The violin is perhaps one of the most recognized musical instruments in the world. Its dulcet tones and its elegant shape make it one of the most prestigious instruments ever made. But how did it get its unique shape and how did that shape evolve over history?
Plant scientist Dan Chitwood was determined to find out. But how does a plant scientist get involved with the evolution of the shape of a musical instrument?
It seems that the shape of plant leaves has a lot in common with the shape of violins. Both are functional and can affect how a plant, or violin, performs. Chitwood also plays violin, which explains his interest.
"Shape is information that can tell us a story," says Chitwood. "Just as evolutionary changes in leaf shape inform us about mechanisms that ultimately determine plant morphology, the analysis of cultural innovations, such as violins, gives us a glimpse into the historical forces shaping our lives and creativity."
Violins, in general, come from 16th century Italy. One of the most famous violin makers of the time, Stradivari, created over 1,000 of the instruments. Those Stradivari violins that survived are among the most collected and valued musical instruments in the world.
Chitwood studied body shapes of more than 9,000 violins, from the first to the most recent, including those with historical value. In addition to Stradivari, Chitwood found three other distinct families of violin makers that still influence modern shapes: Maggini, Amati and Stainer. Modern violins generally take their shapes from one of these four families.
As violin making was a family business, it also stands to reason that violin shapes were similar among family members.
In his results, Chitwood found that violin shapes take their cue from the makers' family backgrounds, their geographical areas and the historical time periods they lived in. However, violin shapes are also influenced by imitations of those makers that were considered masters.
So how does this apply to Chitwood's job as a plant scientist? Because the shapes of things, particularly violins and plants, evolve similarly, Chitwood hopes that he will gain a new understanding of how shape affects function.
"This is a fantastic example of how advances in one field can help advance a seemingly unrelated field," says Chitwood. "I'll be a happy scientist and musician if by understanding violin evolution this helps lead to improved crop plants that are more productive and sustainable."