Violinists can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and new ones

By Ed Yong | January 2, 2012 3:00 pm

Antique Italian violins, such as those crafted by Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu”, can fetch millions of dollars.  Many violinists truly believe that these instruments are better than newly made violins, and several scientists have tried to work out why. Some suspected at the unusually dense wood, harvested from Alpine spruces that grew during an Ice Age. Others pointed the finger at the varnish, or the chemicals that Stradivari used to treat the wood.

But Claudia Fritz (a scientist who studies instrument acoustics) and Joseph Curtin (a violin-maker) may have discovered the real secret to a Stradivarius’s sound: nothing at all.

The duo asked professional violinists to play new violins, and old ones by Stradivari and Guarneri. They couldn’t tell the difference between the two groups. One of the new violins even emerged as the most commonly preferred instrument.

Ever since the early 19th century, many tests have questioned the alleged superiority of the old Italian violins. Time and again, listeners have failed to distinguish between the sound of the old and new instruments. But critics have been quick to pick holes in these studies. In most cases, the listeners weren’t experts, and the players and researchers knew which violin was which – a flaw that could have biased the results.

What’s more, no one has tested whether violinists themselves can truly pick up the supposedly distinctive sound of a Strad. The common wisdom is that they can, but Fritz and Curtin showed that this isn’t true. “Many people were convinced that as soon as you play an old violin, you can feel that it’s old, it’s been played a lot, and it has a special sound quality,” says Fritz. “People who took part in the experiment said it was the experience of a lifetime when we told them the results. They were fully convinced they could tell the difference, and they couldn’t.”

During the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis – one of the world’s most important competitions – Fritz and Curtin persuaded six violinists to part with their instruments. Three of the violins were new; one was made a few days before. The other three had illustrious, centuries-long histories. Two were made by Stradivari and the other by Guarneri. One of the Stradivari, denoted “O1”, currently belongs to an institution, and is loaned to only the most gifted players. All three have featured in concerts and recordings, bowed by famous violinists. Their combined value is around 10 million US dollars, a hundred times more than the three new ones.

Curtin’s influence was essential in persuading people to give up such prized, fragile possessions, especially to be played by blindfolded strangers. “Joseph is a well-known person in the community and people trust him,” says Fritz. “That’s why we managed to do the study: the combination of me as the scientist and him as the violin-maker.”

Back in the lab, Fritz and Curtin asked 21 professional volunteers to play the six violins. They had played for anywhere from 15 to 61 years, and some of them were even involved in the competition as contestants and judges. They played the instruments in a dimly lit hotel room chosen for relatively dry acoustics.

The test was a true “double-blind” one, as neither the players nor the people who gave them the violins had any way of knowing which instrument was which. The room was dimly lit. The players were wearing goggles so they couldn’t see properly. The instruments had dabs of perfume on the chinrests that blocked out any distinctive smells. And even though Fritz and Curtin knew which the identities of the six violins, they only passed the instruments to the players via other researchers, who were hidden by screens, wearing their own goggles, and quite literally in the dark.

First, the players were given random pairs of violins. They played each instrument for a minute, and said which they preferred. Unbeknownst to them, each pair contained an old violin and a new one. For the most part, there was nothing to separate the two, and the players preferred the new instrument as often as the old one. There was one exception: O1, the Stradivarius with the most illustrious history, was chosen far less often than any of the three new violins.

Next, Fritz and Curtin gave the recruits a more natural task. They saw all six violins, laid out in random order on a bed. They had 20 minutes to play any violin against any other and to choose the one they’d most like to take home. They also picked the best and worst instruments in terms of four qualities: range of tone colours; projection; playability; and response.

This time, a clear favourite emerged. The players chose one of the new violins (“N2”) as their take-home instrument most often, and it topped the rankings for all four qualities. As before, O1 received the most severe rejections. Overall, just 38 percent of the players (8 out of 21) chose to take an old violin home, and most couldn’t tell if their instrument was old or new. As Fritz and Curtin write, this “stands as a bracing counterexample to conventional wisdom.”

There are some issues with the study. Curtin, being a maker of new violins, has an obvious bias, but the double-blind design should have prevented that from affecting the results. The sample size – six violins and 21 players – is fairly small, but as large as can be expected when dealing with rare and incredibly expensive objects. There might also other variables that could affect the players’ perceptions – perhaps, for example, they might feel differently in rooms with different acoustics.

Fritz expects scepticism. She says, “It might help to change people’s mentality, but quite slowly. It’s a very conservative community. We’ll probably get critics saying we didn’t take this or that into account, but obviously, it was the same for the new violins too.” She adds, “Modern makers should be very happy, and we hope that it’ll help them to promote their violins. It shows that they’re doing a great job and their violins are on a par with the old ones.”

Perhaps the esteem that’s placed on Stradivarius violins is less about the triumph to age-old craftsmanship, and more a testament to our ability to delude ourselves. This ability has come out in other areas. Take wine, another product where certain specimens fetch critical acclaim and exorbitant prices on the basis of superior quality. And yet, study after study has shown that expensive wines taste the same as cheap plonk when you test people under double-blind conditions. The imagined link between price and quality is a delusion but, as Jonah Lehrer skilfully argues, it can be a pleasant one.

The same could be said of violins. The joy of owning and playing a Stradivarius comes not from any objective advantage in its sound, but simply from the knowledge that it is a Stradivarius. Never mind what it sounds like – it’s an elegant and beautifully made instrument that carries status in its name, gravitas in its price tag, and the weight of centuries in its wood.

For this reason, studies like this are useful for busting some myths, and they may boost the credibility of new violins, but they are unlikely to diminish the lust for the old ones. Fritz and Curtin recognise as much. Writing about one of their volunteers, they say, “When asked the making-school of the new instrument he had just chosen to take home, he smiled and said only, “I hope it’s an [old] Italian.”

UPDATE: John Soloninka, one of the 21 violinists who took part in the study, has commented about his experiences below: “It was fascinating. I too, expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not. Claudia sent me my comments about the instruments that I made while I was playing them, and it was hilarious how wrong my impressions were at the time!”

