The beguiling question has eluded some of the best minds in the world for centuries.
What exactly is it about the violins made by old-world masters such as Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri "del Gesu" that gives them such exquisite voices? To this day, most of those violins remain singularly unapproachable in terms of sound quality and are handed with reverence from master to master.
Local violin maker Oded Kishony was ensnared by the vexing question seven years ago. His continuing pursuit of an answer has taken him on a fascinating journey of discovery into the complex realm of acoustics.
"I was in bed, half asleep, and thinking about how I can make violins work better," Kishony said recently as he relaxed in his Albemarle County workshop, where he makes violins, cellos and violas that find homes throughout the world.
"I was thinking about how the strings vibrate and how that causes the body of the instrument to vibrate. As I visualized this happening, it suddenly occurred to me - why can't I reverse that?
"If I can make the surface of the instrument vibrate, will the string then vibrate and give me the information about that particular spot? In other words, can I reverse the vibration from the string to the instrument, and then reverse it from the instrument to the string?
"It's an incredibly simple idea, that I became totally obsessed with."
Kishony started making calls to his peers to see if his idea had validity. His inquires ultimately led him to Norman Pickering, one of the deans of violin acoustics and the inventor of the Pickering stylus.
Pickering thought it was an interesting idea and worthy of investigation. He
suggested to Kishony that he apply for a place in the Violin Acoustics Workshop by the Violin Society of America at Oberlin College in Ohio.
"The workshop was being started in order for violin makers to learn about acoustics," said Kishony, whose superbly crafted violins sell for $10,000. "Before the workshop was founded, there was very little in the way of direct attempts to train violin makers in acoustics.
"In fact, there was just a handful of violin makers who understood anything about acoustics and violin acoustics in particular. I was accepted into the workshop and have been attending it, and also lecturing there, for the last six years."
The workshop brings the leading violin makers in the world together with top violin acoustic researchers. They work together to improve the quality, as well as make new discoveries, pertaining to an instrument that's capable of musically illuminating the entire range of human emotions.
One of the experts Kishony met at the first workshop was Oliver Rodgers, a vibration engineer who was involved in the development of the jet engine. During an informal hallway chat, Kishony presented his idea to the engineer.
"When I told Oliver about my idea, he absolutely lit up," Kishony said of his friend, who passed away a few months ago. "He said for the first time in 30 years, a violin maker had come to him with an idea that was completely valid scientifically and makes sense in terms of simplicity and elegance.
"That began my relationship with Oliver, and he basically gave me personal tutoring in acoustics, and especially in the acoustics I'm interested in. We talked frequently on the telephone, and I would visit his home, where he had a mobile acoustic lab he had set up in the bed of a pickup truck.
"The lab was isolated for sound, had a computer, microphone and test equipment. It allowed me to test my ideas and correlate them with his electronic equipment to see how well my system worked."
Kishony's idea required him to bring a violin to a near state of completion called "in the white." The violin is far enough along in its creation to be fitted with strings, but remains unvarnished.
With the violin in the white, Kishony tested his theory by tapping on the surface of the instrument in different areas while noting the feedback he was getting from the electronic test equipment. The system worked fine, and he has since incorporated it into his building process.
One of the most demanding aspects of violin making is doing the inlay work called purfling that goes around the edge of the instrument. It is at this delicate juncture where Kishony's bedtime idea has been bearing sweet fruit.
"In order to make that little round bead around the edge of the violin you have to cut into the instrument and inlay the black and white lines," Kishony said. "That of course will change the thickness all around the instrument in this area, and that's going to change the sound.
"For the last number of instruments I've made, I've put the strings on before I've started working on the edge. As I'm working with the scraper, and so on, I'm listening to how the strings are vibrating.
"So I'm trying to develop an instrument using a combination of an intuitive understanding of what the ancients did by studying their patterns, and what I've learned from my studies in acoustics and from my discussions with Oliver."
The master violin maker has written a peer review article on his work that is scheduled to appear in the next issue of the Violin Society of America's "Papers" journal. It describes his method of using the principle of string reciprocity to analyze the acoustics of the violin.
Fan Tao is a founder and co-director of the acoustic workshop. He said there has been speculation and much circumstantial evidence put forth for a long time by violin makers that the great Italian masters like Stradivari did do some of the acoustical adjustments from the outside of the instrument after it was put together, but before it was varnished.
"What most violin makers work by is the feel and the sound of the wood," Tao said recently via telephone from his Long Island office where he works as the director of research and development for J. D'Addario and Co., the largest maker of strings for musical instruments in the world.
"So they're constantly feeling the top and back of the violin before it's put together. From experience they're looking for certain combinations of thickness and flexibility at certain key places that work well.
"A lot of makers also tap the violin and listen to the tones of the plates. All these techniques are well known. What I think is unique about Oded is, that working with Oliver Rodgers, he has developed a different method of measuring or hearing the violin, which involves tapping the instrument, but then feeling the vibrations through the strings. I think it's a very interesting and unique way of doing it."
