"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Violin shocker? Blind test said to show “old master” fiddles not so special

Jan. 5, 2012
Special to World Science  

Genera­t­ions of mu­si­cians have re­vered vi­o­lins made by a hand­ful of 18th-century Ital­ian mas­ter crafts­men—most fa­mously An­to­nio Stra­di­va­ri, whose crea­t­ions are nick­named “Strads.”

To these mu­si­cians and their fans, the re­sults of a new blind test may come as a shock, if not an out­rage. If the re­sults are cor­rect, it seems many of us have been un­duly swayed by the im­mense mys­tique, not to men­tion price tags, of these in­stru­ments. Be­cause they don’t ac­tu­ally sound bet­ter than good mod­ern ones, sci­en­tists claim. 

Stradivarius viol­ns in the col­lect­ion of the Lib­rary of Con­gress in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Per­haps the most iron­ic as­pect is that many oth­er re­search­ers have spent small for­tunes an­a­lyz­ing ex­actly what makes “Strads” and their ilk so spe­cial—and the study sug­gests that the an­swer is noth­ing.

Those re­search­ers were di­vid­ed in their re­ac­tions to the stu­dy. One was highly skep­ti­cal, ar­gu­ing that those who set up the blind test may have un­wisely com­pared an­ti­que vi­o­lins in de­ter­i­o­rated con­di­tion against mod­ern ones that were ex­cel­lent pre­cisely be­cause they ben­e­fit­ed from those newer stud­ies.

Clau­dia Fritz of the Un­ivers­ity of Par­is and col­leagues, who set up the blind test and are re­port­ing the re­sults this week on­line in the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces, wrote that their “re­sults pre­s­ent a strik­ing chal­lenge to con­ven­tion­al wis­dom.”

“Play­ers’ judg­ments about a Stra­di­va­ri’s sound may be bi­ased by the vi­o­lin’s ex­tra­or­di­nary mon­e­tary val­ue and his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance,” but no one has stud­ied how such bi­ases af­fect the per­ceived qual­ity of these in­stru­ments, they added.

Fritz and col­leagues said they were in­spired in part by a re­cent study in which “sub­jects were giv­en sam­ples to taste while an MRI ma­chine mon­i­tored brain ac­ti­vity. It was found that in­creas­ing the stat­ed price of a wine in­creased the lev­el of ‘fla­vor pleas­ant­ness’ re­port­ed,” they not­ed, as well as “ac­ti­vity in an ar­ea of the brain be­lieved to en­code for ‘ex­pe­ri­enced pleas­ant­ness.’”

Fritz’s team wrote that they “asked 21 ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lin­ists to com­pare vi­o­lins by Stra­di­va­ri and Guar­ne­ri del Gesù with high-qual­ity new in­stru­ments. The re­sult­ing pref­er­ences were based on the vi­o­lin­ists’ in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences of play­ing the in­stru­ments un­der dou­ble-blind con­di­tions in a room with rel­a­tively dry acous­tics.” Dou­ble-blind means both the play­ers and the ex­pe­ri­menters were blocked from see­ing which in­stru­ments were be­ing used in any tri­al.

The re­sults, as Fritz and col­leagues convey them:
  • “The most-pre­ferred vi­o­lin was new.”

  • “The least-pre­ferred was by Stra­di­va­ri.”

  • “There was scant cor­rela­t­ion be­tween an in­stru­men­t’s age and mon­e­tary val­ue and its per­ceived qual­ity.”

  • “Most play­ers seemed un­able to tell wheth­er their most-pre­ferred in­stru­ment was new or old.”

Names like An­to­nio Stra­di­va­ri, Giu­sep­pe Guar­ne­ri and Nicolò Am­ati strike re­ver­ence into violin­ists world­wide today; they are per­haps his­to­ry’s most famed string in­stru­ment mak­ers, or lu­thiers. Some oth­er family mem­bers, asso­ciates and fol­low­ers of these three have at­tained compara­ble though less­er re­nown. These crafts­men lived dur­ing a so-called gold­en age of vi­o­lin mak­ing, from around 1550 to 1750 in It­a­ly, with the ­city of Cre­mo­na in par­tic­u­lar be­ing a famed cen­ter of pro­duc­tion.

Ter­ry Bor­man, a pre­s­ent-day vi­o­lin mak­er who has an­a­lyzed Cre­monese in­stru­ments with ra­di­ol­o­gist Berend Stoel at Lei­den Un­ivers­ity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in The Neth­er­lands, said the Fritz study seemed “solid” over­all. He cau­tioned that “there are con­cerns about some de­tails, par­tic­u­larly sam­ple size, time to ‘learn’ how to best play each in­stru­ment, and the abil­ity to judge pro­jec­tion in such a small set­ting.” Stoel called the find­ings “not a shock.”

Bor­man added that the no­tion that the old Cre­monese in­stru­ments aren’t as ex­cep­tion­al as once thought, does­n’t mean sci­en­tists who have an­a­lyzed them have wast­ed their time. If their stud­ies “haven’t pro­vid­ed the ‘sil­ver bul­let’” in terms of un­lock­ing the se­cret to the per­fect fid­dle, he added, that does­n’t “de­mean their val­ue re­lat­ed to the spe­cif­ic ar­e­as of stu­dy.”

Anoth­er re­searcher ex­pressed great­er skep­ti­cism of the find­ings by Fritz and col­leagues. They “left them­selves open to the charge that they se­lected the best of new vi­o­lins and com­pared them to three an­ti­ques in poor state of pre­serva­t­ion,” said Jo­seph Nagy­vary, a re­searcher who has stud­ied Strads and si­m­i­lar in­stru­ments at Tex­as A&M Un­ivers­ity, in an e­mail.

