Study Casts New Doubt on Superiority of Stradivarius Violins

Monday, April 07, 2014 - 05:06 PM

Soloist Ilya Kaler tests a violin during the study. Kaler wears modified welder goggles to prevent instrument identification by eye. Soloist Ilya Kaler tests a violin during the study. Kaler wears modified welder goggles to prevent instrument identification by eye. (Stefan Avalos)

So you think you can tell a fine Stradivarius from a modern violin without reading the label? If not, you're in good company: Neither can several professional violin soloists.

Researchers in Paris brought together ten experienced violinists to perform on six modern violins and six made by Old Italian masters, including five by Antonio Stradivari. The musicians wore modified welder goggles to prevent instrument identification by eye. When asked to compare and choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, six of the 10 soloists selected a modern instrument. A single new violin was the most-preferred of the 12.

“They could easily tell in test conditions whether they liked the instruments or not,” said Joseph Curtin, a co-author of the study, along with French researcher Claudia Fritz. “They couldn’t tell if they were old or new. And for me, this implies that whatever it is they’re looking for in an instrument isn’t directly related to the age or for matter, the country of origin.”

The study, which was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was partly an attempt to make up for previous studies that have been accused of lacking sufficient scientific rigor.

Specifically, a 2010 double-blind study conducted in a hotel room in Indianapolis was widely disparaged for not using concert-hall conditions, for an insufficient evaluation period, and for using a small set of test violins. The new study provided for two 75-minute sessions for each instrument, the first in a rehearsal room and the second in a 300-seat concert hall (now, as in 2010, modern instruments were most preferred).

The study is the latest salvo in the Strad wars, an ongoing debate over whether the considerable worth of such instruments is rooted in myth or merit. It arrives a week after Sotheby’s announced the listing of the 1719 "Macdonald" Stradivarius viola, which experts believe could fetch a record $45 million in auction.

Curtin, a luthier based in Ann Arbor, MI, acknowledges that he may appear to have a stake in the study's outcome. But he notes that his co-authors all brought different viewpoints; among them was the violinist Hugues Borsarello, who usually plays on a 17th century Ruggieri violin. Curtin also says that the authors sought to create a representative pool of instruments from top dealers and makers.

Still, the study is unlikely to be the final word. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University in College Station who studies the chemistry of violins, told The New Scientist he wasn’t convinced. He says that players need to play a violin for weeks to evaluate it fully, and that the study did not take into account that Stradivari vary in tone.

Curtin acknowledges that what sounds best to a soloist may not resonate with an audience member or fellow musicians.

"They’re all valid points of view," he said. "The idea that violin quality is uniquely defined and judged from one single perspective seems to be naïve: in the end, it’s the players who choose their instruments and the players who are in a lot of ways who are best equipped to evaluate because they’re inside a feedback loop. They’re getting response from the instrument directly, whereas listeners are somewhat passive.”


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Comments [6]

Lynn Wilson from Cleburne Texas

I wish my INRI violin could have been part of the study. I have a violin that I would love to be compared to others.

Apr. 20 2014 08:31 PM

You start with "So you think you can tell a fine Stradivarius from a modern violin without reading the label? If not, you're in good company: Neither can several professional violin soloists."

Laurie Niles was a participant in the test and made this point:

"I was not asked to identify specifically which was the modern violin and which was the old violin; only which I preferred. If people are concluding from this study that "professional violinists can't tell the difference between modern violin and old Italians," then I think we need a different study in which violinists are actually asked to identify that."

Apr. 09 2014 10:23 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

How dare ... HOW DARE!! the violinists think they could possibly be the people to judge the quality of violins? After all they're only the ones driving the inflationary purchase of questionably superior super costly violins. They and their billionaire sponsors who are looking at the market topping increase in net worth.

It's only the people who listen in concert halls that can judge. The one in row 12 seat 17, next to the guy who coughs the whole time and the woman texting on her cell phone while it beeps to each screen press. Hold on. It's row 9 seat 22 at the Met, next to the guy who had someone apologize for leaving his face in the way of the ultimate judging patron's shotgun blast and who also didn't know how to turn off his singing iPhone.

It's only the people who know the naked emperor is wearing the best and most valuable clothes who can possibly judge the quality of the wardrobe. There's no possible way to have a test to challenge that final judgment.

How can you accept paying for a very expensive seat if the people providing the music you're paying for aren't using the most expensive instruments? Best? Obviously the most expensive is the best, after all I'm worth nothing less.

Sorry, but I get caught up in a stream of consciousness. I'm reminded of a story about Glenn Gould recording in an empty auditorium in an empty department store after hours. He'd play a few notes and stop, telling his recording crew that something was wrong. The sound wasn't right. The crew would then go through the rows of empty seats and ultimately find someone who was hiding, in some shoplifting attempt. How could someone like that think they can judge sound quality?

Apr. 08 2014 03:47 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

All these studies! We are so bombarded with sound, boom boxes, construction, loud tvs, many of us have lost the ability to hear the nuances that the instruments have when played.

Apr. 08 2014 02:21 PM
Arn Prince from Manhattan

The studies mean little. Just as a singer cannot fully hear himself or herself, a violinist has the instrument right in the ear while playing, which also distorts the reverberation coming back to the player. I thought myself a light lyric tenor for many years, until I began to be handed scores to operas like Aida. Unless a study shows clearly that a modern violin SOUNDS decidedly better than a Strad, as the consensus of both renowned violinists and other professional musicians known to have great ears, my bet is still on the Stradivarius. After all, they did not sell for millions or the equivalent when made - they became worth that by consistently defeating competitors on the stage over several hundred years.

Apr. 08 2014 08:39 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I'm reminded of a story I read years ago about Malcolm Forbes buying a bottle of wine that belonged to Alexander Hamilton. Forbes made the mistake of displaying the wine standing up rather than on its side in a wine rack. As a result the cork dried out and fell into the wine. The bottle was still sealed with wax but it lost some of the look that a bottle of wine should have. The writer indicated that it didn't really matter since the wine would not have been drinkable in any case, being too old.

Now I guess that these old violins are still very drinkable but their caché (market value) is not so much based on how good they sound (taste) but market factors determined by people of the Malcolm Forbes sort. Investment. Envy.

Even when the new instruments are obviously better we can have trends for the old - groups playing period instruments. At least that's about the sound, but historical rather than "better" sound.

I remember when labels on clothes were only seen from the inside. I never liked the idea of being an advertising poster, at least without pay. Was it Galbraith that told of levels of wealth, one being "display." The one beyond display was "power," which we're living in now, though I do note three Maybachs parked on Park Ave. off 72nd St. You know. The guy with the name on a building at Lincoln Center.

Apr. 07 2014 11:12 PM

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