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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Sue Ann Erb poses with her violin students
Sue Ann Erb (far right), who teaches Suzuki-method violin in New Hampshire, poses with her students, all of whom play Meineke instruments. “I was astounded by how responsive and clear [they] were,” Erb says.
 

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

His results, which for so long had been frustratingly hit-and-miss, gradually hit more and missed less. Erb picked up one of his reworked Chinese instruments and admitted it sounded better than the ones he had made from scratch just a few years earlier. With each new insight, Meineke excitedly called Erb or Nancy Blum or one of the others in the fan club. It became a running joke how often he said he’d finally figured it out. Every time he had a breakthrough, though, a new problem confronted him. By 2010, the problems he grappled with had become so abstract that he couldn’t work them out at his bench; he needed to go for long walks, needed space to let his mind wander.

How could he describe the moment of the final discovery, the realization that each string interacts with the instrument independently, that the vector of the force changes in each phase of the string’s motion? “If the G string pulls one direction and gives you one tone,” he tries to explain, “and pulls the other direction and gives you a few cycles’ difference, you have dissonance. Because the nature of the interaction is neither totally elastic nor totally inelastic, it’s virtually impossible to write an equation that describes it.”

Impossible to write an equation that describes it. He had followed science to the end of a path and found himself at the intersection with something else. He had no precise language for it. But he suddenly understood the heart of the issue. He was dealing with momentum—mass × velocity—and to create sound that is beautiful, he needed to create a balanced momentum reaction. When the mass of the wood was properly balanced against each string, wood and strings could vibrate freely, without damping. The understanding was an epiphany.

He focused on altering the thickness in precise locations, just millimeters apart, in the instrument’s curved plates—on the right side opposite the left strings, the left side opposite the right strings—that balanced the action of the corresponding string. “When I realized that the shape and thicknesses of the back of the violin were determined by the need to conserve momentum for each string and required exquisite adjustment,” he says, “I realized that I had both an explanation and a method.” This was science. He could test the epiphany.

If he was wrong, his efforts would contribute something to the body of knowledge—maybe for some future luthier to advance further. If he was right, he believed that they could shift the very paradigm of violinmaking. In giddy moments, he speculated that the art of playing itself might be transformed, the way music spectacularly blossomed in the late baroque and classical periods, when the instruments from Cremona swept across Europe and showed musicians possibilities they had never before imagined.

If he was right. If people listened.

He took his newfound understanding to his workbench. Forty-five years after he’d heard an Albani violin in a music department storage room, 18 years after he’d first set out to answer a question, he discovered how the wood and the strings responded to each other—and he was able to replicate his success on another instrument, and another.

He sent new violins to Lexy Harrod, who was studying at the Boston Conservatory. “I could tell they were Cal instruments right away,” Harrod says. “Brilliant high end, nice blend all the way down to the lowest notes. Not just flashy and bright, a real core. They were easier to play than my current violin—I couldn’t believe it.”

Teddy Rankin-Parker tried a new Cal cello in Meineke’s living room. Rankin-Parker had graduated from Oberlin and was making a name in the Chicago avant-garde music scene. He barely touched the bow to the strings, and the entire room reverberated with the deep sound. He stopped, smiled, and looked at Meineke. “Cal,” he said. “It’s a whole new world. Am I blushing? This thing sounds like it’s plugged into the floor.”

Brant Taylor, a cellist in the CSO and a member of the music faculty at DePaul, played a Cal cello and said he could think of few other new instruments that could match its sound, at any price.

If he was right.

All along, Meineke, now 62, had insisted he wasn’t trying to solve the mystery of the Stradivarius. “It’s never been about reproducing a Cremona instrument,” he says. “It’s about making something better than the millions of instruments made each year that aren’t serving beginning players very well.”

There was every chance his research would have little impact in the wider world of violinmaking. Other scientific approaches had been advanced and had quietly retreated. It is a conservative craft, with perhaps too much invested in the mystique of the Italian instruments: too much financially, psychologically, professionally. Rebecca Elliott, a codirector of the Chicago School of Violin Making, says that teaching students to pay attention to the sound of their instruments as they build them would go too far beyond the school’s three-year curriculum.

Meineke listened to one of his high-level conspirators play an instrument, heard dissonance from the G string, and pictured in his mind exactly how to fix it. That’s when he knew.

In January 2011, Sue Ann Erb again flew from New Hampshire to Chicago and met Meineke at Midway. This time, something in his voice sounded different. “In all the years I’ve been doing this,” he told her, “I feel like I turn a corner, and I hit a wall. And then I turn another corner, and I hit a wall. For the first time with violins, I’ve turned a corner—and I don’t see a wall.”

The experiments were over. He said, “It’s time to tell the world.”

Cal Meineke has created a website where he has posted video recordings of his instruments. Check it out at meinekestringedinstruments.com.

 

Photograph: Julia Meineke

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