Kishony is gleaning additional information by studying instruments made by Guarneri. He has a book containing life-size photographs of some of the maker's instruments taken from multiple angles, as well as maps of the various thicknesses of the wood.
Guarneri was a contemporary of Stradivari and came from a well-known family of Italian violin makers. Of all the violin makers of the period spanning from 1666 when the earliest known Stradivarius was produced, until 1737 when Guarneri died, he was the only craftsman to rival Stradivari.
"Del Gesu was a competitor of Stradivari, if you can imagine that," Kishony said. "He was one of the greatest craftsman who has ever lived, but the interesting thing is that his work is actually very rough.
"The only reason his instruments are famous is because of their incredible sound. And also because of the fact that one of the foremost violinist of the 19th century, Nicolo Paganini, loved his instruments and tried to buy every one he could.
"These days it's not uncommon for great solo violinists to start their careers with a Stradivarius and, as they get older and develop musically, move to a del Gesu because these instruments are so magnificent.
"Because del Gesu didn't have great finesse, he left a lot of tool marks on the surface of his instruments. What I've been doing is putting the gradation map over the picture and seeing where the tool marks correspond to the thicknesses."
One of the reasons why the definitive answer to what makes certain violins great is so elusive is that they're made of wood, and no two pieces will respond in the same way. Tao said if violins were made of a material that was consistently identical, the vexing violin question would have been solved long ago.
"Even though we might know in theory what makes a violin work, we don't have the engineering knowledge yet to say that for this particular piece of wood this is exactly what you need to do," Tao said. "The violin is a very complex object.
"Very small changes in its construction or geometry affects its sound. The difference between the worst violin and the best violin is actually very small in objective terms.
"That's also why the problem is so difficult. You're dealing with very small changes."
Because violins tend to get better with age, those that are centuries old often have a step up on recently made instruments. Only time will tell if the master violin makers of today are producing instruments as good as those made by Stradivari and Guarneri.
"I think a lot of the new violins being made by the best makers today like Oded and Sam Zyqmuntowicz, in many respects are equal to or superior to most of the old instruments," Tao said. "Not in every respect, but in many respects.
"Makers like Oded don't get the respect they deserve from the public, because the public is so bound up in the mystic of the old Stradivarius and the Guarneris."
Julie Wilkinson echoed that sentiment. The Free Union resident has been playing the violin for 42 years and teaching for more than 35 years. She said a number of her students going on to careers in music have chosen Kishony's violins over much older and more expensive European made instruments.
"The instruments Oded makes are very easy to play, because they're so well crafted and are set up for the instrumentalist's physical comfort as well," Wilkinson said. "But they're very, very responsive and sensitive to the different tone colors that we try to pull out of the instrument.
"His instruments are very complex in the timbre, which is very rich and full of overtones. They make a giant sound, and yet it stays mellow and you can draw out all these colors, which is exactly what you're looking for in an instrument.
"It used to be that you would have to spend three or four times as much money for a really old European instrument to get this kind of sound. I love it when my advanced students pick Oded's instruments, because I know they're going to have success with them."
Kishony made his first violin in 1978. His formal instruction came under the guidance of Andrew S. Kim, who has won several gold medals for violin making in world competition.
After making two violins under Kim's watchful eye, Kishony went to work for a violin shop in Manhattan that specialized in doing repair and restoration work on high-end instruments.
After working there for several years he accepted an offer to move to Italy and make violins there. During the year and a half he spent making violins outside Florence, he adopted the Italian style of violin making.
"My time in Italy was absolutely critical," Kishony said. "The style Kim taught was essentially German, so when I went to Italy and became familiar with that style it was like turning on a light.
"I found the style much more satisfying, easier, faster, much more efficient and it produced a much better sound. That's not to say it would be true for everybody, but for me, I got the sense of violin making while I was in Italy."
Kishony has been living and working in the area since moving here from New York with his wife and daughter in 1992. Many of his instruments are played by local musicians, but the majority of them are sold in music stores in Chicago and New York.
The Israeli-born luthier has yet to find the definitive answer as to what makes certain old violins great. But the knowledge he is gaining during his ongoing quest is helping him produce the finest instruments he has ever created.
"One of the experiments we did at the workshop was to create a computer picture of sound generating from a violin," Kishony said. "What we saw were spikes of sound coming off the surface of the instrument that were very directional.
"Every time you change the pitch, there's a slightly different area that starts to radiate. The total effect is like an auditory laser light show. It's like this incredibly complex and delicious quality of order and chaos at the same time.
"One of the qualities I aim for in my instruments is a quality you can hear in really great instruments, which is that the sound seems to be coming from everywhere. They have this very highly directional quality to their sound, and that's what makes the surface of the violin so important."
Kishony's search prompted a new question that he sometimes thinks about as he's about to go to sleep.
"I have the advantage of being a modern man with some education in acoustics," Kishony said as he looked across the room at a row of glistening violins hanging on the wall. "Obviously makers, like Stradivari, didn't have that, but he had some sort of intuitive understanding.
"So I sometimes wonder if it's an advantage or disadvantage for me to know something about acoustics. I don't know, but I know too much already, so I'm going to go with it."