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May 19, 2014

A Stradivarius? Eminent Violinists Can't Distinguish Them From Modern Instruments


Below, excerpts from Pam Belluck's April 7 New York Times story.

Above, violinist Stéphane Tran Ngoc tested one of the instruments during the study in Paris.


It's a foregone conclusion in the violin world: The best violins were made 300 years ago by Italian masters like Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù.

Sure, there are excellent modern violins, but convention has it that the sound of a $50,000 modern instrument cannot compare to the magic of a Stradivarius worth millions.

Researchers looking into this belief beg to differ. In a new study, they report that internationally accomplished violinists could not distinguish between old and new in a blind playoff, and that many chose a new instrument as their favorite.

"There's this caricature that new violins are too loud, too ear-piercing," said Claudia Fritz, a musical acoustics researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, who led the study. “This study shows that there is no truth behind it.”

Dr. Fritz, a flutist, added: "People say, 'Why do you want to destroy the Strad?' That is not true. I actually think it’s a beautiful instrument. I just want that young soloists can make a career without having an old instrument. You can play amazingly well without having a Strad."

Dr. Fritz and a team including a modern violin maker, Joseph Curtin, began their new-versus-old research in 2010, asking 21 players at an international competition in Indiana to put on goggles that obscured their vision, and try three new violins and three old. Thirteen chose a new violin as their favorite; the least favorite of the six was a Stradivarius, researchers reported.

The results struck some in the string world with the dissonance of a John Cage chord plunked into a Scarlatti sonata. Violinists complained of unrealistic testing conditions — for instance, that the violins were played in a hotel room.

For the new study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, many improvements were made. There were 12 instruments, six old and six new, with new ones "antiqued" to appear older. The violinists, 10 professional soloists, had more time: 75 minutes in a rehearsal room and 75 minutes in a 300-seat concert hall, both in Paris. They used their own bows, compared the test violins with their own, and could choose to have a listener provide feedback, and to have a piano accompanist. At one point, an orchestra accompanied them; the results of that segment will be published in a later study.

Six soloists chose a new violin for a theoretical concert tour. One particular new violin, with a loud, assertive sound, was favored by four, perhaps because as soloists, they thought about projecting sound over an orchestra, researchers said. The soloists rated new violins higher, on average, for playability, articulation and projection. And their guesses of which violins were new or old were no better than chance.

"The qualities that they’re looking for in the instrument really divide pretty equally in this batch of new or old," Mr. Curtin said.

Still, several violinists, including study participants, said it would be simplistic to conclude that new can equal old.

Yi-Jia Susanne Hou of Canada picked a new violin for most of the study. Still, she said she preferred old ones because they "resonate with the sound of each player" over the centuries. "I would absolutely buy a new instrument, but for a later generation. They need to be broken in."

Elmar Oliveira picked a new violin, convinced it was a Stradivarius. Although he champions modern luthiers and regularly performs on a $10,000 modern violin, he said, "the one thing that you cannot put into a new violin is that it's been played for 300 years — these instruments change and develop."

But Giora Schmidt, another study participant, said the freshness of new violins was precisely their appeal. "Older instruments can sometimes sound tired just by the sheer number of years they’ve been played," he said. With a new violin, "you can put your thumbprint on it immediately because it doesn’t have those layers. It's a brand-new car. It's zippy."

Earl Carlyss, a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet, said subjectivity and individuality were key. "It isn't just the instrument, it's the player," he said. "If you're comfortable with an instrument, automatically it's a plus, and the newer instruments, they respond easily."

Nonetheless, he said, "I don’t know any great soloist who has a Strad or Guarneri who is trading it in for a new instrument."


Below, the abstract of the scientific paper cited above.


Many researchers have sought explanations for the purported tonal superiority of Old Italian violins by investigating varnish and wood properties, plate tuning systems, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has been investigated scientifically only once very recently, and results showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old. The study was, however, relatively small in terms of the number of violins tested (six), the time allotted to each player (an hour), and the size of the test space (a hotel room). In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.


Below, the significance of the study as summarized by its authors.


Some studies open new fields for investigation; this study attempts to close a perennially fruitless one—the search for the "secrets of Stradivari." Great efforts have been made to explain why instruments by Stradivari and other Old Italian makers sound better than high-quality new violins, but without providing scientific evidence that this is in fact the case. Doing so requires that experienced violinists demonstrate (under double-blind conditions) both a general preference for Old Italian violins and the ability to reliably distinguish them from new ones. The current study, the second of its kind, again shows that first-rate soloists tend to prefer new instruments and are unable to distinguish old from new at better than chance levels.

May 19, 2014 at 08:01 PM | Permalink


Interesting fiddle:

Posted by: Flautist | May 21, 2014 1:38:23 AM

Its funny, I spent much of last year and several thousand miles with the ex traveling to source an instrument that was supposedly by one of the apprentices of the Strad family that decided to move on to making their own name with a different type of an instrument. In the end, one guy was able to tell that it was a forgery that was 'only' 200 years old simply by knocking on the back and noting that it was designed to play to a 'French Overtone Series' as opposed to an Italian one.

It was a forgery that was intended to look just like the Strad and was aged 200 years ago with different techniques to ensure that it wouldn't be detected. The worst part about it is that it was actually made better than the manufacturer of note and when looking through the F Holes with tools that weren't available when it was designed, you can see that there are techniques that make it better (i.e., it used a laminate process that wasn't available until the 1800s). In the end, the ex low-balled the offer knowing it was a 'fake' instead of buying it for what it sounded like and has been kicking herself since then.

The one thing that older instruments have than newer ones don't? You know exactly how it is going to sound in 20 years. It isn't going to continue to 'grow'. It is going to pretty much play and feel and sound exactly as it does the day you get it. With a newer instrument, it might sound better, but will it sound better next year? And how will the resale value be?

Posted by: Clifton J Marsupiak | May 20, 2014 1:44:01 PM

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