Violin with strings spun from spider silk plays beautifully
The new strings play at a brilliant timbre that matches or exceeds the sound that can be produced from established materials such as steel, nylon and gut.
Mon, Mar 05 2012 at 10:01 PM
A new kind of violin string woven from spider silk produces such a beautiful and spine-tingling sound that it could revolutionize the sound of music — and forever change the reputation of spiders in the process, according to New Scientist.
The spider strings are the invention of Shigeyoshi Osaki of Nara Medical University in Japan, who has spent the last 35 years carefully studying the properties of spider silk. Weaving violin strings out of the eerie material has been a pet project of his for about a decade.
The results of his labors are nothing short of spectacular. You can listen to the sound of a violin with spider silk strings playing in the following video, provided by New Scientist:
The strings are already being applauded for their "brilliant" timbre. Compared to the performance of steel, nylon and gut strings — the three most common materials currently used for making violin strings — the spider strings matched or exceeded expectations. For instance, spider string has strong high harmonics compared to steel and nylon, and the material is more durable than gut for thinner strings, such as E strings.
"You could have a thinner string for playing the same pitch, which would be a bit more bendy and responsive — it would hit a note quicker," said physicist and violinist Katherine Selby from Cornell University, comparing the spider strings to gut strings.
"What people crave about natural gut strings is a certain complexity," she added. "Spider strings also have this brilliant sound — even more than gut."
The unique properties of the spider strings come in part from the physics of the natural material, but they also come from the weaving technique employed by Osaki. First Osaki learned how to coax about 300 female golden orb-weaver spiders to spin long strands of "dragline" silk, which are the strong single strands that the spiders use to dangle from. Next he bundled the filaments together and twisted them. Each string is made up of three such bundles, but the thicker strings contain the most filaments. For instance, the G string, which is the thickest, holds about 15,000 filaments.
When you look at the twisted filaments under an electron microscope, it becomes obvious why they make such a strong and durable material. The tight method used to twist them transforms their circular cross sections into polygons, which results in a "packing structure" that leaves practically no space between the strands.
Not only does this structure produce a durable string, an important factor for violinists afraid of snapping a string in the middle of a concerto, but it allows a violinist to produce a whole new type of sound.
"Several professional violinists reported that spider strings ... generated a preferable timbre, being able to create a new music," wrote Osaki.
The novel strings won't come cheap for now; It's no easy task to coax spiders into producing the right kind of line for string-making. But Osaki is already working with his spiders to get them to produce the strings in larger numbers and more efficiently. He hopes this will eventually lower the price tag so that even average fiddlers can feel what it's like to slip their fingers up and down strings made by spiders.