Shigeyoshi Osaki, a researcher at Japan’s Nara Medical University, has used thousands of strands of spider silk to create violin strings.
Osaki has studied spider silk for 35 years. And he heard something 10 years ago that narrowed his focus.
“I was impressed by the beautiful tone from the violin when I heard the music of the violin in the church,” Osaki said. “I have never forgotten that tone since.”
His love of music, combined with his expertise in spider silk, led to his use of dragline silk, which is the silk from which spiders hang, to create violin strings.
Using more than 500 spiders, Osaki pulled the dragline from the abdomen of the spiders and spun them together to make the strings. He estimates that he used about 0.6 grams of silk for each string.
He has created about 20 strings from spider silk. But beyond expertise and practice, he took a less traditional approach to understand truly how violin strings work.
“I failed many times in making strings,” he said. “Then, I decided to go to school for the lesson of the violin. I thought it was necessary to know the use of the violin strings. If I could understand a method for using strings as a result of playing the violin, I thought that I might prepare mechanically strong strings.”
Osaki, a professor of polymer chemistry, used the silk of a particular kind of spider – the nephila maculata – to create the strings.
The nephila maculata spider is more commonly known as the “giant wood spider” and is part of the “golden orb-weaver” family, according to Leslie Brunetta, co-author of “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating” (2010).
Full-grown nephila maculata are 5 to 7 inches long and one of the largest spiders in Japan.
Osaki kept the group of 500 spiders in the garden of Nara Medical University but there were challenges along the way. “Spiders on the orb-web are often attacked by birds,” he said. “So nets were necessary.”
Spider silk, especially dragline silk, is notably sturdy, Brunetta said. “Dragline silk, for its weight, is stronger than steel,” she said. “If you could spin a thread of steel of the same thickness as the silk, the silk would be stronger.”
Strength is one of the main reasons Osaki chose to use dragline silk.
“The breaking strength of the spider strings was stronger than the nylon-core strings,” he said. “Especially, I found that the spider silk strings have a unique structure with no openings among filaments. Such a unique structure will be able to provide the mechanically strong strings.”
And there are other advantages to the spider-silk strings, beyond their sturdiness.
“It’s not only strong, it’s biodegradable,” Brunetta said. “To make steel, you’re dealing with extremely high temperatures, very energy-intensive manufacturing processes, sometimes with fairly toxic solvents and high pressures, whereas spiders are just making their silk naturally.”
Many musicians have tested the spider silk strings and enjoyed its unique tone.
In addition, “several professional violinists evaluated that the timbre of the common violin using spider strings was in no way inferior to that of the violin…using conventional strings,” he said.
The next goal, Osaki said, will be to create enough strings to hold an entire concert using only spider strings.