Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

strad

Antonio Stradivari, by Edgar Bundy, 1893. (Photo: Public Domain)

Study Casts Doubt on Superiority of Stradivarius Violins

• April 07, 2014 • 12:00 PM

Antonio Stradivari, by Edgar Bundy, 1893. (Photo: Public Domain)

Researchers find top-ranked musicians can’t distinguish the sound of a Strad—and often prefer newer instruments.

In the minds of many musicians, no instrument can compare to a Stradivarius. Just last month, a festival was held in Los Angeles featuring eight violins crafted by Antonio Stradivari in the early 18th century—further evidence of the unique fascination they hold.

But are these revered instruments truly superior to their contemporary counterparts? A newly published study, which describes a blind comparison test performed by 10 world-class violinists, strongly suggests the answer is no.

The results “present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about old Italian violins,” writes a research team led by Claudia Fritz of the University of Paris. Its study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The data rather clearly demonstrate the inability of the players to reliably guess an instrument’s age.”

Fritz and her colleagues conducted an initial experiment comparing old and new violins in 2010, which also found Stradivarius instruments are not inherently superior to newer ones. Not surprisingly, that study was greeted with some skepticism, in part for the way it was structured. Participants were a mix of players with various levels of expertise, and all only spent one hour examining the instruments.

For their follow-up, they decided to restrict participation to 10 world-class violinists, all award winners and experienced soloists. During two 75-minute sessions—one in a rehearsal room, the other in a 300-seat concert hall renowned for its acoustics—they played six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new ones.

“During both sessions, soloists wore modified welders’ goggles, which together with much-reduced ambient lighting made it impossible to identify instruments by eye,” the researchers write. In addition, the new violins were sanded down a bit to “eliminate any tactile clues to age, such as unworn corners and edges.”

“The experiment was designed around the hypothetical premise that each soloist was looking for a violin to replace his or her own instrument for an upcoming solo tour. Tests were structured to emulate, as far as possible, the way a player might do this search in real life.”

In the concert hall, the violinists were given free reign: They could ask for feedback from a designated friend or colleague, and a pianist was on hand so they could play excerpts from sonatas on the various violins.

Afterwards, they rated each instrument for various qualities, including tone quality, projection, articulation/clarity, “playability,” and overall quality. Finally, they briefly played six to eight of the instruments and guessed whether each was old or new.

The results: Six of the soloists chose new violins as their hypothetical replacement instruments, while four chose ones made by Stradivari. One particular new violin was chosen four times, and one Stradivarius was chosen three times, suggesting those instruments were the clear favorites.

“Among these players (seven of whom regularly play Old Italian violins) and these instruments (five of which were made by Stradivari), there is an overall preference for the new,” the researchers write. “Ratings for individual quality criteria suggest that this preference is related mainly to better articulation, playability, and estimated projection (in the new instruments)—but without tradeoffs in timbre.”

That last point may be the key. Seven of the soloists said in an interview that they find general differences between old and new violins, including “new violins are easier to play,” and old ones “have more colors, personality, character, and refinement, and are sweeter and mellower than new ones.”

That latter belief appears to be inaccurate, Fritz and her colleagues write—at least if those characteristics “can be considered aspects of timbre.”

Regarding the guesses over whether an instrument was old or new, 31 were right and 33 were wrong. “The data rather clearly demonstrate the inability of the players to reliably guess an instrument’s age,” the researchers write.

So the centuries-old search for the secrets of Stradivari—what combination of wood, varnish, and craftsmanship made his instruments stand out—may be based on myth. As the researchers put it: “Given the stature and experience of our soloists, continuing claims for the existence of playing qualities unique to Old Italian violins are strongly in need of empirical support.”

You might call that a shot across the bow.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.