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

August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


Follow us


How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

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 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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