Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Sufficiently Advanced Violin

The reactions to the recent story about CT scans being used to recreate a Stradivarius violin are interesting. For example, in the comments on Engadget there's a lot of denial that it could sound as good as the original, as well as people saying it won't sound as good in 300 years. I have to wonder if the latter even matters. If we can cheaply create a clone of a 307-year-old Stradivarius, you can just make a new one when it stops sounding good. And who knows if a 600-year-old Stradivarius will actually sound good?

Photograph of CNC machine carving the front plate of the Betts violin reproduction.

Musicians Centre has an interesting take: “Why do we have to keep going back and trying to replicate the past when it comes to instruments?”

I agree, but I don't think the scanned Stradivarius has to be just about replicating the past. If we are able to scan instruments that sound good and produce replicas, that means we can experiment with modifications to the design, and iterate to produce better instruments. Without having any way to measure what makes a Stradivarius “good” means iteration is hard, and you end up with people talking about trees that don’t exist anymore or a mysterious fungus that can’t be replicated.

That said, improvements will most likely have to overcome a subjectivity problem. On a large scale there are objective ways of determining that one violin is better than another, but at a finer scale things might not be so clear cut. Assuming you could make a violin that sounds slightly better than even the best Stradivarius by some objective measure, would it just end up sounding weird to people who are used to the real thing?

posted Sunday, December 04, 2011