Antonio Stradivari made over a thousand violins in his long lifetime. They're considered the most perfect violins ever made, and the 650 surviving instruments are incredibly valuable. Now, thanks to modern technology, every budding violinist could soon own an authentic Stradivarius. More or less.
Like all musical instruments, no two violins are exactly alike, which means no two violins create precisely the same sound. The Stradivarius violins are considered to have the most perfect and unique sound of any violins, and yet nobody knows exactly why they are so much better than any others. The type and thickness of the wood used, the shape of the violin, and the degree of arching involved can all affect the ultimate sound quality. It seems Stradivari hit on the perfect combination.
Dr. Steven Sirr, a Minnesota radiologist and amateur violinist, thought it would be interesting to scan a violin using computed tomography imaging, better known as a CT scan. He recently performed a series of scans on a Stradivarius violin known as "Betts", a 1704 instrument currently head in the Library of Congress. The scanner complied over a thousand images that were then combined to create a perfect 3D reproduction of the original violin. Then, with the help of a pair of professional violin makers, Sirr created a replica of Betts. Leaving aside any intangible, ineffable qualities that Stradivari was able to confer on his original violin, this is about as perfect an imitation as one could hope to make.
As Sirr explains, an ultimate goal of this might well be for young musicians to be able to get their hands on the next best thing to an actual Stradivarius violin without having to build up a small fortune first. After all, it's not just the rarity and monetary value that makes these violins so valuable — they also sound better than other violins.
Sirr explains how CT scanning can reveal the inner workings of the violin:
"I assumed the instrument was merely a wooden shell surrounding air. I was totally wrong. There was a lot of anatomy inside the violin. Just like human beings, there is a wide range of normal variation among violins. When you are looking at an instrument that is hundreds of years old, you will see worm holes and cracks that have been repaired, as well as damage from being exposed to all kinds of conditions, from floods to wars. CT is useful in measuring wood density, size and shapes, thickness graduation and volume measurements. It also provides detailed analysis of damage and repair."