Reference: Fritz, Curtin, Poitevineau, Morrel-Samuels & Tao. 2011. Player preferences among new and old violins. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1114999109

Image: by Håkan Svensson

Comments (68)

  1. chris y

    No. And yet, study after study has shown that some expensive wines taste the same as cheap plonk when you test people under double-blind conditions. And some taste a lot better. And some plonk is remarkably tasty.

    There’s an old tale about a great wine expert who was asked to blind taste a bottle, and he sniffed it and swilled it and sipped it and eventually he said, “Well, it’s a Chateau Xxxx, 19nn, and the grapes are from the south western section of the estate, and they were picked in the last week in September, and the wine was crafted by M. Xxxx. And isn’t it nasty!

    I suspect the same goes for violins. Probably Stradivari made more than his fair share of great instruments, but he didn’t have a monopoly on it. And there are great instrument makers in every generation.

  2. Peter Beattie

    This is certainly an interesting study, and some violinists will perhaps re-examine their prejudices against new instruments. Equally interesting, I think, is the fact that you are overstating the meaning of both studies you cite, the one about violins and the one about wine:

    The joy of owning and playing a Stradivarius comes not from any objective advantage in its sound, but simply from the knowledge that it is a Stradivarius.
    – and
    The imagined link between price and quality is a delusion

    The Fritz study specifically took knowledge of the instrument’s maker out of the equation, which means that it does not support any statement to the effect that such knowledge is a factor (much less the dominant factor) in players’ preferences. To do that, you might do a study that tested whether being told that an instrument was a Stradivarius had a decisive influence on the subjects’ rating of the instrument. And, of course, a single study on its own (let alone one with such a tiny sample size) doesn’t prove anything or bust any myths—to paraphrase a fashionable meme, ‘replicate, or it didn’t happen’.

    And as for the wine study, it wasn’t quality that was the subject of the test but distinguishability. And I fail to see what a random (i.e. non-expert) sample of people being unable to distinguish different wines could possibly tell us, other than that they cannot tell different wines apart, which might be due to a host of reasons, inexperience chief among them. This is much like asking a random sample of the population whether they could detect subtle differences in X-rays or MRI images and pronouncing, upon their being unable to do so, that this proves that to rely on these imaging techniques is delusional.

  3. Georg

    Every business need some “best”, its inevitable, people long for that.
    But wines, paintings, violins have to have one (two) very important feature(s)
    to be regarded as “best”:
    - small number/amount available
    - not easily remade

    You can trade with the aid of gold coins or with cowries shells,
    if limited in access, its all the same.

  4. Stephen Mackenzie

    Sounds to me like the risk of DROPPING A STRADIVARIUS was quite high during this study!

  5. Jeremy Hughes

    1. It takes weeks to learn how to get the best out of an instrument.

    2. Some instruments considered great are harder to come to grips with.

    3. A new instrument made to sound great immediately may not sound good in a generation or two, and so can prove to be a bad investment.

    And so on.

  6. Markk

    In regard to Peter B.’s comment about overstating the study with the comment on the Joy of owning a Stradivarius – I don’t think that was a comment on the study but an observation regarding Strad’s. The study supports the idea that experts cannot tell the violins apart based on sound and playability alone. I don’t understand why there aren’t spectral analysis than clustering studies that would show exactly the acoustic difference between the older and newer violins, if these difference really exist. There ought to be some common denominator visible in the sound spectrum.

    I absolutely agree about the wine – just because some people can’t tell them apart doesn’t mean everybody can’t tell them apart, and there are good tests of experts I have seen that show they can tell wines apart in double blind studies. Whether that matters as a value for a given buyer in up to them.

  7. Gary B

    I have gotten an appreciation for some (not all) very expensive wines – I was fortunate to try one a few years ago that just kept showing me new aromas or flavors or whatnot (I do not know the lingo). That wine let me understand why someone would pay $300 for a bottle of wine, it was truly a completely new experience, almost as if my palate was reading a book with a plot that kept unfolding. But I had an even more expensive wine last month that I could not distinguish from an average red. My host seemed to like it just as much though, so maybe that was just me – or him! :)

    Price of a new instrument may not be an indicator either. Many years ago when I played classical guitar, I went to my favorite music store, and strummed each of about 100 instruments, without looking at the price or the name, just listening. I picked one of about a dozen inexpensive Yamaha guitars as the best sounding. I played it (and a few others that were also worth trying), and bought it. I think it was $105 at the time, perhaps 1/10th of the most expensive one. It’s worth noting that none of the other Yamahasof the same model made the cut. I suppose manufacturing variance was still significant at that time, anyway – I have no idea what they are like today.

  8. I like the wine analogy. A couple of weeks ago I was at a bar that serves only Tequila – 250 different types. The bartender was very knowledgeable about the different types (but she didn’t have an official title like a “tequila sommelier”) and told me that the most expensive brand sold for $400.00 a shot. This led to a discussion about how much difference in taste there was between a $5.00 shot and a $400.00 shot. Despite her assurance that there was a difference she couldn’t say that it was a $395.00 difference. It seems to me that people who pay this amount don’t do so because of the astonishing difference in taste but to be able to show people that they can spend $400.00 on a shot. Maybe violinists buy old violins for the prestige attached to them rather than the sound.

  9. Yacko

    So, how did the carbon fiber violin make out?

  10. Herb

    What makes this especially interesting is that I can see how it might be applied not just to wine or violins, but to ideas. Most people’s ideas come from years of education, of being told what is a right idea or a wrong one. It is another kind of marketing, and we think we have superior intelligence or taste because we have the “right” or more intelligent ideas. This helps to explain why “experts” are so often wrong. The great philosopher Jacques Ellul pointed out that it was the highly educated who were the most susceptible to propaganda because they were the ones who read it every day.

