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Blind Listening Tests - Classical Instruments vs Moderns

October 15, 2012 at 5:40 PM


Over the years, many blind listening test have been conducted comparing classical instruments to the instruments of today's best modern violin makers. While the circumstances of these test may vary and some may argue that one method or another has flaws that affect the outcome, the fact remains that time and time again, modern makers are able to hold their own against the best of the classical instruments.

Strad Magazine said "Although similar blind listening tests of violins and cellos are carried out with some regularity, their progress invariably follows a well-trodden and predictable course. The trial compares new against old, ideally including some famous and highly priced classical instruments (the inclusion of a Strad will usually mean mainstream media coverage). The results show that new instruments stand up very well and often outscore their older, more expensive counterparts. The test is then discredited and dismissed as meaningless by the experts." - August 2010

The experts consulted are most often dealers who specialize in selling classical instruments. They just might have a little conflict of interest in saying that the older instruments are superior and therefore worth the premium price as it is a big part of their market and profits.

We invite you to judge for yourself. Here are some examples of the numerous studies that have been done over the past 35+ years. Regardless of the expert's opinions, every study seems to conclude that the best modern makers are producing instruments virtually indistinguishable from classicals.

BBC Study 1975
One of the most famous blind-tests was carried out by the BBC in 1975. In a recording studio, a Stradivarius, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill (a modern violin at the time) were played for Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, and Charles Beare. At the end, none of these three could tell which violin was which. Two of them couldn't even tell which was their own instrument. - source - Strings.uk - Jan 2012

Cello Test 1990
A trial took place at the Fourth American Cello Congress in 1990. An audience of about 140 musicians judged the sound of 12 cellos: six new and six old (a Gagliano, two Gofrillers, a Montagnana, a Stradivari and a Tecchler). The player was blindfolded and a linen screen used to hide the cellos from the audience. Instruments were only identified as new or old and the top-scoring cello was found to be old with the second, third, fourth and fifth places going to new cellos. As a group, the modern cellos earned higher scores than the older ones. source - The Strad.com - Aug 2010

Texas A&M Study 2003
In 2003 a modern violin was tested in a duel with the Leonardo da Vinci Strad of 1725 Both violins were played in each of four selections of music by violinist Dalibor Karvay behind a screen to an audience attended by trained musicians and regular concert goers. 57 picked the Strad, 129 were not sure, and 290 picked the modern instrument over the Strad. source - Wikipedia & Strings.uk - Jan 2012

Swedish Trial 2006
Another example is the 2006 trial in Sweden. In this case, violins made by three modern Swedish violin makers were compared to a Stradivari, a Gagliano and a Guadagnini. All six instruments were played by two professional players and the sound judged and scored by an audience mostly comprising members of the European String Teacher's Association. A modern violin obtained the highest score. source - The Strad.com - August 2012

Schwarze 2009 Study
Trying to prove that fungus allowed work on the wood could produce violins with virtually identical sound to a Strad, Professor Swarze together with the modern violin makers Martin Schleske and Michael Rhonheimer, developed violins made of mycowood (wood treated with wood decay fungi). In 2009 the violins were played in a blind, behind-the-curtain test versus a genuine Stradivarius from 1711. All the violins were played by the British violinist Matthew Trusler. The result was surprising for all participants: Both the jury of experts and the majority of the audience thought that the mycowood violin that Schwarze had treated with fungi for nine months was the actual Strad. - source - Science Daily - Sept 2012

Indianapolis 2010 Study
Many people have read about the most recent blind violin study that was conducted at the International Violin Competition in 2010, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and in The Strad Jan 2012 In that study, 3 modern instruments - chosen from among the top modern makers in the world today; and 3 classical instruments, including two Strads and one Guarneri del Gesù were played by numerous accomplished musicians and the results of their preferences were recorded. They found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument's age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old. source -PNAS- Dec 2011

Conclusion
Kai-Thomas Roth, secretary of the British Violin Making Association, said that double blind tests, where neither experimenter nor musician knows which violin is played, had already shown people cannot distinguish a modern violin from a priceless work of art.

"There's some myth-making that helps old instruments," Thomas Roth said. "If you give someone a Stradivari and it doesn't work for them, they'll blame themselves and work hard at it until it works.

"Give them a modern violin, and they'll dismiss the instrument straight away if it doesn't work for them. That's the psychology at work." - source - Guardian.uk - Jan 2012

With skyrocketing costs putting classical instruments out of the reach of most musicians, it is beneficial to know that some modern makers are making instruments that are virtually indistinguishable from classicals in a price range affordable to a modern symphony player.

