Does a violin get better with age?

And if so, why?

In a new study, researchers from McGill University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Université de Montréal found that old violin strings lose about two thirds of their original strength with each passing years. This is because the fibers and materials between the strings undergo changes — particularly the strength of the carbon fibers around each string, which are made primarily of carbon dioxide molecules.

“Our study was really focused on the strength of the strings,” explained the study’s senior author, Dr. Alexandre Ciais, a post-doctoral fellow in McGill’s department of Physics and Astronomy. “We wanted to know how long an instrument would continue to play without breaking apart,” he added.

After analyzing the materials of 3,000 violin strings obtained from the Biodiversity and Climate Change (BCC) Centre, the scientists observed three key changes that occur over the course of a violin’s useful lifetime: the gradual loss of strength, changes in the shape of the strings, and the increasing stiffness of the wood around the strings. The researchers observed two changes taking place in the carbon fiber in these strings: the formation of smaller and larger rings of carbon molecules (which are responsible for the violin’s characteristic “v” shape) and the formation of shorter, sparser fibers that make up the strings — both of which have a dramatic effect on the instruments ability to vibrate.

“The fact that the carbon fibers gradually deteriorate as they get older — in between ages — is a significant discovery because that’s a huge loss of strength, as we observed here,” explained Dr. Ciais, who explains that previous studies on carbon fiber had found that the rate of degradation of these fibers was constant; this is because the fibers are completely fixed at each time and space. This new study, however, shows that the rate of degradation varies over a string’s life, possibly due to other factors such as wear, moisture, humidity, or even extreme temperature.

“The key element here is that these fibers change in composition over time, and that makes them much more vulnerable to degradation,” Ciais continues. “For each of these three critical factors, we saw a significant degree of change — from very very small changes, like changes in ring number and fiber type, to very big changes, like the increase in stiffness. In the case of the loss of strength, this makes it easy to imagine the effect it will have on a violin,” Dr. Ciais remarks. He