Moselio Schaechter

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« Small Friends of Fungi | Main | Mad Dogs and Microbiologists »

October 22, 2009

Fiddling with Fungi: And the Winner Is…

by Elio

JCS Xylaria longipes 40612

X. longipes. Source.

Late in August of 2008 we promised to update you on the attempts to out-Stradivarius Stradivarius by crafting violins made from wood treated with fungi. Here is the latest news.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research made violins from wood treated with two different fungi: Physisporinus vitreus for the spruce top plate and Xylaria longipes (aka Dead Man's Fingers) for the sycamore bottom plate. The treatment lasted six or nine months, by which time the wood had become covered with a fuzzy growth of mycelium.


P. vitreus. Source.

They made four violins from the same wood: one treated for six months, another for nine months, and two untreated. The British violinist Matthew Trusler played all four for an audience of more than 180 people at a forestry conference. More than 90 people ranked the bioviolin treated for nine months ahead of a real Stradivarius, which came in second, followed by the violin treated for six months. The two untreated violins came in last.

The idea here was that treating the wood with fungi might artificially recreate the structure of the wood found naturally during Stradivarius's lifetime. The Little Ice Age, a period of abnormally cool weather between 1645 and 1715, produced trees with more uniform wood. Treating today's wood with the fungi artificially results in wood with similar properties.

When these modern Stradivarius soundalikes become commercially available, musicians will be able to have the sound of a Stradivarius without the price─for a mere $25,000.


Just wanted to let you know that it’s not showing up properly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Pearl). Anyway, I’m now on the RSS feed on my laptop, so thanks!

The instrument was played before "an audience of more than 180 people at a forestry conference"? Is that the industry standard for determining violin quality these days?

Elio replies: I have no idea, but I doubt that the authors were concerned with an industry standard. They made their point with what they had.

Interesting article. Instrument makers are perpetually trying to come up with wood treatments that will give an instrument that Stradivarius sound, boric acid being another contender. My general point here, though, is that out of the roughly 1200 instruments that Stradivari made, about 700 are extant. Of those, some are in pretty bad shape. having been modified, repaired, and--fortunately--used over some centuries. Not all Stradivarius violins sound the same, or even have that "Stradivarius sound." The ultimate test should not be whether a violin made with fungi-treated wood sounds like a (random) Stradivarius, but whether it meets the demanding test of a topflight musician's ears.

Elio replies: We're getting a bit out of our field of expertise, but Greg's point sounds logical and well stated, even to the uninitiated.

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