Violinists Can’t Tell The Difference Between Stradivarius Violins And New Ones
The duo asked professional violinists 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.
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 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