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Professional violinists cannot distinguish between a Stradivarius and a top-quality modern instrument

This is a hybrid post, it belongs in the music category, of course, but also in a science group. What could be better than an enlightened fusion between one of the most beautiful art forms and science? As you probably all known, the old Italian Stradivarius violins have survived the test of time and are presumed to be so much better than any other violin, ancient or modern built, that professional musicians are willing to pay millions of dollars for one of them. Violinists swear that there is a huge difference between the Stradivarius and modern counterparts, and all of them when asked, declared they could tell the difference, hands down, between the sounds produced by one of these old Italian masterpieces and other top-quality instrument. But can they? A scientific experiment involving 21 professional violinists and 6 violins, 3 Strads and 3 top-quality modern violins, one of which built only a few days before the experiment. The experiment was truly double-blind, since neither the violinists nor the people handing them, the violins were played in the same dimly lit hotel room, while the musicians were wearing goggles to disturb their visual acuity, and the instruments were perfumed to remove any possible telling smells Not only were the violinists incapable of telling which one was old and which one was new, but they slightly preferred one of the new instruments over the other 5, and the least valued instrument was the most venerable and most ancient Stradivarius of all the 3 old violins. Ed Yong wrote a great article on this story, which i post below. Read through all the comments too. one of the commenters is one of the professional violinists, John Solonika, who was one of the 21 musicians participating in the experiment and says: "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."

Violinists can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins a...

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.

Read the rest here.

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Replies to This Discussion

I'd like to see them do the same with guitars. There has always been the thought that guitars "open up" with age. Improved sustain and tone. Supposedly caused by many factors, but still no scientific evidence that I am aware of. People pay tens of thousands of dollars for older models of guitars that could be bought brand new and for much less.

Guitars do sound different. The woods that are used, whether solid or laminates. How the bracing is designed, neck set; many many variables. When I bought mine, I was set on getting a Martin. In fact, I had a specific model that I wanted. I ended up buying one that was half the cost of the model I had picked; it sounded better to me than all the rest.

Yes, guitars are another prime target for this kind of studies. I hope someone does it. These studies are fun because they tell us a lot about how our brains "perceive" things. We convince ourselves of something, and then our perception molds to our preconceptions. Kind of like the wine study (even though it did not use sommeliers.

You'll like this A:

So much for objectivity. But results like this shouldn't be surprising. I've blogged about this before, but it's such a cool experiment that it's worth repeating. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn't stop the experts from describing the "red" wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its "jamminess," while another enjoyed its "crushed red fruit." Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was "agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded," while the vin du table was "weak, short, light, flat and faulty". Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

I love it :-) Although I bet I would distinguish between a red and a white wine. 

So would I.


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