Study shows even professional musicians can't tell old master violins from new

Jan 03, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
violin
Violin

(PhysOrg.com) -- It’s been a known fact in the musical world for at least a couple of centuries; violins made by two old Italian masters, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, and especially Antonio Stradivari are superior in every way to anything that has come since. Because of this, various scientists over the years have studied these special instruments to discern their secrets and while they’ve come up with several theories, none has been able to conclusively prove anything. This might be, suggest Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin, because the musical magic wrought by the classical instruments is nothing more than a myth. The two have conducted a study at a violin competition in Indiana this past year using professional violinists to gauge the quality of a variety of violins, some from the old masters, some that were made very recently. And as they describe in their paper to be published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, master violinists, it appears, aren’t able to tell which instrument is which, any better than anyone else.

Conducting the study was no small feat, to pull it off the duo (Fritz is an acoustical physicist and Curtin a well known maker) had to talk owners of multi-million dollar instruments into allowing their prized possessions to be included in the study, which meant allowing others to play them. They did succeed, but only in a limited way. They managed to secure just three highly prized old master-crafted violins; one from Guarneri and two from Stradivari. They then added three newer high quality (but much lower cost) violins to complete their test set.

The tests were conducted in a low-light hotel room, with twenty one volunteer professional violinists wearing welding goggles to prevent them from being able to pick up on identifying traits or markings on the violins. They testers also applied perfume to the violins to mask any telltale odors that might give away their history. Then, to ensure that the testers themselves weren’t influencing the outcome, they had third party assistants, who also wore goggles present the instruments to the .

Each musician was asked to play two violins, one after the other. Unbeknownst to them, one of the instruments was new and one was one of the old prized violins. Afterwards, each musician was asked to judge both instruments on four criteria: tonal color range, projection, playability and response. In tallying up the responses, there were no clear winners, though there was one clear loser, one of the older instruments.

Next, each volunteer musician was asked to try out all six of the violins (by sound alone as they were still wearing the goggles) for a few minutes and then to pick one as their favorite; one they’d like to take home. In this part of the study, one of the newer violins was the clear favorite, while the loser from the first test was found to be the least favorite of all the violins tested by all of the musicians.

The loser in both tests just happened to be a violin labeled “O1” and has quite an illustrious history. It’s been used by many famous violin virtuosos over the years, both in concert and in recordings.

These findings suggest, the researchers write, that it appears the old masters were no better at violin making than are those of today, and those that don’t believe it, are simply fooling themselves.

Explore further: Research band at Karolinska tuck Dylan gems into papers

More information: "Player preferences among new and old violins," by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Palmer Morrel-Samuels, and Fan-Chia Tao, PNAS (2011). dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1114999109

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User comments : 19

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Moebius
1.7 / 5 (15) Jan 03, 2012
Testing a master instrument might require a master tester, not just a professional.
Corban
3.9 / 5 (8) Jan 03, 2012
I disagree Moebius.
A master instrument would ignite a divine spark in its players.
A master tester could make even a shoddy violin sound good.

An instrument that relies entirely on its player to bring the magic...doesn't sound like it's doing its job at all!
Blaspheyou
5 / 5 (7) Jan 03, 2012
This is super duper applicable to electric guitars. There is so much hype and mass hypnosis with different brands, this study must be conducted on axes.
Xbw
1.8 / 5 (9) Jan 03, 2012
This is super duper applicable to electric guitars. There is so much hype and mass hypnosis with different brands, this study must be conducted on axes.


Agreed. When I go to pick out a guitar, brand has little to do with my decision. My primary focus is the sound (and reliability which can have a little to do with the brand).

I play my old Ibanez still and it sounds great. No desire to blow a boatload of cash on a namebrand.
Returners
3.2 / 5 (5) Jan 03, 2012
Why am I not surprised?

This is sort of like the store brand milk vs the name brand milk, and it all came from the same cow.

The plastic bottles often come from the same facility too.

All you're paying for is the logo.
Roland
5 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2012
I wish they'd included the new carbon-fiber instruments. When Yo-Yo Ma played a cello made of that, he not only bought it, he then sold his entire collection of wooden cellos, which I think included a Strad. If it's true for cellos, why not violins?
George_Rodart
5 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2012
NPR had this story with sound files
http://www.npr.or...he-strad
DrSki
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 03, 2012
When critiquing studies, whether physics, biology, medical, etc., the number one question everyone should ask is "Who paid for the study?" "Why would they pay for the study?"-is a close and necessary second. Interpretation of any result is cast in that light even before the science is scrutinized to ensure validity.

PosterusNeticus
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2012
I'm glad someone mentioned electric guitars. But it's not really about "name brand" vs "off brand" so much as it is about vintage vs new. That's the hype in the guitar world. There are people who believe that a Strat (for example) built in 1962 has some magic quality that can't be found in one made today. It's nonsense of course. I'll take one made today with modern technology.
FrankHerbert
2 / 5 (7) Jan 03, 2012
Having built tube amps for a while this does not surprise me. Musicians are anything but objective in their choice of equipment.

