Vibrating qualities of spiders’ silk exploited in prototype violin to create new sound

A violin made from a composite material that includes spiders’ silk, which enables its acoustics to be customised, has been developed at Imperial College London.

Spiders’ silk is strong and elastic. When a creature is caught in a web and is struggling to get free the web resonates or vibrates, sending the spider a message that it needs to swiftly scuttle across the web and make a meal out of its prey.

Now, Luca Alessandrini, a postgraduate from the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial, has developed a composite material and made a prototype violin, which exploits the resonating properties of spiders’ silk.  He impregnated the violin’s top side with three strands of golden silk, spun by an Australian Golden Orb Spider.

When played, the spiders’ silk vibrates the violin’s composite casing, which is emitted as sound. In the musical world this phenomenon is called propagation velocity. Instrument makers spend their entire lives experimenting with different types of wood and alternative materials such as carbon fibre to exploit this phenomenon in order to improve or vary the acoustic properties of instruments.

The composite material also consists of silk and a binding agent. The different fibres combined with the method of mixing them together enables Alessandrini to engineer the propagation velocity in his composite material. The advantage of this is that the acoustics of any musical instruments could be customised, depending on the sound that is required.

This approach to making composite material with customisable acoustics could also be applied to the manufacturing process of other products such as speakers, amplifiers and headphones.

Alessandrini said: “The amazing properties of spider’s silk mean that it serves many purposes. It’s a home, a net for catching food and a means of communicating - via vibrations - when prey is ready to be pounced on and devoured. Spiders’ silk has only previously been exploited as string in bows for instruments, but I’ve discovered that the amazing resonating property of spiders’ silk has massive potential uses in instruments themselves.”

Alessandrini developed his prototype violin in conjunction with the Associazione Nazionale Liutai Artistici Italiani, one of the world’s most influential violin making associations. Its founder, Gualtiero Nicolini, put him in contact with 20 of the world’s leading violin makers and musical instrument repairers called luthiers in the City of Cremona, Italy. Home to more than 400 instrument makers, Cremona is the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), creator of the world-famous Stradivarius violin.

Alessandrini has also showcased the violin to Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a Grammy nominated violinist and Viotti Lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Sheppard Skaerved said: “I have been working with great violinists my entire career and I have been in discussions with makers and players about the limited capabilities of other manmade materials such as carbon fibre. These have not seemed to offer the organic subtleties of wood. My encounter with the prototype instrument developed by Luca has filled me with excitement. This approach offers a tremendous opportunity to move forward instrument making, using new materials in a way I have long hoped.”

The Golden Orb spiders’ silk was sourced from Professor Fritz Vollarth, from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University. One of the main reasons for choosing this silk is that it is one of the strongest in the world.

The technology was patented in June 2016. The next steps will see Alessandrini using more sophisticated technologies and modelling processes in the manufacturing process. He is also establishing a start-up business and is looking for partners. He predicts the technology will be in the marketplace by approximately 2017.

Alessandrini is a postgraduate who is doing a Masters course in Innovation Design Engineering, which is run jointly by Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art.

The violin will go on exhibit at the Imperial Final Show 2016, 6 July 2016; ShowRCA, 26 June to 3 July and the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, 4 July to 10 July 2016.

Luca's Violin made from composite material that includes spiders’ silk
Luca's Violin made from a composite material that includes spiders’ silk

Luca Alessandrini, a postgraduate from the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London
Luca Alessandrini, a postgraduate from the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London