  11. Alex Levine

    Interesting article. There are many fine modern instruments. I recall articles about instruments made by Sam Zygmuntowicz one of which was owned by Isaac Stern which some say are as good as Strads and Guarnerius’.

    As the article and some comments points out, there are many variables that can affect the sound of a string instrument. There are many types of strings and different instruments will sound different with different types of strings. Some sound better with one type and others sound better with a different type.

    Instruments will also sound different when played with different bows too.

    Then the position and type of bridge and the placement of the soundpost inside the instrument can affect the sound production.

    Then there is the acoustics of the room. A cellist told me when he was trying out instruments to purchase he played two different cellos in a normal size room and they both sounded about the same but when he played them in a concert hall one of them sounded much louder and projected the sound better to the back of the hall.

  12. Mike

    I’ve heard this same controversy in guitars. People preferring one brand over another and swearing they know that their favorite guitar has a distinctive quality none other can match. I did my own impromptu study of this by handing one such individual 5 different guitars, 4 Les Paul copies of varying age and his very own, while blindfolded in a dark room. He didn’t even recognize his own guitar by feel and much preferred an old Memphis copy for tone and playability. He looked like the poor guy that couldn’t pick his own wife out of a lineup blindfolded.

  13. But what actually happens to you when you get infected with a stradivirus? Probably indistinguishable from the common cold.

  14. So many of these “old and rare is best” ideas, whether instruments, wine, &tc, seem to me to be just so stories. And certainly, if you read the blog You Are Not So Smart, the value people put on an item has as much to do with its name as its quality. “But the strings weren’t right and the bridge was off and the instrument will not sound as good in a generation…” These are all ad hoc. What stands is that people choose new instruments over a highly valued older instrument, or did not distinguish between them. Reminds me of the French versus Napa Valley wine story. Should we value artifacts? Of course. Should we treat them as all-eclipsing relics? I’ll take iconoclasm over that delusion.

  15. John c

    The modern instrument might not age as well as a strad, part of the attraction is that the wood has shrunk,warped and settled in fully,and it still sounds good, though by that logic, throw away a new one thats going off and get a new one to replace it, your still going to be quids in compared to a strad.

  16. Brett

    @mark:

    “there are good tests of experts I have seen that show they can tell wines apart in double blind studies”

    Quite the contrary. There are studies that show that wine experts can’t tell the difference, either. Even more amusing, put a cheap wine in a bottle with an expensive label and they’ll think it’s better than the same wine in a bottle with a cheap label.

    Our expectations have a remarkable power over how we experience things…

  17. Cathy

    The value of a violin is entirely in its sound. I have a hundred and ten year old violin that belonged to my grandfather. Aside from being in desperate need of repair (new bridge, new strings, replaned fingerboard – I’m a poor graduate student and I’m a vocalist so it’s not really a high priority at the moment), the sound quality of it was never really brilliant. It’s not a virtuoso instrument by any stretch. Instead, I’ve been told it’s an excellent instrument for someone who plays second fiddle in a quartet. The sound is more like a viola; mellower, calmer. It’s also very lovely; the pegs have inlaid mother of pearl.

    As for the wine: I can tell the difference between a two buck chuck and a ten dollar wine. I can usually tell the difference between a ten dollar wine and a twenty dollar one. But I can rarely tell the difference between a twenty dollar wine and a hundred dollar one.

  18. Aaron Saunders

    Interesting. However, tempting as it may be, is your comparison to that particular wine study reasonable? From what I see the violins were all top class instruments tested by professionals, while the wines were a mix of qualities all tested by amateurs. Is it not a little ignorant to say that because an average person cannot discern a difference then there is none?

    One of the interesting things for me with wine, music and so many other things of which I am an amateur is to try and learn something about quality. Buy a 50 dollar wine if you are used to 10 and you can taste the difference (even if you cannot taste the difference between 50 and 500 – and maybe with time you are a little wiser. Part of this is also learning which differences are real and which are just the gas bag at the shop trying to get an extra 10 bucks out of you.

  19. MW

    “A new instrument made to sound great immediately may not sound good in a generation or two, and so can prove to be a bad investment.”

    The old violins were 100 times the price of the new ones. If you take the price of an old violin, invest it at 3% return, then you can buy three new instruments a year. To be economic, it doesn’t have to sound good for a generation or two – just for 4 months. (In addition, there really is no reason to expect them to not sound so good in a generation or two.)

  20. Rune

    Albeit there is something to comment 3 (the study of price and preconceptions is a worthy one; there must be knowledge of how brand names work outside the ad industry) the conclusion of the article is leaving out the biggest fact: TIME.

    To me it is probable that Signors Guarneri and Stradivari were the producers of the best violins in their generation and tradition of handiwork;
    (are there other instruments left from these times? well preserved specimen without too many or big repairs?)
    since the beginning of science (chemistry and appliance of it to organic materials was the first and made industrial production possible a.f.a.i.k) and scientific testing of very specific properties can often be found in databases, each builder of musical instruments can compute a specific search for the right materials.
    And then add the fact that in each generation there are many people who are good in their job, and a few masters – and you get what was tested:
    Some of the newly built violins are better than what was made long ago.

  21. It goes to show that a musician should always trust their ears!

  22. Bernd Muesing

    One very important fact that is missing both in the article and in the discussions: There is a new elite of violin makers at work here who have finally managed to understand the violin by extensive research, endless experiments and close co-operation with musicians. Still most violinmakers today do not have this knowledge and abilities and their violins would not stand a chance in such a comparison. The same is true for the vast majority of makers since the death of Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu.
    So my congratulations go to this elite of great new makers that for the first time in more than two centuries are making superbe instruments again. And maybe in fact even better instruments than ever before.

  23. Robert

    One of the stories about Stradivarius violins is, that the difference is only hearable when played in a large hall. In a relatively small (hotel)room there would not be much difference.

    Besides: According to the text, the new violins cost about 100,000 dollars each. These are pretty expensive instruments, possibly better than what most ordinary orchestra-members use

  24. marvin

    I have a vague recollection of an article in Scientific American some twenty(?) years ago on the same topic and reporting the same conclusion. I no longer have a subscription to SciAm so can’t search its archive. Am I deluded?

