), the wood from trees back then was naturally less dense. The simplest way to recreate the density of the wood is by using fungi.

    http://news.discovery.com/tech/fungi-violin-better-stradivarius.html

    This is a very interesting topic and I hope this technique will be more commonly utilized in the future.

  • Jesse

    Amy, this is an amazing post, and I think that you are an amazing violinist. This post is also on a great topic because most people would not have thought of the wood decaying making a better sound in your violin. So my initial thought of this wood decaying is that i am guessing a place such as a rainforest would have great wood for violins because it is dark and there is also a lot of rain. These things cause decaying in wood so, I figured that it would have a richer type of decay. Is this true? I found out that most places and companies that make violins usually use thousands of types of different wood. So, my conclusion would be that it would only be used for certain violins. The site where i gained my information from was : http://www.theviolinsite.com/violin_making/violin_wood.html

  • Amy

    To answer Mike S’s question, the materials used in making a violin are essential to the tone that it produces. The majority of violins are made of spruce wood for the body of the instrument. I’ve not heard many violins made of chestnut wood but from the video, it seems that they both have different tonal qualities. I would say that since spruce wood is used more frequently that it is a better quality wood for violin making, but the quality of the instrument depends not only on the wood but on the making of the violin as a whole and the amount of time the instrument has been played. The link below from teh science section of NY Times describes another factor in violin tone: the amount and frequency of practice.
    To answer Anna’s question, you apply layers and layers of varnish on the violin. This varnish can in fact change the tone of the instrument and it does impact the appearance.
    http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/27/science/when-violinists-play-their-violins-improve.html?pagewanted=1

  • Deanna

    Amy I think your post is very arousing, and you are an amazing violinist. I did some research and found out that the fungus present on some violins made the wood similar to the wood in like Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age was a period of cold weather from 1645- 1715. What the fungus did to some violins was very harmful. The violins that had fungus present for 12 months starting to develop cracks during production. I found this information on this site: http://news.discovery.com/tech/fungi-violin-better-stradivarius.html.

  • Carl

    Amy, this is a great post. After reading your work I decided to research Xylaria polymorpha, “Dead Man’s Finger”. Reading an interesting article, I discovered that although it is very difficult to determine wether or not this fungi has a favorite wood, due to its rapid speed during the decomposition process, scientists think they have a pretty good idea; it is believed that among the favorites of this fungi are maple, oak, elm, and apple. I also found out that this fungi is found all over North America. Upon reading this, I had some questions; Is there a specific area in North America in which the violin companies find the “best” fungi to be?, and, Is it possible that the fungi could potentially damage the instrument due to its rapid decomposition speed?

    I got my information from this site:
    http://www.psu.edu/dept/nkbiology/naturetrail/speciespages/deadmansfingers.htm

  • vincent

    Great post Amy, this topic is very interesting. The Stradivarius violins are very widely respected and touted as the best violins in the world. The creator of these was Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius and he made violins in what is called the little ice age. This was from 1645-1715, this was a time of oddly cold weather. This cold weather made the wood less dense and better for making violins. This frigid weather can not be easily recreated, the easiest way to recreate this artificially is by using two types of fungus for the two types of wood. The process of recreating the low density took up to twelve months.

    http://news.discovery.com/tech/fungi-violin-better-stradivarius.html

  • Alec

    Great post Amy! I really enjoyed the video of you playing the violin. The timbre of a violin is determined by it’s physical properties. Wood containing a low density, a high velocity of sound, and modulus of elasticity have superior properties, which in turn produce a better sound. The two types of fungi that were used to make these fungi-treated violins (Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes) affect wood in a unique way that would inhane the timbre of the instrument.

    Cells in most woods egin to lose their ability to take in water over time. This occurs because of the closing of cell pits, which are tiny crevices located in the cell’s wall that allow the exchange of water between two adjaent cells. Physisporinus vitreus (a wood-enervating white colored fungus) as well as Xalaria longipes (mushrooms that grow on the bark of trees) infiltrate the cell by re-opening closed pits and then start degrading cells’ walls. This significantly increases the quality of sound of the instrument by lowering it’s density. It also makes makes the cells more permeable (it is not known if permeability affects the timbre of an insturment, but maybe it does).

