Savart Journal

science and technology of stringed musical instruments

A Comparative Study of Power Spectra and Vowels in Guarneri Violins and Operatic Singing

Joseph Nagyvary


This paper is the first of a planned series aiming to characterize what could be viewed as standards of excellence in the tone quality of violins played note for note by a world-class player. Here we begin with the most outstanding item in our data bank, the analysis of the Guarneri del Gesù “ex-Sauret”, played by its owner Itzhak Perlman in a 2-octave chromatic scale. The second violin analyzed was the del Gesù “ex-Ole Bull”. The tone quality of these violins is discussed in terms of their power spectra and similarities with those of the female singing voice. We have used a method of speech analysis, LPC with Praat, to determine the formants of vowels sung by a Metropolitan Opera soprano and those of the two violins. All the low notes of the voice and violins were then placed in a form of the IPA vowel diagram designed by Pfitzinger, whereby the vowels could be identified. Each violin has a characteristic distribution of vowels in the Pfitzinger plot, which can serve as identification and provide a basis for quality assessment. Some of the vowels are stable, others have a diphthong character. It appears that famous Cremonese instruments produce notes that gravitate toward certain type of vowels, implying that old masters could have used vowel identification as a means of quality assurance. We suggest that the user-friendly methods described here would be a useful supplement for makers and players in evaluating the quality of their own violins.

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Article published Mar 7, 2013.
This article has been accessed 13547 times since publication.


The Savart Journal is published in collaboration with the Guild of American Luthiers.

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Joseph Nagyvary Nagyvary Violins
United States

A native of Hungary, Joseph Nagyvary majored in chemistry at the University of Budapest (1952-1956); he became a student of the Swiss Nobel Laureate Paul Karrer in 1957, and received his PhD in the chemistry of natural products in 1962. While in Zurich, he had his first formal violin lessons on a violin which once belonged to Albert Einstein, a coincidence which helped turn his attention to the physical mysteries of the violin. He gained his first glimpses into the art of violin making from the Zurich luthier Amos Segesser. For his discovery of the structure of the curare poison, he received in 1962 the annual award of the Swiss Chemical Society, which led him to spend a postdoctoral year in Cambridge with Lord Alexander Todd, a British Nobel Laureate. He came to the United States in 1964, and settled down in Texas in 1968 where he was tenured in 1972 as professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University until his retirement in 2003. Dr. Nagyvary was the recipient of a Career Development Grant, and numerous other research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and NASA. His scientific expertise includes the chemistry of alkaloids, nucleic acids, origin of life, and the role of dietary fiber. His discoveries concerning the classical violins were made public in 270 lectures sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the Sigma Xi. Dr. Nagyvary was the invited representative of violin science at the "Strings and the Universe" program of the World Year of Physics, Dec. 14-15, 2005, in Tokyo, Japan. He received the gold medal of the Japanese Physics Society for his discoveries of micro-composites and nano-composites in Old Italian varnishes.