  25. Eleanor

    I think I’ll defer to XKCD: http://xkcd.com/915/

  26. Tim

    Responding to Peter B,

    I think, from the article that we can assume that “old” violins are generally preferred, perhaps not least from the fact that the old violins in the study are worth so much more than the newer ones.

    Then, as you yourself note, the point of the study is to conceal the knowledge about the provenance of the violin, including its age – whether it is old or r new – and the results seem to indicate that without that knowledge there is no such preference, and possibly even the converse.

    Given this reasonable assumption, and study result I think it perfectly fair to suggest that the knowledge is the dominant factor.

    If I know that people like big green sweets much more than little red ones, but I’ve shown they don’t care about (or can’t even distinguish between) the colour, all other factors being equal, can I not suggest that the size might be quite important?

    Of course we can discuss the reliability of the study, sample sizes, replication, etc, but that’s a different argument.

  27. Andrew

    Robert, the instruments are about $33,000 each, because combined they’re $100,000.
    Peter, here’s a study that shows people prefer Strads: They cost $3M each.

  28. Did they play all violins with the same bow, or with their own bow, or with the bow that came with it? And did all violins use the same strings, or did they keep the strings that were already on there? I can imagine people with older violins are more likely to invest in fancy strings, while the owners of the newer ones would stick to the common and affordable Dominant-ADG/Pirastro-E combination of strings. And playing on someone else’s violin with the same strings as you’re used to is probably a lot more comfortable than suddenly playing a violin with strange strings.

    (I tried to open the paper to find this but am getting DOI not found)

  29. Claudio

    This study should have been done with good violinists specialized in early music, in a resonant room (baroque violins were played in good acoustic).

  30. I’ve progressed over ten years from drinking what wine was cheap (to continue the analogy), to being an amateur connoisseur. I’ve done the same with coffee, spirits, beer, and other comestibles. For me, and I suspect many like me, it’s a process of learning, comparing, trying, that excites and interests – I would rather try a new wine that might disappoint than one that I know is good, because it *might* be even better. In the case of violins, the enjoyment of the knowledge of an instrument’s history must be important to some players, regardless of quality. Other people are happy to drink (or play) what they know won’t disappoint or surprise them, but won’t surprise or delight either. Different attitudes to life, I suppose. However, I can’t afford to be swayed by prestige – in this case, knowledge can help distinguish between a product that is overpriced (priced highly because it will sell regardless of quality, trading on a brand image for example), and one which costs a lot because it is made with more care or knowledge.

    I suspect that since Stradivarius instruments are a closed class, their price reflects both their quality (which must have been good at some point for them to have been selected as the leaders in their field), and their rarity. Saying they can’t be a thousand times better (or whatever the price ratio is with new builds) assumes price reflects *only* inherent qualities, whereas in this case, it is much more complex.

    In any case, I applaud any attempt to dispel myths using as rigorous a science as possible, in all areas of life.

  31. Georg

    A much closer analogy might be the “high end” hype in
    electronic music equipment.
    Garantued oxygen-free copper cables for mains connection,
    Silver foill in capacitors and so on.
    And every sillyhead who pays for that swears that he hears
    “the difference”.
    There have been dozens of double blind tests, but….
    Georg

  32. John Soloninka

    I was one of the playing participants. It was fascinating. I too, expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not. Claudia sent me my comments about the instruments that I made while I was playing them, and it was hilarious how wrong my impressions were at the time!

    In response to comments above:
    1. In addition to the test in the hotel room (which was expertly conducted!), Zack DePuy, Concertmaster of the Symphony also did side-by-side comparisons of 8 instruments on stage before the final announcements were made for the IVCI. Although a Strad was eventually chosen, in short, the audience in the concert hall were essentially equivocal on which instruments were better in each of the pair-wise instrument comparisons…with Zack playing the same excerpts from Ein Helden Leben and Bruch G minor. Listening to Zack…I could tell slight differences in the instruments…but overall they were all great. None of them sounded substantially weaker than the others.
    2. Yes bows make a huge difference, but not changing a bad instrument into a good one. The bow was constant. If you are telling me that a $1M instrument with a high-quality, but sub optimally matched bow will sound worse than a $30K instrument with a matched bow…I would still say the experiment proved the relative value of new instruments.
    3. I agree with the writer who said the modern instruments were by the best makers…and not all new violins are by the best makers! But the goal is just to say that the best modern makers are as good as the best old makers…and that sound is what counts.

    It was a privilege to be involved and fascinating. If, after this, you cling to picayune critiques and dismiss the study, then I think you are in denial. If 21 of us could not tell in controlled circumstances and 1500 people could not tell any differences in a hall, and this is consistent with past studies…then it is time to put the myths out to pasture.

  33. I have been building and repairing musical instruments for almost forty years and I am always amused by comparison tests on instruments. They are usually being staged to prove a single point, the value of which is marginal at best.
    We perceive things in our own personal ways and there is no fast and furious rule for interpreting the universe or a musical instrument. When I hear the set up for this ‘experiment’, it sounds more like a diet cola taste test in a mall than a serious exploration into perception.
    As someone already mentioned, it can take a while for a player to fully connect with an instrument. There are many layers to the onion. Even within a fixed design there are many factors at play beyond the initial sound. There has to be a strong physical connection on many levels and yes, sometimes mojo does play into it as well!
    I don’t understand why that is a problem. Instruments from the past have history. A story that crosses generations. They have been the medium for hundreds of artists exploring music, sometimes for a lifetime. This need to ‘prove’ our apparent delusion with great instruments of the past seems more like a sidebar on the ‘does God exist’ battle and I’m not getting sucked into that one!

  34. Thanks all for a fascinating discussion, but particular thanks to John Solonika, who (as far as I know) is the first person to comment here about a study they actually took part in!