    The information from this post was found on:
    http://www.wksu.org/classical/tag/xylaria-longipes/
    http://itv.hevs.ch/valais/bioincising.html
    http://www.wksu.org/classical/tag/xylaria-longipes/

    For Amy’s next post, I think she should talk about the history of violin making, and what materials people used in the past. I also think she should talk about what materials violins could be made out of in the future (i.e., genetically engineered wood)

  • Rohit

    Amy, this is an amazing post, and I think that you are an amazing violinist. I think that most people would not have thought of the wood decaying making a violin sound better. In a test it says that an empa violin treated with fungi produced a better sound than a Stradivarius violin. This is interesting because the Stradivarius violins are probably the best brand of violins. The Stradivarius violins are the most expensive violins in the world created by Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090914111418.htm

  • Adam

    Great post Amy! Your performance was excellent! In researching further, I came across an article that explains the different types of woods used to make master violins. Maple, Spruce, Ebony, Boxwood, Willow and Rosewood are commonly used to make the best type of violins. In reading the article “Woods for Making Violins”, it makes me think about the correlation between fungi and the aging process of wood itself. It seems possible that fungi could even be used to help create other desirable instruments in the woodland family. Maybe instead of violins, fungi can be used on cellos, violas and others. The construction of the actual violin is just as important as the quality of wood for its tone and sound.
    http://www.theviolinsite.com/violin_making/violin_wood.html

  • CHRISTIAN

    Great post Amy! Your a great violinist! i had no idea that a violin could be treated by fungi to hone the sound. I did some research on decaying wood and found that there are some types of wood that are more susceptible to fungi than others. Since the stradivarious violins are one of the best brands, it leads you to think thant the wood that makes the stradivarious violins is susceptible to fungi but not as much as the empa violins wood.http://www.amalpest.com.au/Termites/OtherTimberPests/WoodDecayFungi/

  • Amy

    To answer Carl’s question about the fungi damaging the instrument, this can happen because if the fungi is decaying the wood for too long, it can destroy the wood. To protect wood from decaying, you need to remove moisture, food, oxygen, and a temperature that it can grow at. Fungi need these elements to grow effectively so if these are removed, the fungi will stop growing and protect the violin from decaying.
    Here is a site that has some background on different types of fungi and the results when this fungi decays.
    http://www.karlroyviolinbook.com/pdfs/Wood198.pdf

  • Mike S

    Thanks for the reply Amy! I think that it is really interesting that Carleen Maley Hutchins uses vibrations to make her violins better. 1600 hours is an extreme amount of time. What I still don’t get is how the vibrations make the wood better. Do the wood become thicker or thinner?
    Also the material of the strings makes a large difference in the sound tone and quality. Also the thickness of the strings contribute to the sound quality. Violin strings were commonly made of dried sheep intestine and cat guts. But now they are made of mostly synthetic materials.

    [ http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/violintro.html ]
    [ http://eands.caltech.edu/articles/LXVII4/Hsieh%20Layout.pdf ]

  • Amy

    To answer Mike S’s question, the vibrations do not make the wood better, playing the instrument improves the sound quality or timbre. The thickness of the strings makes the sound higher or lower. The thicker the string, the slower the vibrations will be and the slower the frequency, the vibrations per second, will be. The thinner the string, the faster the vibrations will be and the faster the frequency, which will produce a higher pitch. Also, the body of the instrument makes the sound louder because the sound vibrations bounce around in the instrument, which amplifies the sound. The bridge and the sound post also contribute to the sound, amplification, and the movement of the sound waves in the body.
    http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/violintro.html

