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
most-preferred violin was new;
(2) the least-preferred was by
(3) there was scant correlation between an instrument's
age and monetary value and its perceived quality;
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:
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
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
- Blind Faith (2007)
What's in a label? Would a Strad sound as sweet by any other name?