Musical Acoustics Research Library Collection open to research

Image from the 18th century Lutherie (L'Encyclopédie by Diderot and D'Alembert),
Arthur Benade Papers, Series 3 in Musical Acoustics Research Library (MARL) collection, M1711.

Many are familiar with the mystique surrounding the famous Cremona violins from the sixteenth century. The names Amati, Stradivarius, and Guarneri evoke instant awe and fascination. We need only think of the movie The Red Violin (1998), which tells the story of a Cremonese violin with an unusual reddish hue and an inimitable, rich sound that captivates everyone who hears it. This fictional instrument has a secret history: while working on the instrument, the maker’s young wife died, and to immortalize her the grief-stricken luthier had finished the violin with a mixture of varnish and his wife’s blood. Only he knows that the violin’s poignant sound is that of his wife’s voice soaring into eternity.

Such stories make good plots, but they do not explain what makes a good violin. However, for decades now acousticians and instrument builders have been providing hard scientific data on how musical instruments produce sound and what affects the quality of that sound. One of the most important, comprehensive repositories of such information is the Musical Acoustics Research Library (MARL) collection at the Stanford University Libraries. At the core of this collection are the extensive research files compiled by the Catgut Acoustical Society (CAS), which was founded by the creator of the New Violin Octet family, Carleen M. Hutchins. In 1992 CAS transferred its collection to Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Renamed the Musical Acoustics Research Library in 1996, this archive has a three-pronged mission: to promote the study of musical acoustics, preserve and further the research on the Hutchins’s Violin Octet, and grow the collection with the acquisition of materials from other important sources. Among these are the papers of three prominent twentieth-century wind instrument acousticians: Arthur Benade, John Backus, and John W. Coltman.

Acoustician Arthur Benade (1925-1987), winner of the Silver and Gold Medals from the Acoustical Society of America. Photograph by Herbert Ascherman Jr.

The Stanford University Libraries are grateful to Arthur Benade’s widow, Virginia Benade, for generously donating additional materials between 2009 and 2011 that doubled the size of the collection from its original 30 linear feet to its present 60 linear feet. These new materials include Benade’s research on a wide range of topics extending far beyond the study of wind instruments proper to include the acoustic properties of a performer’s mouth cavity, throat, and lungs; the sound patterns that emerge from the open holes and bells of instruments and the feedback sound a space returns to an instrument; the perception of hearing; and, finally, room acoustics and the successful design of concert halls.
- Andrea Castillo

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