  35. Lorena

    any violin player here? I have been told that instruments in baroque times were smaller than instruments made today and as concert venues got bigger so got the instruments. I really have no idea if this is true.
    I’d love to see a blindfold study of pianos with Stenway and sons.
    Last year I went to a piano dealer and tried several pianos and really couldnt tell the difference in sound between a 30.000$ dollars steinway grand and a regular 2.000$ upright piano, but hey, my ears may be deffective :S

  36. j D'or

    I’ve witnessed a person very well that owns a strad & guarneri . What separates the old with the new was in the day , there was not amplification , and the type of acoustic tech we have today all thou the did do a very good job , in the day. the strad was the violin that could fill a room, the others could barely be heard . thats what separates the violin making .

  37. Elvis Othello

    One thing that occurs to me: while I accept the validity of the subjective rankings of the players in this experiment, we need to be careful about broad interpretations. Here is one good reason: how an instrument sounds to a listener in an audience is different from how it sounds to a player of the instrument. I would be curious to see if the participants would repeat their rankings as audience listeners. For that matter, I would like to know if they would rank the same way if they repeated the trial.

  38. Ideally, each violinist and each violin would find the best partner for making the best sound that person and that violin could make. Variations in both humans (size, biochemistry, neurology) and instruments (maker, playing history, environmental conditions through its lifespan–long or short) and interviews with musicians suggest that no one instrument–and no one musician–matches perfectly with all of the other. For any one violin, one violinist is likely to produce a better sound (if only minutely better) than another. For any one violinist, one violin is likely to respond to those human differences (including the situations in which that person lives, practices, performs, travels) and raise that violinist to his/her personal best. (And that’s leaving aside the matter of what actually is “better sound”…a matter of personal taste, when you get into the stratosphere of great musicians and their instruments.)

    Clearly the violinists could tell the difference between the instruments…they could express a preference for one over another, which means they heard a difference. But they could not identify which instrument (by date of manufacture) made the preferred sound (those are two different things, conflated in the article’s title.)

    I appreciate Mr. Soloninka’s comments, as one who was actually involved in the test. I do wish he had discussed the difference in the sounds leading to the preferences (I’ve certainly heard violinists and cellists I know talking about the differences between modern instruments from different makers, and I have been able to hear the differences they’re talking about. ) It’s always seemed to me, as the very amateur musician who is nonetheless interested in the art, that what really matters is whether the sound the instrument makes is what you want to hear–for that piece of music, played by that musician. And which instrument allows the musician to create the best possible sound in that particular situation.

  39. John Soloninka

    Elizabeth…what I thought would be the difference was that the old instruments would have greater purity of sound, less extraneous surface noise, effortless response, and projection ranging from good to great. I expected the new instruments to range from ordinary to “loud”, but to be a bit less responsive to the bow (taking just slightly longer time to create quality sound from any given bow gesture, requiring more “work” from the player), to have more “rustle” and surface noise (perceptible perhaps only to the player…but perhaps imperceptible from an audience’s perspective) and perhaps to have less complex of an overtone structure (i.e. “flatter sound”). Also, I expected the old instruments to be physically lighter weight, as many newer instruments made with acoustic plate tuning can tend to heavier weights…and use younger, less desiccated wood.

    I was completely wrong. I experienced the good characteristics on almost all of the instruments. Only one I considered “weak, easy to break the sound” and having less than high quality tone (that was a STRAD!!!!!). The one I chose was a modern one, N2, and it played exactly as I had “expected” a Guarnerius Del Gesu would have played…powerful, difficult of overplay, complex, highly responsive, and joy from the moment I picked it up (but so were virtually all of them).

    Regarding Elvis Othello’s comments about what players hear vs audiences…. They are very different. I addressed this in my earlier response. That same day, Zack DePuy played 8 old and new instruments and the audience was essentially equivocal…they were all great.

    J-Dor’s comments on projection and frequency distribution of “good” filling a hall and “bad” instruments not, is very true…. But you that frequency distribution is not unique to old instruments…Martin Schleske showed that in his extensive frequency analysis of good/bad old and new instruments.

    Tony Smith….you are addressing a different issue…ie which instrument is best suited to a given player, and how a player can get the most out of a given instrument. But I would suggest that this study shows that you could spend the time you suggest getting to know an instrument, and it could equally be a $1M or a $30K instrument…and therefore, what is the added value (to a player and audience) of the extra money, beyond myth and hype? One may pay $1M for a chippendale table, a moon rock, or a 100,000 year old piece of rough neanderthal artwork. Violins share such valuable and fascinating historical provenance, regardless of sound. But let’s just jettison the myth that to be good from a performers’ perspective MUST be old.

  40. amphiox

    It’s still a pretty impressive testament to the old violin makers that their instruments are on the whole still just as good as the very best modern violins.

    It suggests that in all the intervening centuries, the art of violin-making has not substantially advanced, and the old violin makers had already more or less perfected it.

    And it also shows that they are able to produce instruments that, when properly handled, did not deteriorate significantly for hundreds of years.

    (It would be interesting to run this experiment again, 500 years from now, with three sets of violins, the very old, the old (today’s new, tomorrow’s old), and new violins from that era, assuming any of the violins from today last that long. Maybe some of today’s best violins/violin-makers will become the Strads of tomorrow.).

    The price difference then becomes a factor of age and historical context. You’re not paying for a “better” violin, you’re paying for a great violin that is also an ancient work of art….

  41. I’m a guitar builder but I also know a little bit about other instruments. There might be another, mere technical reason why the brand new violin was chosen. Every 4 years or so, violins (and the other members of the violin family) must be disassembled in order to get a new tone bar. This tone bar is a small piece of wood that is bow shaped and glued to the inside of the violin’s top plate. It is shaped a bit more convex than the inside curve of the top plate. When this tone bar is clamped and glued to the top plate, this “spring” will add tension to the plate, resulting in a more powerful and responsive tone. After a couple of years, the tone bar gets fatigue and the spring slowly disappears. The instruments tone becomes duller.
    Don’t underestimate the importance of this little piece of wood. Of course, you can’t turn a bad instrument into a magnificent one just by changing the tone bar. But when one compares violins, the age and amount of spring of the tone bar should also be taken into consideration.
    In this study, all instruments were of high quality. To me, it comes as no surprise that the new instrument (only 3 days old) was considered the best. Even if the quality of the used wood of the new violin was slightly inferior to the quality of wood of the Stradivarius, the brand new tone bar of the new violin may have possibly done the trick.

