String Theory and the Science of the Violin

In 1993, Cal Meineke, a doctor with a talent for playing the violin, set out to solve a perplexing mystery: Why do some stringed instruments produce a heartbreakingly beautiful sound, while other, nearly identical instruments do not? After almost two decades of obsessive violinmaking and intense scrutiny, he thinks he has the answer

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Cal Meineke
Cal Meineke, the skeptical violinmaker: “I wanted knowledge that I could explain.”
 

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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE VIOLIN »
A brief lesson on the instrument’s beginnings

Forty-five years ago, as a freshman in college, Cal Meineke was poking around a music department storage room and came across a rare Tyrolean violin made in the 17th century by the German Matthias Albani.

Meineke had recently become serious about playing the violin. He drew a bow across the strings of the old instrument. Nothing in the violin’s appearance marked it as special, yet its sound was unlike anything Meineke had produced before. “It had a buttery quality,” he later said. “You never forget it if you hear it.” The experience lodged a question in his mind: Why is it that some instruments sound beautiful, while other, nearly identical instruments do not?

Meineke graduated in 1971 from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a chemistry degree and went on to graduate work and research in molecular biology. He finished medical school in less than three years and busied himself establishing a medical practice and raising a family in Oak Park. But the question persisted.

Meanwhile, Meineke skirted the fringes of Chicago’s classical music world. He played first violin in Oak Park’s community orchestra and got to know Michael Darnton, who worked on stringed instruments at Bein & Fushi, a dealer in downtown Chicago. Darnton occasionally let Meineke try an antique violin made by one of the legendary Italian masters, and the tonal difference between a great instrument and an ordinary one continually struck the doctor.

What accounted for that difference?

In his early 40s, his practice established and his kids getting older, Meineke indulged his curiosity and turned his scientific mind to the question. During nights and weekends in the fall of 1993—in a few weeks, with only a book to teach him and tools he’d been given by the violinmaker Günther Reuter—he built a violin. “It was a thrill,” he says, remembering that first one. “Just making an instrument that was playable, one that sounded kind of like a violin.” The next year, he made three more violins, two violas, and his first cello.

His approach conformed to the practice of a conservative craft: Match the measurements of a great instrument of the 17th or 18th century made by one of the masters of the Cremona school in northern Italy—Amati, say, or Stradivari (see “A Short History of the Violin”). Follow its precise dimensions and arching diagrams and rely on improving skill to come ever closer to making an exact copy. But despite his improving skill, Meineke’s third, fourth, and fifth instruments sounded no better than his first, and some sounded worse than others.

Trying to figure out why, Meineke looked more deeply into the history of the instrument. He read all he could find on the subject, including articles about the “mystery” of the Stradivarius, a perennial topic in violin literature. Generations of musicians had speculated about why few, if any, modern violins could compare with the several hundred surviving Cremona instruments, which sold for a million dollars and more. Was it some secret varnish? Did the hard Italian maple in the violin backs produce the incomparable power? Or was it something intuitive that had been passed down—and stayed—in the old Cremona guild?

It wasn’t long before Meineke came to view much of the accepted wisdom of violinmaking and violin quality as mythology. Trained as a scientist, he didn’t believe in mystique and wasn’t interested in intuition. “I wanted knowledge that I could explain,” he says.

Many of the Cremona instruments did sound exquisite to him, but not all of them did—and the Strads, especially, were notoriously finicky, difficult to play and keep in tune. Some newer instruments by little-known makers played effortlessly, Meineke thought, and to his ear sounded superior to old Italian violins 20 times more expensive. (Occasionally, over the decades, celebrated blind tests have embarrassed learned audiences and violinists who couldn’t pick out a Cremona instrument from its well-crafted modern counterparts.) There seemed to be a murky relationship between an instrument’s sound quality and its cost. With a strong financial incentive to push the pedigreed instruments, whose value as objets d’art was driven by collectors, dealers typically determined value based on three factors: the market, an instrument’s condition, and its provenance. The sound—in a tool created to make sound—had no bearing on value except at the highest end of the market. Meineke saw emperor’s clothes all around.

He understood the argument that sound quality is subjective, that a great player could produce a more pleasing sound on a cigar box than a poor player could on a fine violin—that beautiful music, like the appeal of any art, is a matter of aesthetics. But Meineke listened to lots of people play the same and different instruments, and he became suspicious that it wasn’t the playing that made his own creations sound unpleasant, nor any sense of aesthetics, but something inherent in the instruments themselves.

He believed there might be an empirical way to figure it out, some basis in the physics of the instrument. So he set out, as a scientist, to answer a question of art.

 

Photograph: Nathan Kirkman

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