  • Chris

    The quality of the wood is an important element to the violin. A high quality violin can sell for millions. The violin maker is named Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius and named the high quality sounding violin the Stradivarius. This violin has a great acoustic sound and sells for a lot. Horst Heger is convinced that the fungi violin is a great quality violin like the stradivarius. He says that the quality is the same, but the fungi is muc cheaper. This is a good thing because people can buy these fungi violins with great quality sound for much cheaper. The fungi had a great effect on these violins.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090914111418.htm

  • Guy

    That was a very informative blog post Amy. I had no idea they used fungi to test the wood quality on violins. I also learned that the better the wood made the better violin and produced better sound. Very much like the Stradivarius. After reading this blog post was determined to find out how fungi affect wood. I found more information about how fungi affects wood at http://www.messiah.edu/Oakes/fungi_on_wood/introduction%20page/why%20wood%20decay%20fungi.htm. Some information I found there was that the wood that grows on wood is called lingicolous fungi. I also found a cool video of fungi growing on a wood deck that is similar to the fungi on the violin at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uTxkYkJMYw.

  • victor

    Nice post Amy. After reading this post I decited to lookup different instuments that are made with unique materials, and how those materials effect the instruments sound. I than found balloon drums! This instrument is simply a drum with it’s top being a balloon. This causes a deeper and longer sound due to the vibrations os the balloon. Here is the link for it http://www.balloondrums.com/.
    Can you find anyother cool instruments.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GabHGlGm14 Jong

    Great post Amy. To respond to Victor’s comment, I found another cool instrument made by a Japanese man. This instrument is actually made of a Big Broccoli and it actually works. The broccoli makes a similar ocarina sound using pressure inside the broccoli. This instrument is not only biodegradable but also cheap, and can be made anywhere, even at home.

    Video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GabHGlGm14

  • bobby

    this is a great blog amy, the information is really interesting. its hard to belive that a fungi could change the sound of the instrument. the great sweet sound that it makes is enchanting and is virtually impossible to duplicate. that is why stanford university is working and researching on how to make a synthesized version of this. with the incredible quality of a stradivarious without all the work and training to play the instrument. you would just have to plug in the notes and then record. http://news.stanford.edu/pr/94/940607Arc4222.html

  • victor

    The instrument you found is very unique Jong. But is that broccoli actually making that noise? To try to solve this question I decided to do some research. In my research not only did I find that other people have constructed and played this same instrument, but that the same man who made an instrument out of a plain broccoli also makes instruments out of plain carrots, apples and more! Here is a link that shows videos of different people making different instruments out of vegetables, from flukes to trumpets! Here is the link http://www.squidoo.com/Vegetable-music

  • christian

    Once again great post Amy, to respond to Victors comment, I found this cool video about a man who created a bagpipe out of a rubber glove, and a rod which acts like a mouthpiece. The instrument really plays music and is easy to make. It is very unique, but unlike the instrument Jong talked about you cannot find it very easily.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hBqgp9JGOo&feature=related

  • Justin

    Great Post Amy! It is interesting that you can use fungi to manipulate the sound of an instrument. To reply to an earlier comment posted by Victor I found an entire orchestra made by vegetables. they took the vegetebles and carved out holes to manipulate the sound of the fruit which is similar to what they did to the violens.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpfYt7vRHuY

  • Germaine DiPaolo

    Dear Amy,
    I loved the post and the performance. I hope you visit us at EMS.

    Best regards,
    Mrs. DiPaolo

  • victor

    Wow! Cool istruments justin and chistian. But top all these awsome instruments i’ve found the coolest istrument ever! This instrument is made out of a can, however using some awsome technology this man has made the coolest intrument i’ve ever seen. Check this out!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioiFCuHqHds
    Can you find any information on how this instrument that’s made out of mostly a can could make such cool noises?

  • http://fiddledeals.com violin sales

    How do they halt the growth of the fungi after the instrument is formed? I mean, obviously you don’t want to pay $25,000 for a violin only to have it slowly turn to dust over the years.

  • http://www.blueman.com/instrumentwp/?p=210 The Songs of Science « Invent an Instrument
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