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Musicians who play string instruments often believe that some of the early examples of the modern form of their instruments produce better sound than recently-made examples with similar designs. This is one contributing reason why a typical Stradivarius violin, for example, is worth several million dollars.

Such is the strength of this belief that many scientists have tried to find the "secret" behind the sound. Some think it is the way the wood was treated; others argue that it is the physical shape and density of the wood; some have speculated that unique properties of the varnish make a difference.

But do we know that they really sound "better" in blind trials? Or could it be like the situation with wine where wine thought to be expensive is reported to taste better than wine thought to be cheap (see here)?

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There was a double-blind study done very recently, with 21 "experienced violinists". Surprisingly, the least-preferred was a Stradivari. –  Oliver_C Jan 6 '12 at 8:22
    
@Oliver_C I was hoping that someone would write it up critically (recognising the limitations of the study design). Or I might answer the question myself. Even better would be to find previous such studies. –  matt_black Jan 6 '12 at 9:55
    
I would say they sound better when you sell them... That said the modern violins were not simply any old violin I believe at least one of the modern violins was valued around 100k and they were all over 10k. Those arent the types of violins you give your kid to learn on, or keep around the house if you enjoy playing occasionally. –  Chad Jan 6 '12 at 18:55
    
Given this question is really about the recent violin experiment, can we limit it such in the title? Currently, there could always be some (e.g.) sitar-player who claims their instrument hasn't been tested this way. –  Oddthinking Jan 6 '12 at 22:20
    
@Oddthinking Good idea and I'm happy to entertain suggestions. But I wouldn't want to over-restrict the scope. I think the question is about bowed string instruments from classical music (not just Stradavarius and not just violins: the Amati family made great violins and Stradivarius made great cellos). –  matt_black Jan 6 '12 at 23:03

1 Answer 1

up vote 23 down vote accepted

There is a double-blind study that was conducted in 2010 in wich 21 experienced violinists were asked to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments.


From the Abstract of the study:

The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics.

We found that

  • (1) the most-preferred violin was new;

  • (2) the least-preferred was by Stradivari;

  • (3) there was scant correlation between an instrument's age and monetary value and its perceived quality;

  • (4) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom.

Differences in taste among individual players, along with differences in playing qualities among individual instruments, appear more important than any general differences between new and old violins.


From Discover Magazine:

During the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis – one of the world’s most important competitions – Claudia Fritz and Joseph 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. Their combined value is around 10 million US dollars, a hundred times more than the three new ones.

...

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. T

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.


Criticism of the study:

Discover Magazine:

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 be other variables that could affect the players’ perceptions – perhaps, for example, they might feel differently in rooms with different acoustics.


Cellist Steven Isserlis:

  • Perhaps it is not widely known just how important the set-up of a violin is to the sound and feel of that instrument. A tiny movement of the sound-post – the little stick inside a string instrument that lies close to the bridge – can alter the tone completely.

  • I can say quite categorically that it is impossible for a performer to judge with any certainty how their sound is carrying in a large hall, unless they know the instrument intimately.

  • A performer is married to his or her instrument; and instruments choose their partners as carefully as vice versa. We players have to learn to relate to these magnificent works of art, to bring out the deep layers of sound that distinguish a great instrument from a good one.


Earl Carlyss (a longtime Juilliard String Quartet member):

  • It's a totally inappropriate way of finding out the quality of these instruments.
    The auditions took place in a hotel room, but violinists always need to assess how an instrument will project in a concert hall.



John Soloninka (one of the violinists who took part in the study) however speaks positively about the study:

It was fascinating. I too, expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not.

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.



The Sydney Morning Herald mentions another blind test, broadcast on BBC radio in 1977:

The great violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman, along with expert violin dealer Charles Beare, listened to instruments including a Stradivarius, a del Gesu and a 1976 British violin being played behind a screen by a concert soloist.

They were unable to reliably determine which instrument was which, and two identified the modern violin as the Strad.

A shortcoming of both studies was that only a few violins were tested.

But, as the researchers of the contemporary experiment 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.''



More:

  • Blind Faith (2007)
    What's in a label? Would a Strad sound as sweet by any other name?
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Here is another report on the study. –  matt_black May 17 at 12:37

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