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Chemical Eye on Sweet, Sweet Music
by Preston MacDougall


May 01, 2005

The name Stradivari has the strongest resonance in my mind when I think of violins, and the high-pitched bids called out for so-named instruments, just before the thud of a gavel, suggest that this is a widely held opinion.

jpg Preston MacDougall

Still, when I visited the hometown of Antonio Stradivari, I was surprised to learn that the town is "famous for the three T's", and the Italian word for violin doesn't start with a T. It is violino.

Beginning, in the mid-1600's, as a teenage apprentice to Niccolo Amati, Antonio Stradivari perfected the making of violins in Cremona, which is a gorgeous little town in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Cremona was built in 218 B.C. by the Roman military, and must have accrued a considerable reputation in the almost two millennia before the crowned heads of Europe started sending emissaries there to purchase its famed violins.

The first of the three T's that I saw was the tower, or torre in Italian. Unlike the one in Pisa, Cremona's is perfectly erect. I tasted a few of the second T, which are sweet nougat confections associated with Cremona. They are called torrones in Italian. My friend and local travel guide, Carlo Gatti, told me that the third T that makes Cremona famous were tettas. From the look on his face, no translation was necessary.

Next, we visited the museum where tribute is paid to Stradivari, as well as to his teacher and to many of his own students. It was there that I first leaned about the wood that was used, as well as the glues and lacquers that were chemically prepared onsite. Chemical, as well as acoustical research is still being done on these prized instruments, in a search for the secrets to their voice.

On the outskirts of town, while we were speeding back to Milan on a lonely road, my friend slowed down. There was a car that had pulled off the road onto a small clearing. It was an economical, but sporty, model. I forget the color. I do remember that the door was wide open, and the woman sitting sideways in the driver's seat had red hair. That's not all I remember. She was showing Carlo and me the third T that makes Cremona famous, a pair of them actually.

Several years later, at a social event for a babysitting co-op in College Station, Texas, I met a biochemist with a very interesting hobby. Joseph Nagyvary earned his Ph.D. in chemistry working on the team that isolated, and solved the molecular structure of the active ingredient in curare, the muscle relaxing poison that Brazilian aborigines use on darts. While he still teaches biochemistry, Dr. Nagyvary's current research is on the chemistry and materials of Cremona violins. He also makes his own.

In the year 2000, when I was serving as Chair of the Nashville Section of the American Chemical Society, Dr. Nagyvary was scheduling a speaking tour. Other local chairs were sure to bid on this, and he would probably only make a few stops. Nashville being "Music City", I was delighted, but not surprised, that we made it onto his schedule.

One of the interesting things I learned was that efforts to prevent pests, such as carpenter ants, from harming the wood used for the violins in Cremona might have played an important role in generating their magnificent sound. Boric acid was, and still is, commonly used for pest control, as well as other uses, such as a laundry additive. Derived from the mineral borax, famously hauled from mines by teams of twenty mules, boric acid reacts with so-called hydroxyl groups of biomolecules. When these biomolecules are the cellulose in wood, this can result in structural reinforcement and a tonal impact on instruments made from that wood.

Dr. Nagyvary required the participation of a principal violinist from the Nashville Symphony, who is also one of his customers, to sweetly demonstrate the acoustics of both a prized Italian violin, and one of his own creations. He only needed a microphone, however, to personally demonstrate the acoustical effect of a chemical reaction involving boron, using paper, borax and water.

You can try a similar experiment at home. Mix two tablespoons of 20 Mule Team Borax in a cup of water. Then, into this solution, squeeze two tablespoons of Elmer's white glue. Kneed the goop for a few minutes, dipping it in the solution occasionally. Finally rinse the blob, and your hands, with water.

Notice its textural changes, but don't eat the bouncy blob. It may look like nougat, but it tastes nothing like torrones.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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