That said I bought a Hammond Organ when I should have bought an automobile, so I guess I'm just as much of a sucker.
mrtea
4 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2012
NPR had this story with sound files
http://www.npr.or...he-strad


I got it right - I thought the second had one a richer tone. Lucky guess?
Paolo Alberghini
4 / 5 (8) Jan 04, 2012
The qualities that a Stradivari, Guarneri or any other expensive instrument offers that makes them special cannot be appreciated in just a short sound clip. For many players, it can take months and even years to truly be able to get the best out of a Stradivari violin. Is a complex relationship that has to mature. Also, there are very few people who specialize in adjusting and curating these "expensive" instruments around the world. With a bad adjustment and set up even the most valuable violin can sound like... Well you get the point.

I have plenty of experience with these Strads, and knwo that is not the kind of instrument you can pick up and bring the best out of them immediately. There are also many variables the study did not take into account. Did the set up on teh violin done by the same person, were all the strings as new in all the violins? Etc.
Telekinetic
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 04, 2012
I had the great fortune to "fiddle" around with an Amati violin for a few moments and found it to be sonorous but surprisingly not a great projector. So many instruments that were made by the Italian masters have a wide variety of tonal quality. We should be honored to have the illustrious Paolo Alberghini on this forum. I own a violin by a 20th century maker named Martin Niche- ever hear of him?
Bigbobswinden
5 / 5 (2) Jan 05, 2012
The BBC ran this test on the radio yesterday 4-Jan-2012 and a violinist said she would eat her bow if she could not pick the old master. She is at the dentist getting the bits out of her teeth at the moment.
skicreature
5 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2012
I know from playing my own violin and then playing my teachers Amati that there is quite a difference between these old masters and new.
Their may be some make who today is equivalent in skill to the old makers but i doubt that every maker could reach that skill level. Not every old violin maker has fantastic violins only a few select ones.

The difference in sound comes in the playability of the violin. When you get a fantastic violin in your hands the violin seems to respond to your will quite instantly. But at the same time as the violin is unfamiliar there are many things that feel strange when playing it and it takes time and years to truly learn the intricacies and be able to make the violins greatness stand out.

I don't believe we will ever have a truly objective test because there are too many variables. To truly test whether the violonistes couldn't tell the difference they would have needed to give them the violins for somehwere near a year which is infeasible.
d3bug
3 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2012
Why am I not surprised?

This is sort of like the store brand milk vs the name brand milk, and it all came from the same cow.

The plastic bottles often come from the same facility too.

All you're paying for is the logo.


That is not necessarily true about milk. I will give a real world example: Costo... Costo buys their milk from McArthur dairy (confirmed by McArthur themselves)... Their milkfat content however is lower in the costo packaged product than the McArthur branded milk... This has the effect of a more rich/creamy mouthfeel, as well as a deeper milk flavor. (in the higher milkfat content McArthur branded milk)
d3bug
4 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2012
Having built tube amps for a while this does not surprise me. Musicians are anything but objective in their choice of equipment.


Apples and Cannonballs... There is a huge difference in the sound of a tube amp vs any transistor based amp. Look at them both on a scope. The tube amp produces a real sine wave whereas the transistor one will produce a much harsher square or triangle wave (depending on class of amp). A sine wave is a much more natural sound (not harsh)... This is also the basic difference between analog media (tape, vinyl, etc) vs digital media (CD, DVD, etc). Sine vs Square... In addition to a square wave, digital media is only sampled at a finite resolution, whereas analog is infinite resolution (only limited by the medium upon which it is recorded on)... I do not agree with spending the GDP of a small nation on equipment however... Some things are just fluff.
Moebius
2 / 5 (4) Jan 08, 2012
I disagree Moebius.
A master instrument would ignite a divine spark in its players.
A master tester could make even a shoddy violin sound good.

An instrument that relies entirely on its player to bring the magic...doesn't sound like it's doing its job at all!


They weren't making the sound for others, they were playing it for themselves and judging it so your whole premise is wrong. Maybe if any of you were really good at something you would know that it takes someone who is a master to judge a master instrument, whether it's a violin, a pool cue, a golf club, a pistol or a ping pong paddle. I would rather have Lucia Micarelli judge a Stradivarius than Joe Blow journeyman.
Humpty
1 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2012
Hand on Cock-itis:

@Moebius.
Testing a master instrument might require a master tester, not just a professional.

@Paolo Alberghini.
The qualities that a Stradivari, Guarneri or any other expensive instrument offers that makes them special cannot be appreciated in just a short sound clip. For many players, it can take months and even years to truly be able to get the best out of a Stradivari violin. Is a complex relationship that has to mature.

2 things:

1. It sounds good to you, and

2. You like to play it.

All of you arty farty magical mystical bullshit artists are just that.

"Oh the magical wood, the magical saw, the magical planes, chisels and carving tools, the magical hide glue from the magical Sicilian cows arseholes in Tuscany, gently warmed by the morning sun on the southern side of the hill - all made by the man behind the curtain".

Yeah right.

Epithet to a Wanker.