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Friday, April 11, 2014

What makes a Stradivarius violin so special?

PHOTO: In this March, 27, 2014 photo, three violinists play Stradivarius violins during a rehearsal at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

The superiority of Old Italian violins like those made by Stradivari is legendary. For hundreds of years, people have tried to discover the source of that excellence. Was it the varnish? A property of the wood? The surprising answer may be that it's a trick question. Those old violins may not actually be any better than new violins. So say renowned violin soloists during blinded tests.

Claudia Fritz of Sorbonne Universit├ęs and her colleagues invited ten multiple award winning violin soloists to participate in their study. All of the musicians had experience playing Old Italian violins and some used them exclusively. While wearing welder’s goggles that made it impossible to identify violins by sight, the violinists were presented with six new violins (no more than two decades old, but antiqued to have the same worn edges as much older violins) and six old violins (made by 17th and 18th century masters like Guarneri del Gesu and Stradivari).

After playing their own violin as a reference, the subjects tried out the twelve violins and ranked them for preference, as if they were considering buying them. Once he had selected his four highest rated violins, each musician was presented with three violins: his own, his top pick out of the twelve, and his top pick from the opposite category. For example, if he liked an old violin the most, the third violin would be his top ranked new violin. Those three violins were then rated for a variety of musical attributes such as tone quality and projection.

The entire experiment was repeated twice, first in the practice room within the home of professional musicians and later in a 300 seat concert hall.

The two highest scoring violins were both new ones. Four of the six violins that had been ranked number one by at least one musician were new ones. All but one new violin was at least one person’s top pick, whereas four of the six old violins were no one’s top choice. For most criteria, the violinists preferred a top ranked new violin to their own violin. In contrast, they tended to prefer the qualities of their own violins to those of old violins.

No one is suggesting that the old Italian violin makers did not create masterpieces. It’s just that those instruments may not be as magical as they are given credit for. It also means that our modern violin manufacturers are doing an excellent job.

Fritz, C., Curtin, J., Poitevineau, J., Borsarello, H., Wollman, I., Tao, F., & Ghasarossian, T. (2014). Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1323367111.

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