  42. John Soloninka

    In addition to playing, I also make violins. Although you are correct that a proper bass bar has significant effect on sound, they are not routinely replaced unless they are inferior, poorly installed or later damaged. Baroque bass bars were installed originally in Strads and Guarneris when they were built, and in the 1800s almost all baroque bass bars in Strads and Guarneris were replaced with a more fulsome “modern” bar, along with alterations to the neck angle, fingerboard and heel. But those modern bass bars could easily be in an instrument for 50 or more years….and modern instruments, if working well would not need a replacement bar at all.

    Having said that…I suspect that all of the instruments on trial would have had bass bars installed about 5-50 years earlier…regardless of whether the instruments were “old” or “modern”. This would not likely have been a factor.

  43. Zhan Hao

    As an electric guitarist, I find a lot of similarities in the approach held by players to old violins and “vintage” electric guitars.

    Many electric guitarist have a tendency to gravitate towards certain makes and models of guitars made in a certain period (late ’60s Gibsons, pre-CBS Fenders), with certain specifications (PAF pickups). This tends to be the case even when there have been multiple testimonies to show that in not all instruments are made equal. Manufacturing variance was high leading to some sounding exception and others sounding plain.

    Yet, many people still hunger for certain electric guitars, despite the fact that a lot of these makes and models can sound worse than modern production units, and a lot of it is due to the name and heritage of the instrument, regardless of how it sounds.

    Leo Fender, founder of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, and later G&L Guitars, died wondering why guitarist so strongly preferred the Fender guitars over his later G&L guitars, despite the fact that his G&L brand of guitars had higher QC standards, and more research to make G&L guitars sound better than the original Fenders.

    Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars constantly releases new version each guitar model almost every other year, with the basis that new innovations make the newer models sound better than the old. Yet, older PRS sell for more than new ones.

    I don’t doubt that some Stradivarius violins sound exceptional, but surely not every violin was a masterpiece. If every piece was No.1, where are all the No. 2s?

    Do musicians really judge an instrument by how good its really sounds, or are they more affected by the age and prestige of the instruments they’re actually playing? I’m very convinced that they want to play a Stradivarius, not because it sounds the best, but because there are no more new Stradivarius any more.

  44. Dubitator

    That is a typical Cartesian analysis : “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.” (Sorry to quote a pedantic old man from France, I was born there). Take the question in its compexity and it will make sense : take a ship, it is a ship; take its parts it is dead wood. The complex “Guanerius del Gesu and Stern and Bach and Carnegie Hall and Audience” cannot be divided in its many parts, is fortunately unpredictable and will get as close to infinity as possible for mankind. Not to say that cartesianism is useless, but do not use it here.

  45. Rob

    Some people here (quite a few) just wish that this test never took place. It’s the same with old (electric) guitars, an old Gibson Les Paul sounds waaay better than a new one. I say placebo.

    Elisabeth Moon (#38) seems to think that this is Harry Potter and the magic wand must some how connect with the magician to work properly. Rubbish.

  46. I should like to comment as an epidemiologist and grade VIII violinist.

    Radio 4′s PM programme on 3 Jan 2012 did an example “trial”. A violinist played two violins, one much older than the other (Bach Partita in D, first movement, IIRC), and listeners were invited to comment on the difference.

    It was a classic example of a single-blind study (also a very small one, of course; but illustrative just the same). While the listeners didn’t know which violin was which, the violinist did. His expectations, based on his knowledge of the violins and his beliefs about them, will – both consciously and sub-consciously – have influenced the way he played them, thereby influencing the listeners.

    This phenomenon occurs when doing trials of other things, including medical treatments; and it explains why double-blind trials (where neither the doctors and patients, nor those assessing the outcome of the treatment know whether the study or the control treatment is being used) are so important.

  47. I would like to comment as a Grade 8 Violinist.
    If you were to give me a Strad compared to a New Violin and asked me which one I would like to “take home” – I would choose the one that made ME sound better…..that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would choose the “better” instrument. What people have got to understand is that Top Violinist Professionals have violins such as Strads – and they do this for a reason…..it makes THEM sound better. It would be lost on somebody like me (e.g. not at the top of the Violin profession) – from what I hear – a strad has a really even tone – I spend quite a lot of effort with my own violin trying to even out it’s tone…I’m sure top pro’s want to concentrate on more important matters than that!

  48. xmundt

    Greetings and Salutations….
    For what it is worth, my wife and I listened to the two, short examples from this study, linked to from the NPR website. I do not play a violin myself, but, my wife does. We both correctly identified the phrases played on the older and newer violins (and this was before we knew which was which). Her main criterion was that there was a much smoother transition from note to note, even, through a somewhat complicated section. For me, it was the “body” of the sound. The older instrument produced a much smoother and fuller sound than the newer violin.
    I have to say, though that knowing that the “new” violins were in the $30K area makes it far more understandable that it would be very difficult to tell the difference between the new and old instruments. For that much money, I would expect to get an instrument that had excellent sound, a good ability to fill the hall, and a smooth feel when played. To a certain extent I also agree that the cost of original instruments by Stradivarus or Guarneri are “inflated” beyond their logical selling price by the cache of age and rarity. However, that can happen with anything.
    The fact that modern makers are able to create an instrument that, right now, sounds as good as those old instruments, says a lot about the quality of luthiers today. As another post pointed out, though, it will be more interesting to see how they compare as time marches on. Will today’s instruments continue to sound as good and strong in 50-100 years? Only time will tell.
    Pleasant dreams
    dave mundt

  49. Sergei Burkov

    There is a Physicist who dunks modern violins into liquid nitrogen. It makes their sound indistinguishable from Stradivari. (Unfortunately, I forgot the names.)

