Few secrets are so tightly held as violinmakers' formulas for treating wood -- a process that plays a key role in giving the instruments their sound. Few scientists have seemed as determined to crack the secrets of the 17th- and 18th-century master violinmakers as Joseph Nagyvary.
Wielding 20th-century laboratory tools as well as those of the violinmaker, the Texas A&M University biochemist says it is possible to build violins whose sound ''compares favorably to the above-average 'Strad.' '' Often referred to by this nickname, Stradivarius violins crafted in the 17th and 18th centuries are widely regarded as the finest stringed instruments ever made.
With more work, Dr. Nagyvary adds, it should be possible to raise the sound quality further than Stradivarius violins.
To the cognoscenti, those may be fighting words. Nagyvary, who also builds violins, concedes that he faces ''an ongoing process in trying to persuade music lovers that you don't have to pay $2 million for an instrument that gives high-quality sound.''
Nagyvary has built 30 to 40 violins using the methods he has uncovered during his research. He has sold several for between $3,000 and $7,000 to help support his research. By contrast, top-quality violins made in New York cost about $18,000.
One of the motives behind his work, he adds, is perpetuating an interest in violin-playing among young people. While acknowledging a desire to see his instruments used professionally, ''I am more interested in making them for children. They play with abominable, squeaky instruments'' that can end up discouraging them.
Nagyvary has spent 30 years researching Cremona-style instruments -- named for the town in Italy where masters such as Antonio Stradivari, the maker of Stradivarius violins, worked. He has learned several elements of their techniques, he says.
One of the main challenges, he notes, is defining an original Stradivarius whose sound can be duplicated. ''About 1800, the French began to modernize the old Cremona violins to suit their tastes. The sound became more nasal.'' In addition, he adds, repairs over the centuries have altered the instruments' tones.
Many craftsmen have sought to duplicate the old masters by focusing on the structure and physics of the old instruments, Nagyvary says. In the 19th century, two Frenchmen dissected dozens of Stradivarius instruments and scrutinized the belly and back. Others have tried to refine these analyses, with little apparent effect. Still other violinmakers have tried to focus on the relationship between the woods used and the chemicals used to finish them -- the tack Nagyvary also takes.
The first step was to dig into the woodworking and preserving techniques of the day. ''The violinmakers had to use preservatives against mold and fungus, so they used a fruit-gum filler, which gave a candied look to the wood. But the gum also attracted wood worms. So they added insecticides to the varnish,'' he explains.
One obvious problem is obtaining samples for analysis; no one wants to sacrifice a piece of a big-bucks instrument for science. ''In the last 25 years, I've been able to get only one Strad sample. But a friend of mine bought a battered Rugiero cello and gave it to me. Francesco Rugiero was a neighbor of Stradivari and used the same wood and varnish.''
One important element was the crystal structure of the varnish. ''The crystals play an optical role, giving fire to the finish,'' he says. ''But they also plug the pores in the upper layer of wood, giving those layers an extreme hardness'' that accounts for the quick acoustic ''attack'' of these instruments.
The old masters' wood fillers also helped maintain that quick attack, he says, adding that many of today's violinmakers use linseed or walnut oil, which he says may help the instrument look good but deaden the wood's ability to vibrate. Referring to the combination of materials and chemicals used by the old masters, ''it's a happy coincidence that they had such good acoustical effects,'' Nagyvary says.
But they still have to be brought together to form a violin whose sound approaches that of the masters. To lend objectivity to evaluating the sound of modern violins, Nagyvary has started to amass a digital database of sounds from Cremona instruments. ''We have data for about two dozen Stradivarius [instruments],'' he says. Each note and its harmonic components have been captured, as well as variations of the note as different techniques are used to play it.
Although few performers are beating a path to Nagyvary's lab to provide data for the database, some have allowed him to record their instruments in the dressing room. In other cases, he says he has had to rely on solo passages from CD recordings.
Yet with all the attempts at high-tech wizardry, violinmaking remains very much an art, he acknowledges. ''There are so many variables. There are thousands of different changes you can make to get to the same point.''
One of Nagyvary's aims is to perpetuate an interest among young people, who often play with 'squeaky instruments.'