Stradivarius violins lose in blind test against new ones

Prized violins crafted by 18th century master violin maker Antonio Stradivari are renowned for the unparalleled beauty of the sound they produce. But perhaps they don't deserve that reputation, a new study suggests.

Antique Italian violins may not deserve their legendary reputation

Soloist Ilya Kaler tests a violin during the study. Kaler wears modified welder goggles to prevent instrument identification by eye. (Image courtesy of Stefan Avalos)

Prized antique Italian violins crafted by 18th century master violin maker Antonio Stradivari are worth millions of dollars apiece and many violinists have dreamed of playing one. The violins are reputed to produce sounds of unparalleled beauty, and many studies have been undertaken to figure out why.

But new research suggests that Stradivarius violins may not deserve their legendary reputation.

In the equivalent of a blind taste test, 10 "renowned" violinists tended to prefer new violins over Stradivarius violins after playing them without being able to see them, a new study has found.

"No matter how results are tallied, it is clear that, among these players and these instruments, there is an overall preference for the new," said the study that will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The violinists were also unable to tell whether an instrument was new or antique by playing it, even though seven of them regularly play antique violins.

The findings were consistent with the results of a 2010 study involving fewer violins and violinists of varying levels of experience at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

In the new study, Claudia Fritz of the Institut Jean le Rond d'Alembert in Paris asked the 10 award-winning violin soloists to test six old Italian violins including five made by Stradivari and six new violins to find one to play instead of their own violin during a hypothetical concert tour.

The soloists played each of the 12 violins during two 75-minute sessions, one in a rehearsal room and another in a concert hall. They wore welder goggles so they would not be able to identify the violins by sight.

Overall, the study found that six out of 10 soloists picked a new violin, rather than an antique one, as their favourite. One of the new violins was chosen most often among the 12. New violins outscored the antique violins six to one when the researchers tallied the Top 4 from each violinist and took into account which instruments were rejected outright as unsuitable.

The researchers acknowledged that the instruments used in the study might not be representative of their kind, and so the results may not apply generally to new versus antique Italian violins.

"However," they wrote, "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."


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