Friday, 14 September 2012

Friday Fungus: How mushrooms make music more magical!

It would seem that the magic of music can be enhanced with the wonders of mycological intervention - mould makes for magical music! But first we need to understand why some violins sound better:

Low density, high speed of sound and a high modulus of elasticity -- these qualities are essential for ideal violin tone wood. In the late 17th and early 18th century the famous violin maker Antonio Stradivari used a special wood that had grown in the cold period between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and the cool summers, the wood grew especially slowly and evenly, creating low density and a high modulus of elasticity. Until now, modern violin makers could only dream of wood with such tonal qualities.

All the good trees have gone and we're stuck with trees from warmer woods. Which is where the fungi come in:

Professor Schwarze's developments could soon make similarly good wood available for violin making. He discovered two species of fungi (Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes), which decay Norway spruce and sycamore -- the two important kinds of wood used for violin making -- to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved. "Normally fungi reduce the density of the wood, but at the same time they unfortunately reduce the speed with which the sound waves travel through the wood," the researcher explained. "The unique feature of these fungi is that they gradually degrade the cell walls, thus inducing a thinning of the walls. But even in the late stages of the wood decomposition, a stiff scaffold structure remains via which the sound waves can still travel directly." 

Got all that. But of course the test is in the audience's ears not in the good Professor's science - and it seems that 'mycowood' does the business:

In 2009 the violins were played in a blind, behind-the-curtain test versus a genuine Stradivarius from 1711. All the violins were played by the British violinist Matthew Trusler. The result was surprising for all participants: Both the jury of experts and the majority of the audience thought that the mycowood violin that Schwarze had treated with fungi for nine months was the actual Strad.

It will be interesting to see whether this affects the market for Strad instruments or whether the cachet of antiquity still wins out over these new-fangled mycowood violins!


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