Daily Bow: Could Gut Strings Be Deadly?

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Production of Gut Strings, Period Performance Practice Threatened by Mad Cow Disease Regualations

The practice of using metal strings is a fairly recent trend. A century ago, musicians were still playing on gut strings, although these were more advanced than strings on medieval instruments. The ancestors of the violin used beef gut as the core of the string and were strung at a far lower tension than today’s resilient synthetic counterparts. As a result, the gut strings sounded much more mellow, giving the instrument a more folky quality. Modern strings are designed for maximum power, vaulting a soloist’s tone over an orchestra into the cheap seats in the back of the hall.

In Baroque music, however, the gut sound is essential to a proper period instrument performance. Thus the cause for worry this week in the EU, where the production of gut strings has been threatened by a series of regulations which limit the use of certain types of animal tissue. Government officials enacted the regulations in order to defend the public against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, but have unknowingly put Baroque music ensembles in a difficult position.

Defenders of the gut string industry warn that it would be impossible to perform the music of Bach, Handel, and countless other composers without the proper equipment. String makers also note that mad cow disease could be contracted from their product only if someone ate several meters of string.

So what’s your take? Do strings made from beef gut pose a threat to instrumentalists? Is the fate of Baroque music in the EU in serious danger? Comment below!

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2 Responses to Daily Bow: Could Gut Strings Be Deadly?

  1. Brianna Richardson November 30, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    Would gut strings made from other animals be as effective? Could, say, sheep gut provide a similar sound quality? Why did musicians select beef gut for strings originally? In the rise of such threats to the Baroque music scene, it seems that it would be prudent to explore alternative options that would still offer the desired qualities.

  2. Colin Cronin November 30, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    What is interesting is that traditionally I believe sheep or goat gut were used more than beef gut. And since the EU’s response only covers beef, these others could still be used. However, it is worth noting that there is an equivalent of Mad Cow/Creutzfeldt-Jakob in sheep called Scrapie. For goats I don’t believe there is one, although I remember hearing speculation of a disease found in goats a couple years back that was feared to be the first case of this in that animal. I never did hear what their conclusion was on that.

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