Frozen Notes

In the world of musical instruments, there may no name more famous than Stradivarius.  Referring to the series of violins crafted by Antonio Stradivari and his family in the late 1600s and early 1700s, these instruments may be worth hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.

The reason for their incredible value stems from the belief that Stradivarii violins are, acoustically, superior to all other violins — a trait which to date has not been replicated.  (It’s also a trait which is quite likely fictional.)  Did Stradivari use a special varnish?  An undocumented technique?  A secret technique?  All of these theories have been proposed but with little evidentiary support.

But one theory as to why seems more and more likely — and it involves something called the Little Ice Age.

For a period beginning perhaps as early as 1250 and continuing as late as 1850, the earth’s Northern Hemisphere experienced cooler-than-expected average temperatures, across the board.  This drop was not uniform across places or the full time period, so not all people were affected (if they even noticed), but it definitely produced odd effects, such as occasionally frozen rivers and streams.  In 1780, for example, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island — a trip which today entails a 25 minute, 5.2 mile ferry ride.

There are many examples, similar to the above, of colder than usual temperatures.  But the definitive evidence of the Little Ice Age?  Tree trunks.  When temperatures cool, trees grow more slowly.  This makes the tree’s bark denser, something which is visible by looking at the tree’s rings.

And it also may make violins acoustically superior.  It turns out that the Stradivarius instruments were created during this time period.  The instruments use wood from trees whose growth rate was stunted by the low temperatures and, therefore, was more dense than typical wood.  According to a team of researchers from Columbia University and the University of Tennessee, this high-density wood is the instruments’ secret (and perhaps unintended) ingredient.

It is also one that requires a miniature ice age to create.

Bonus fact: In 2010, a Stradivarius violin rumored (incorrectly) to be formerly owned by Napoleon Bonaparte was auctioned off — with the winner paying $3.6 million.  (Before placing her bid, the purchaser was aware that Napoleon never owned the instrument.)

From the Archives: No Summer: How a volcano eradicated an entire season.

Related productA faux Stradivarius.  Buyer beware, per this review: “I hated this violin so much that I smashed it into pieces just for fun, heavy metal style.”  More seriously: “The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History” by Brian M. Fagan.  4 stars on 80 reviews, and available on Kindle.

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