A cool Sun for cool music?

A cool Sun for cool music?
violin player

We learn about the world by slicing it up into smaller pieces. We study history, geography, math, art, music, science, and lots of other subjects. But to really understand our world, we must reconnect the pieces to see how they all work together.

This is a story about connections. This is a story about how events on the Sun 300 years ago may have affected some of the beautiful music we still hear today.

In the 17th century (1644 to 1737) lived a violin maker named Antonio Stradivari. His workshop was in Cremona, Italy. He made hundreds of violins, many of which are still played today. They are prized for their rich and beautiful sound, especially in the hands of master violinists.

Stradivarius violin

A Stradivarius violin made in Italy about 300 years ago.

No one has since been able to make a violin that sounds quite like a Stradivarius (a violin made by Stradivari). Just how did Stradivari make such wonderful violins? No one knows for sure, but one new idea makes a lot of sense.

Violins are made from wood. The best violins are made from very hard, dense wood. The best wood comes from trees that have grown very slowly, laying down a thin ring of dense new growth each year. Long winters and cool summers make for slow tree growth.

Tree rings shown in cross section cut

Each year of this Douglas Fir tree's life, a new ring of growth was added. (Photo courtesy of H.D. Grissino-Mayer, web.utk.edu/~grissino/.)

During about 1560-1850, which included the time Stradivari made his violins, Europe (including Italy) experienced a "Little Ice Age." It was so cold that normally free-flowing rivers and canals froze over.

Painting of people skating and playing on frozen river

"Sports on a Frozen River," by Dutch painter van der Neer around 1660. Rivers in this area do not freeze now.

Stradivari used the hard, dense wood from the spruce trees growing during this time in a nearby forest to make his violins.

Why so cold?

But why did Europe get so much colder than normal during these years? Only recently did scientists make the connection and figure out the most likely answer.

Astronomers have been studying the Sun for hundreds of years.

Of course, astronomers never look at the sun directly and neither should you!

Using very special dark filters and lenses, they have studied the most obvious feature on the Sun: Sunspots.

Through special DARK filters, sunspots may look like the picture on the left. The sunspot groups are as big as the giant planet Jupiter! On the right is a closeup of some other sunspots. The larger sunspot on the right is bigger than Earth! (Images courtesy SOHO (NASA & ESA) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.)

Sunspots are areas of particularly strong magnetic forces on the Sun's surface. They appear darker than their surroundings because they are cooler. Even so, scientists have discovered that when there are lots of sunspots, the Sun is actually putting out MORE energy than when there are fewer sunspots. Sunspot activity occurs in cycles of about 11 years. But during about 1645 to 1715, hardly any sunspots were seen! From the time sunspot records were first kept until now, such a "solar rest period" has not been seen. It was during this period that Europe experienced the "Little Ice Age." It was during this time that Stradivari came along and made possibly the best violins ever from the slow-growing trees of his chilly era.

Closeup of wood layers in violin

This picture is of made of three overlapping photos. It shows the rings in the spruce tree used to make the most famous Stradivarius violin, the "Messiah." The first row of numbers gives the width of each ring in millimeters (one mm is about the thickness of a fingernail). The bottom row gives the years in which each ring grew. (Photo courtesy of H.D. Grissino-Mayer, web.utk.edu/~grissino/.)

So, that is how the Sun of 300 years ago made beautiful music that we can still hear today!

article last updated March 2, 2017
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