Brand and Item Excellence – Just About Marketing and Social Status

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Violinists Can’t Tell The Difference Between Stradivarius Violins And New Ones

…professional violinists [were asked] to play new violins, and old ones by Stradivari and Guarneri. They couldn’t tell the difference between the two groups. One of the new violins even emerged as the most commonly preferred instrument.

The joy of owning and playing a Stradivarius comes not from any objective advantage in its sound, but simply from the knowledge that it is a Stradivarius.

Ever since the early 19th century,  many tests have questioned the alleged superiority of the old Italian violins. Time and again, listeners have failed to distinguish between the sound of the old and new instruments. But critics have been quick to pick holes in these studies. In most cases, the listeners weren’t experts, and the players and researchers knew which violin was which – a flaw that could have biased the results.

What’s more, no one has tested whether violinists themselves can truly pick up the supposedly distinctive sound of a Strad. The common wisdom is that they can, but Fritz and Curtin showed that this isn’t true. “Many people were convinced that as soon as you play an old violin, you can feel that it’s old, it’s been played a lot, and it has a special sound quality,” “People who took part in the experiment said it was the experience of a lifetime when we told them the results. They were fully convinced they could tell the difference, and they couldn’t.”

This time, a clear favourite emerged.

  • The players chose one of the new violins (“N2”) as their take-home instrument most often, and it topped the rankings for all four qualities.
  • As before, O1 [the Strad] received the most severe rejections. Overall, just 38 percent of the players (8 out of 21) chose to take an old violin home, and most couldn’t tell if their instrument was old or new. As Fritz and Curtin write, this “stands as a bracing counterexample to conventional wisdom.”

Perhaps the esteem that’s placed on Stradivarius violins is less about the triumph to age-old craftsmanship, and more a testament to our ability to delude ourselves.  This ability has come out in other areas. Take wine, another product where certain specimens fetch critical acclaim and exorbitant prices on the basis of superior quality. And yet, study after study has shown that expensive wines taste the same as cheap plonk when you test people under double-blind conditions. The imagined link between price and quality is a delusion but, as Jonah Lehrer skilfully argues, it can be a pleasant one.

The same could be said of violins. The joy of owning and playing a Stradivarius comes not from any objective advantage in its sound, but simply from the knowledge that it is a Stradivarius. Never mind what it sounds like – it’s an elegant and beautifully made instrument that carries status in its name, gravitas in its price tag, and the weight of centuries in its wood.

Reference: Fritz, Curtin, Poitevineau, Morrel-Samuels & Tao. 2011. Player preferences among new and old violins. PNAS  http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1114999109

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2 thoughts on “Brand and Item Excellence – Just About Marketing and Social Status

  1. Pingback: I am alone. « My Night Dreams

  2. Another interesting study came out a few years ago about wine. Tasters were given several wine samples labeled only with the price of the wine. The researchers had actually filled each container with the same wine (not the highest-quality one, either). When asked to rate the wines, the tasters invariably ranked the “higher-priced” ones as being superior in taste and quality, even though all the samples were identical.

    However, I will disagree with Elmer about musical instruments. I have owned several guitars of varying quality throughout my life (yes, the cheapest one I owned when I was in college). A few minutes playing a guitar can give you a very good idea of the quality (and price, indirectly) of the different instruments. I have an acquaintance whose daughter is an accomplished cellist. She can easily recognize the superiority of a Stradivarius over her own cello. Has this experiment been replicated by other groups? By the way, I have not seen another group doing the wine-tasting experiment.

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