Another blind violin test done at Indy competition

January 4, 2012 at 06:02 PM · Nicholas Wade, The New York Times

What gives a violin made by Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu its remarkable sound? Researchers have examined the wood preservatives, varnish, even the density of wood for anything that might explain the instruments’ almost magical properties.

Claudia Fritz, an expert on the acoustics of violins at the University of Paris, has arrived at a different explanation for the secret. Despite a widespread belief in the old violins’ superiority and the millions of dollars it now costs to buy a Stradivarius, the fiddles made by the old masters do not in fact sound better than high-quality modern instruments, according to a blindfolded playoff she and colleagues have conducted.

“I don’t think there is any secret, except in people’s minds,” she said.

Many tests have been conducted in which an audience tries, usually unsuccessfully, to guess whether a violinist behind a screen is playing a new instrument or an old master. But Fritz said that to her knowledge, no one had conducted a well-controlled study putting the same question to the real experts: violinists.

She corralled violinists attending an international competition in Indianapolis and had them compare three high-quality modern violins with a Guarneri and two Stradivari instruments.

In one test, the violinists were allowed to play all six violins and asked to choose which they would most like to take home. The musicians wore goggles so they couldn’t identify the violins. In another test, they were required to compare a pair of violins, without being told that one was a classic and the other a new instrument.

Despite a general belief among violinists that Stradivari and Guarneri violins are tonally superior, the participants in Fritz’s test could not reliably distinguish such instruments from modern violins. Only eight of the 21subjects chose an old violin as the one they’d like to take home. In the old-to-new comparison, a Stradivari-us came in last and a new violin as the most preferred.

Found this in the Dallas Paper this morning

Replies (6)

January 4, 2012 at 06:05 PM · Believe it or not, I was actually in the study, testing those violins! It was kind of like what I'd imagine a wine-tasting contest would be, in the dark, with 12 wines. By the end I couldn't tell what end was up, much less what was modern and what was not! Also, they weren't all Strads, I think, I was under the impression there were other old Italians in there. And, some were really high quality Strads and others totally weren't. Most of us know that some Strads are highly valuable and wonderful to play, whereas others are highly valuable (as antiques) but very finicky and difficult to play.

Crazy!

Interestingly, the audience chose the sound of the Strads over moderns 3/4 of the time.

I'm waiting to actually see the results of the study before I'll write a blog about it. (This doesn't stop other media outlets I guess!)

January 4, 2012 at 06:26 PM · "Only eight of the 21subjects chose an old violin as the one they’d like to take home."

Was the thest to pick the best sounding violin under the ear, the easiest to play, or the oldest one? :)

January 4, 2012 at 07:41 PM · Well, they asked us to pick which one we thought was the old Italian, and if I remember (it's been more than a year) they also asked us which one we liked better.

Considering the vast differences between all violins, new and old, I think that just about the only thing you could conclude would be that people like what they like. There are old violins that have beautiful warm tones, or old violins that project well. There are new violins that do the same. There are old violins, including Strads, that are just plain difficult, and new violins also that are difficult. There are old violins that play like a charm, there are new violins that play like a charm.

So if a violinist can't tell in a blind test what is new and what is old, does it really matter? The old violins have added value by virtue of the fact that they are limited edition works of art -- limited by the fact that the maker -- or call the luthier an artist (which I believe the good ones are) -- can make no more of them. They are not valued at $5 million because of the way they sound, though many of them are truly amazing and magical.

January 4, 2012 at 08:06 PM · Laurie,

The test results have just been published in the PNAS Journal. Online access to it costs $10 for two days access. Download both the article and the SI Text if you want to archive the article and the appendix. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/01/02/1114999109.full.pdf+html

I hope the link works.

Anders

January 4, 2012 at 08:11 PM · Laurie: Good post! :D

January 5, 2012 at 12:03 PM · Were there any Chinese violins in the mix?

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