The Barberini Harp Wood Species: The Biology of Sound

Volker Haag

Synopsis: The Thünen-Institut’s Institut für Holzforschung (Institute of Wood Research) in Hamburg has one of the largest collections of wood samples in the world. Invited by Harfenlabor to determine the wood species used in the construction of the Barberini Harp, the institute prepared and organised the examination of the harp in the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Roma, in 2018, and in February 2019 submitted its findings to Harfenlabor. Harfenlabor interviewed one of the Thünen wood scientists, Volker Haag, in his office, in order to better understand the application of wood science in the construction of historical harps, in particular, the Barberini Harp. Haag demonstrates the methods deployed by wood science in analysing anatomical features of wood in order to determine which species it belongs to: analysing the annual growth rings, the vessel size (distinctions include ring-porous, diffuse-porous, semi-ring porous). This type of analysis is still part of macroscopic examination; in order to obtain a more reliable set of distinguishing features, wood science resorts to supplementing macroscopic with microscopic examinations. Haag was able to use samples left over from a previous study, and collect a tiny sliver of a splinter from a damaged sound hole, which was then fixated and cut into cross-sections. Under the magnification, features known as wood rays, tyloses, and other become visible, allowing Haag to reduce the possible finding to two choices: walnut and Castanopsis. The final conclusion is that the column and the neck of the Barberini Harp have both been made in walnut, confirming the Thünen team’s initial findings in Roma. Haag believes the tree was cut in southern Europe. When it comes to dating the wood used for building an instrument, matters become more complex and less reliable. In general, according to Haag, although builders such as Stradivari might have used 100-year-old wood, tone wood can be used after about 30 years. Haag’s examinations of the Barberini Harp uncovered some unexpected findings, such as for example, the cut of wood used to construct the soundboard. Haag explains that for tone wood to achieve the best possible sound transmission, it is important to cut it and align in a certain way. Examination of the soundboard and the soundbox confirmed that those were made of fir. Finally, Haag explains the meeting of physics and biology behind good tone wood.


In 2018, Harfenlabor asked the Institut für Holzforschung at the Thünen-Institut (Hamburg) to, for the first time ever, examine the wood on the Barberini Harp’s column and other parts (some of which have been examined using different methods) using new non-invasive methodology, and identify the wood species used in the construction of the instrument. On 16-18 December, 2018, wood scientists Volker Haag and Valentina Zemke carried out anatomical determination of structural features on the harp, at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Roma. Following their report, Harfenlabor interviewed Haag in Hamburg, in November 2019, in order to better understand the science and the processes involved in both identifying wood species used in the construction of historical instruments, and to understand the biology behind properties that make certain woods more suitable as tone woods than others.

With the generous support of the Thünen-Institut and Studio Armin Linke.

© Armin Linke / Harfenlabor 2022
All rights reserved

Cite:&&Volker Haag, <i>The Barberini Harp Wood Species: The Biology of Sound</i>, Barberini Harp Project / Interviews, by Studio Armin Linke /, May 6, 2022, Harfenlabor, MP4, 26:03,