  50. fingremos

    With guitars, If you plug it into an amp, then in the majority of stamped out, ‘decently’ manufactured instruments equipped with modern electronics, looks have as much to do with their sound as anything except the amplifiers, which up to a large point, matter as much or more than the guitar makers. In fine acoustic (even if electrified) arch-top jazz guitars, top quality wood coupled with the makers talent will matter quite a bit more. In flat topped acoustic guitars, once again quality aged wood will matter greatly as will the makers abilities to craft it to produce the highest quality sound. In classic guitars, all one must do is carefully listen and the differences between individual instruments both old and new will be readily apparent to most people. The finest woods matter greatly. Many older guitars sound better for that reason alone (master quality aged woods are becoming SCARCE and EXPENSIVE!). New makers can produce guitars that sound as good as known or past masters, but they must also be fine luthiers, and must use the best materials to accomplish the highest results in terms of the beauty and strength of sound. When transducer-type electronics are used in any acoustic guitar (a modern trend used to make lower quality guitars using less than the best materials sound more attractive when electrified), then the original sound of the instrument is still of great importance even though many modern digital components can alter the sound to an almost soulless synthesized-like audio reality. They put it ‘thru a ringer’ so to speak. Sounds a lot like so many unreal things in our ‘up to date’, ‘stamped out’ modern surroundings…
    Wood logs were kept in the canals in Stradivarius’ time until there was room to process and store them. This caused the air pockets in the wood to enlarge as the wood swelled, and when it was used in violins, the resonance was greater… as simple as that. Progressive modern violin making techniques may have imparted other factors in modern violins to make up for this historically and scientifically documented difference about the wood used in Stradivarius, Guarneri and Amati violins.

  51. Tom Laws

    At a minimum, the results prove no real difference exists. Had the Stradivarius, any real difference in quality, the results would have been unanimous.

  52. Michelle

    A case of the emperor is wearing old clothes!

  53. paradrop

    stradivarius has five syllables
    modern has two syllables

    sounds different to me

  54. Jimmy

    When Darby O’Gill (Disney movie, 1960) is captured by Leprauchans, he is given the opportunity to play a Strad. He plays it and says “I’d rather have me own.” When offered the chance to remain with them , he then says “Never have I played on a fiddle so fine.”

  55. Donald

    I knew if someone were to do a double-blind test, the puffery about the old name Italian violins would quickly fall by the wayside. I’m sure that violin dealers will begin to debunk this study with the old chestnuts, but the fact is that oftentimes, the “experts” could not tell the difference between the “master violins” and contemporary ones. What makes all this so funny is that the Strad, Amati and Guarnieri violins today are not what they were when made. There is a longer neck on most, there have been new ribs, top or bottom plates have been replaced, the originals have been gouged, etc.

    Be careful of any dealer that speaks in adverbs and adjectives; e.g., this violin (the violin he’s trying to sell you) is “better” than violin X that sells for 10′s of thousand of dollars less. Is there some objective test here or is (s)he merely giving you “his opinion”? Provenance is not substance. His view, thoughts, opinions, etc. regardless of how “well-informed” it is, is just that. It is only good if he can sell his opinion to you. There is no way to really test his opinion when his “facts” are adjectival rather than factual.

  56. Eric von Valtier

    One thing that is totally missing from all of this discussion and comments is any hint of science. As a musician, physicist, and engineer, I claim that there is not a reasonable physical basis for almost all of the commonly made statements about the inherent “sound” of instruments. These instruments are not terribly complex at the basic physical level and most of their qualities are directly attributable to known, measurable quantities. I find the results of these new tests perfectly believable and in agreement with my own studies of the subject over many years. The world of electronic instruments – especially guitars- is overloaded with totally unproven and unprovable opinions on the subject.

  57. Vito M

    This accurate but small experiment gave results apparently contradicting the overwhelming statistical superiority of virtuosos’ time-honoured experience.
    An alternative explanation of the results would be that, in the short-time setting of the experiment, the selected violin players were not able to obtain a full-quality sound from the Stradivari violins.
    I would have been more convinced of the non-superiority of old violins if Itzhak Perlman in person had issued the non-superiority statement after a couple of months playing with those instruments.
    Double-blindness in science cannot become double-deafness in music.
    Sorry to disagree, friends.

  58. Féliciations à Claudia Fritz. Le succès incontestable du marketing des luthier-violon concernant les violons anciens jette une ombre lourde sur le travail des grands luthiers de nos jours. A ceci il faut ajouter que rarissime sont les violons du début du XVIIIe siècle qui n’ont pas subi des altérations sérieuses. Stradivarius lui-même aura certainement beaucoup de mal à reconnaître ses/ces violons modifiés.

  59. Dwight E. Howell

    To the couple that thought they could tell the difference between two high end fiddles by listening to a broad cast. I don’t think so. To much didn’t make the trip to your end and then all you heard is the racket you speakers made. Live is much better with any acoustic instrument.

    The next thing is biting. People hear things differently. They should not all prefer the same instrument. If they do some of them are telling lies.

    When you pay ten or 20 for a good bottle of wine you are paying for something you have reason to think most people will like or will, at the least, approximate what you have liked in the past. When you pay 500 for one you are buying what somebody claims they prefer but you are in some ways a chump if you do so because your sensory equipment is _not_ going to be the same as theirs. That means that whatever very subtle taste issues you are paying for won’t be the same as what they experience but if it makes you happy to pay more money by all means do so. You won’t find any shortage of people willing to provide fermented grape juice in a high priced bottle with suitable accouterments.

    Using snobbery to separate the elite from their money has always worked and always will.

