Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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