So much for conventional wisdom: Do Stradivarius Violins really sound better?

Hmmm….

it appears that concert violinists cannot tell from the sound alone whether they are playing a 300-year-old Stradivarius or an instrument made last week. And, for playing quality alone, the virtuoso will opt for the modern one when asked which fiddle they would like to take home.

These discordant findings emerge from experiments by Claudia Fritz, a researcher at the University of Paris, at an international violin competition in Indianapolis in 2010. She asked 21 musicians to play six different violins, three modern instruments and three by Italian maestros – one made by Guarneri del Gesu around 1740, and two made in Antonio Stradivari’s workshop around 1700.

The plot thickens further.

The researchers could find no link between the age and value of the violins and how they were rated by the violinists. The three old instruments had a combined value of $10m, a hundred times that of the modern violins. “They are beautiful instruments, but the prices are insane,” Fritz said. “The old versus new issue doesn’t make any sense.

“It doesn’t matter if the violin’s old or new, all that matters is whether it’s a good violin or a bad violin. Many modern violin makers are doing a great job.” One shortcoming of the study was that the violinists were asked to rate a particular instrument’s projection, how well its sound travels, themselves. Another was that only a few violins were tested.

But, as the researchers note, this latter was perhaps unavoidable. “Numbers of subjects and instruments were small because it is difficult to persuade the owners of fragile, enormously valuable old violins to release them for extended periods into the hands of blindfolded strangers.”

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 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.

So much for conventional wisdom.

Since this is a post about violins, a short violin solo by Anastasia Khitruck.

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Comments
  • FasterCat January 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    The article makes no mention whether or not the test subjects had ever knowingly heard or played a Strad. Without that experience, of course no distinction could be made.

    • steve January 10, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      I think they did play a two Strad’s and a Guarneri del Gesu (just as rare) and three fine hand made modern violins:

      She asked 21 musicians to play six different violins, three modern instruments and three by Italian maestros – one made by Guarneri del Gesu around 1740, and two made in Antonio Stradivari’s workshop around 1700.

      You are correct, if the musicians don’t play the instruments, it would be tough to tell the difference.