Click here to see an acoustic spectrum analysis of a Borman vs a Strad to see more evidence that a skilled modern violin maker can produce instruments virtually identical to the best classical instruments out there.


From Benedict Gomez
Posted on October 15, 2012 at 10:32 PM
This is one of my favorite (if not favorite) violin subjects, and I am completely on the side of the opinion this blog supports.

The problem, however, is that all of these studies as constructed while interesting and certainly informative, were actually pretty crappy (technical term) and had low 'Ns".

A properly run, scientific, double-blind study, with enough significant data, could be run on this subject for a very modest sum of money. It would be easy. So easy, in fact, that I have my own reasons for speculating as to why it has never happened, but I'll leave that opinion for the Roswell, Grassy Knoll, and similar-such conspiracy theories.

From Rafael Mendez
Posted on October 16, 2012 at 12:57 AM
Boris Schwars in his book Great Masters of the Violin mentioned that Ruggiero Ricci recorded with 15 different Cremona violins for 15 different violin compositions and essentially they all sounded like...Ricci!
He says that his personal tone production erased the differences.
I had never listen to these recordings but given the fact that the fidelity is not what we can expect from a contemporary recording, it still left you wondering.
In most of these tests the violins were played by the same musician.
What really strikes me is the test were competent violinist couldn´t tell the difference. I firmly believe that contemporary luthiers can produce same or better sound than a cremonese violins.
I proudly owned an ex-Menuhin Nayivary built in 1985 and the sounds is something extraordinary. One of these Nayivary was used against the DaVinciin one of the test that you mentioned.
A couple of years ago Mr. Laslo Paps, played in town with the Orchestra of the Americas and used my violin for half a concert with only a few minutes of practice before the event. It tells a lot about the quality of the violin and the dexterity and courage of Mr. Paps to play on an unknown and unpractice violin for a concert.
I am an amateur violinist, better describe myself as an enthusiast but I do subscribe to the theory that today´s luthier can produce cremonese quality instruments.

From Nirmal Madhavapeddi
Posted on October 16, 2012 at 3:04 AM
The improvement of tools over time alone ensures that a luthier even half as good as Stradivari would be able to produce a violin just as good. And how likely is it that there have been no such luthiers in the last three hundred years? The belief that Stradivarius instruments are somehow magically better than all others is pure confirmation bias. Strad magazine nailed it (ironic, because the magazine's name is...).
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 16, 2012 at 2:56 PM
Speaking as a statistician:
1) the mycowood study didn't have a control, i.e., a new violin by the same luthier that wasn't made of
mycowood. This omission is obvious given the
results of the other studies mentioned.

2) I don't see how a decent double-blind study
could be designed, given the extra difficulty
everyone mentions as being inherent in playing these old instruments without a lot of practice.

From Gareth THOMAS
Posted on October 17, 2012 at 6:36 PM
"Ruggiero Ricci recorded with 15 different Cremona violins for 15 different violin compositions and essentially they all sounded like...Ricci!
He says that his personal tone production erased the differences"

That is complete nonsense.
As it was one of my favourite records as a kid, I used to spend hours listening to it, with the fascinating nuances you could hear....and that was VINYL for goodness sake.
Are you seriously suggesting you can't hear the difference between a Niccolo Amati, a Gasparo de Salo or a Guarnerius??

I certainly can!

I've played many old Italian fiddles and modern ones.
I reckon most musicians must really be deaf
+
Some instruments reckoned to be brilliant were so horribly set up, they were virtually unplayable.

I would certainly be able to hear the difference between a strad and a modern.

One of the very few golden rules.
Very few people seem to have decent hearing, and when they do they rarely get paid or the respect they deserve!

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on October 18, 2012 at 11:06 AM
I would tend to agree that among other factors, today's tools, workshop illumination, and sound analysis equipment should allow a talented and motivated luthier of this era to produce an instrument as well-built as a Strad or a Guarneri of more than three centuries ago.

Certainly, Stradivari will always be the genius who perfected the violin through his own R&D, but today's luthiers now have his example to follow!

From Wayne Rogers
Posted on October 22, 2012 at 5:48 PM
The recording RICCI, Ruggiero: Legacy of Cremona (The) - Ruggiero Ricci plays 18 Contemporary Violins is available on Naxos Music Library so it is very accessible. An electronic booklet is also included which has details and photographs of all the violins tested. A cadenza selection from the second movement of the Beethoven Concerto is used on all the violins. It is fascinating hearing the differences between the violins and I now have some new favorite makers to explore...and maybe play someday. Doesn't compare them with old violins though.
I also love the Ehnes Homage video /recording with violins and violas from the Fulton collection. These violins are way out of my league, I just consider them violin porn.

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