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Antonio Stradivari is widely known for creating the best violins in the world. Stradivarius violins run upwards of a million dollars — sometimes even more. Musicians and scientists have long tried to discover the secret behind the Stradivarius violin’s clarity, richness, and unique character. No other instrument maker can replicate it. Recently, American scientists have come up with a possible explanation that involves the little ice age that gripped Europe between the 1400 and 1800.

The little ice age hypothesis

Henri Grissino-Mayer, a scientist at the University of Tennessee and climatologist Lloyd Burckle of Columbia University in New York, believed that the European cold spell most likely enhanced the quality of the wood from which the Stradivarius violins were made. The little ice age, combined with the overall reduction in the sun’s activity dramatically slowed down tree growth which may have impacted the chemical make up of the wood, making it denser.

The researchers also asserted that dense wood with narrow growth rings may help to instill a superior tone and brilliance in violins. Wood grown in normal or fast conditions is less resonant and highly unlikely to survive the amount of stress placed on a violin.

Grissino-Mayer pointed out that the long period of cold weather and long winters peaked between 1645 and 1715. The trees growing during the peak period showed the slowest tree growth rates of the last 500 years. Interestingly, Stradivari started producing violins from 1666 until he died in 1737. Studies showed that Stradivari created violins from spruce wood.

While Grissino-Mayer and Burckle believed that the quality of wood was a huge factor in improving the quality of Stradivarius violins, they still acknowledge Stradivari’s exceptional talent as an instrument maker. The researchers emphasized that Stradivari did not only have good materials, but he had incredible skills that greatly contributed to the impeccable tonal quality of his violins.