  60. Alfredo

    This objective approach in to the world of Lutherie and Musical Instruments is very much needed. However, I cannot agree that a fifteen year old, no matter how virtuosic he is, has the same experience and feel of a proffesional violinist. This experiment as “well controlled” as it was, did not take into consideration the experience needed to reach the mastery needed to control the any of instruments. Kudos for at least establishing the premises of future comparisons and listening tests.

  61. New violins are not only the equal of any Strad or Guarnerius or Guadagnini or Amati or Carcassi or Storioni – they are actually BETTER. Of course, people who actually own old wood have a great vested interest in believing and arguing otherwise. In a hundred years, old violins will have degenerated to the point that they will be unplayable, especially with so much pollution in the air now. Wood is organic after all. The pyramids were once new but look at them now. Amateur listeners might not know anything about art or acoustics or wine, but they know what they LIKE.

  62. Gol_n_Dal

    Interesting thread:

    There is no doubt in my mind that the expensive modern versions are as good as the great old ones on a purely technical basis.

    Antiques, hmm would you prefer to own 1 of 600 desirable items or one made yesterday?

    A car analogy: Ferrari Dino 246 or a Honda Civic type R (both ~200 BHP) ? (for me the Dino everyday assuming I didn’t need to use it everyday).

    Acoustically I can’t comment as I’ve not heard them back to back, however, saying that I’m sure that the ones tested (£1M to £30k) are all great, significantly better than £150 ones. I say that looking at the comments and reviews here.

  63. Patanjali

    60. Alfredo, the 15 to 61 years refers to the time they have been playing, not their age!
    Also, one would expect that seasoned users would have some appreciation of how to get good sounds out at short notice. I would expect them to have several instuments, or least have gone through several before arriving at their current one.

    62. Gol_n_D, seems you are choosing representative cars more on the basis of their current value than their quality, BUT also implying that the the old ones are vastly better quality. The ‘old masters’ were the top of their time, and this test was comparing them to the top of our time. To me your comparison is invalid, and is being illogically manipulative.

    46. Peter English, studies where those analysing the results also don’t know which is which, along with the participants and testers, are called triple-blind.

    57. Vito M, you may have a point, but trying to drown opposing viewpoints by using statements such as “apparently contradicting the overwhelming statistical superiority of virtuosos’ time-honoured experience” without any citation just undermines your credibility and sounds more like sour grapes at seemingly being one of those whose beliefs were being debunked.
    One doesn’t necessarilly have to use an instrument for a long time to tell its basic qualities. We are not talking about new mass produced instruments that are churned out a 5 per second from some sweat factory here, but ones for which some good measure of science and craft have gone into their making.

    I tend to be pragmatic. I do not care what an instrument I own now will sound like in 500 years. That is for those that might own it then. I would rather have the same quality at a cheaper price now.

    Perhaps some people feel that all the ‘vibe’ those virtuosos that have played an ‘old master’ will rub off on them. To me, it’s that ‘vibe’ that puts me off antiques – years of other peoples’ sweat.

  64. Tom Parmenter

    When I was younger, I began to explore the wine scene. For my 25th birthday, when I was making $60 a week, my wife bought me a bottle of wine for $25, only three years old, but well spoken of. It was wonderful, I was on the road to wine snobbery.

    Little did I know. I bought some more touted wine, not so expensive, and it just tasted ordinary. Another bottle, the same. Bought some spaghetti red grocery store wine. About the same. I decided I wasn’t really cut out for wine. Several years later my birthday bottle, Chateau Mouton-Lafitte Rothschild, 1962, was declared one of the finest wines of the century.

    Today it goes for $1000 a bottle. I peaked too soon, happy in my beer drinking, truly a wine snob.

  65. tony o, Donnell

    Can we all now conclude that a great many modern violinists who play their wonderful old expensive Stradivarius instruments with remarkable audible brilliance sounding clear and bell like above the storm of a modern orchestra can now be assured that they can without further ado put away their wonderful sound boxes and replace them with much, much less expensive ones.Surely this would be the most economical thing to do .

  66. Something that I haven’t seen mentioned is the fact that none of the Strads are like the master left them. They have all been highly modified in terms of neck structure, bass bar and tuning of the strings. The Hill brothers book on Stradivari has done much to spread the Stradivari myth. There is a lot of BS in the book, Stradivari is raised to the position of a god in parts of the book, then he becomes a competent technician on other pages. It is good to see science prevail over myth.

  67. Mike D

    “As for the wine: I can tell the difference between a two buck chuck and a ten dollar wine. I can usually tell the difference between a ten dollar wine and a twenty dollar one. But I can rarely tell the difference between a twenty dollar wine and a hundred dollar one.”

    Yup, well said, anything over a $20 bottle is typically not noticeable….

    As for the fiddles, Stradavari made some that are fantastic and some that are gulp ordinary, not every Stradivari is a great sounding instrument. I’ve played a few modern violins and modern makers make some exceptional instruments that rival any of the antique instruments.

  68. Kristian P

    As a professional musician and amateur instrument designer, I’d really like to see the full write up of the study.

    The differences may be attributed to using different bows, different setups for different instruments, the playability of those instruments, the strings used etc.
    Was the same piece used to test all of the violins? Did that piece encompass multiple techniques, evaluating different registers of the instrument?

    It’s also difficult to tell the true tone of an instrument while you are playing it – You’re not exactly in an ideal position to hear it, and many of your cognitive processes are involved in actually performing on the instrument. I’ve been tempted by many high end instruments in the shop, but the true test comes from recording with it.

    -Because let’s be real, the only person hearing the tone of a violin three inches from the soundboard is the person playing it. The audience, other orchestra members, and microphones are in a completely different position.

    ———–Anecdote:
    I recently purchased an incredibly expensive instrument last year. After the honeymoon period, I felt that I had possibly made a mistake – In a few recording sessions, it did not perform as well as I felt it did before.

    After a period of experimenting with different strings and setups (which can cause pretty dramatic changes in voice and playability of an instrument) I found the ideal combination of string and setup for my style of playing. Direct comparison between the recordings and the different changes in setups produce VERY audible differences in tone and sound.

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