Nagy­vary—who now pro­duces recrea­t­ions of the fin­est Cre­monese vi­o­lins—added that dur­ing his stud­ies, “I had the chance of see­ing and ex­am­in­ing no more than one hun­dred Strads out of the six hun­dred ex­tant, and found that their qual­ity var­ied from su­pe­ri­or to very bad, and a lot of me­di­o­cre in the mid­dle.” Their ton­al per­for­mance “gen­erally re­flects their state of re­pair,” which is of­ten poor or re­flects du­bi­ous restora­t­ions or re­build­ings, he added.

“The leg­end­ary reputa­t­ion of [Stra­di­va­rius and Guar­ne­ri] were made by the ex­cel­lence of the top 20 per­cent of their vi­o­lins,” he went on. “My guess is that the three Cre­mo­na vi­o­lins used in this study be­longed to the bot­tom half of their dis­tin­guished mak­ers’ out­put.”

He added that the best mod­ern vi­o­lins are that way thanks in part to a newly soph­is­t­icated un­der­stand­ing of how the Cre­monese mas­ters worked. “Ma­te­ri­als anal­y­sis per­formed in my lab since 1975, and al­so in sev­er­al oth­er labs, have con­vinced many mak­ers to soak their wood in so­lu­tions of min­er­als, in­clud­ing bo­rax,” he wrote. “This kind of treat­ment makes the vi­o­lin light­er in weight, pu­ri­fies the sound and im­proves the pro­jec­tion. The great ren­ais­sance of vi­o­lin mak­ing can be di­rectly cou­pled to sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies.”

To­day, “there are hun­dreds of vi­o­lin mak­ers who make very good vi­o­lins which are bet­ter than the av­er­age Stra­di­va­rius,” Nagy­vary went on, us­ing the com­mon Lat­in­ized form of the ac­claimed crafts­man’s name. But “at the end of the day,” Nagy­vary added, “play­ers will al­ways pre­fer the mys­tique of the old ones.”

* * *

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Generations of musicians have revered violins made by a handful of 18th-century Italian master craftsmen—most famously Antonio Stradivari, whose creations are nicknamed “Strads.” To these musicians and their fans, the results of a new blind test may come as a shock, if not an outrage. If the results are correct, it seems many of us have been unduly swayed by the immense mystique, not to mention price tags, of these instruments. Because they don’t actually sound better than good modern ones, scientists claim. Perhaps the most ironic aspect is that many other researchers have spent small fortunes analyzing exactly what makes “Strads” and their ilk so special—and the study suggests that the answer is nothing. Those researchers were divided in their reactions to the study. One was highly skeptical, arguing that the those who set up the blind test may have unwisely compared antique violins in deteriorated condition against modern ones that were excellent precisely because they benefited from those newer studies. Claudia Fritz of the University of Paris and colleagues, who set up the blind test and are reporting the results this week online in the research journal pnas, wrote that their “results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom.” “Players’ judgments about a Stradivari’s sound may be biased by the violin’s extraordinary monetary value and historical importance,” but no one has studied how such biases affect the perceived quality of these instruments, they added. Fritz and colleagues said they were inspired in part by a recent study in which “subjects were given samples to taste while an MRI machine monitored brain activity. It was found that increasing the stated price of a wine increased the level of ‘flavor pleasantness’ reported,” they noted, as well as “activity in an area of the brain believed to encode for ‘experienced pleasantness.’” Fritz’s team wrote that they “asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu’ with high-quality new instruments. The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics.” Double-blind means both the players and the experimenters were blocked from seeing which instruments were being used in any trial. The results, as Fritz and colleagues report them: - “The most-preferred violin was new.” - “The least-preferred was by Stradivari.” - “There was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality.” - “Most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.” Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri were history’s most famed string instrument makers, or luthiers. Some other family members and followers of these two have attained comparable though lesser renown. These craftsmen lived during a so-called golden age of violin making, from around 1550 to 1750 in Italy, with the city of Cremona in particular being a famed center of production. Terry Borman, a present-day violin maker who has analyzed Cremonese instruments with radiologist Berend Stoel at Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands, said the Fritz study seemed “solid” overall. He cautioned that “there are concerns about some details, particularly sample size, time to ‘learn’ how to best play each instrument, and the ability to judge projection in such a small setting.” Stoel called the findings “not a shock.” Borman added that the notion that the old Cremonese instruments aren’t as exceptional as once thought, doesn’t mean scientists who have analyzed them have wasted their time. If their studies “haven’t provided the ‘silver bullet’” in terms of unlocking the secret to the perfect fiddle, he added, that doesn’t “demean their value related to the specific areas of study.” Another researcher expressed greater skepticism of the findings by Fritz and colleagues. They “left themselves open to the charge that they selected the best of new violins and compared them to three antiques in poor state of preservation,” said Joseph Nagyvary, a researcher who has studied Strads and similar instruments at Texas A&M University, in an email. Nagyvary—who now produces recreations of the finest Cremonese violins—added that during his studies, “I had the chance of seeing and examining no more than one hundred Strads out of the six hundred extant, and found that their quality varied from superior to very bad, and a lot of mediocre in the middle.” Their tonal performance “generally reflects their state of repair,” which is often poor or reflects dubious restorations or rebuildings, he added. “The legendary reputation of [Stradivarius and Guarneri] were made by the excellence of the top 20% of their violins,” he went on. “My guess is that the three Cremona violins used in this study belonged to the bottom half of their distinguished makers’ output.” He added that the best modern violins are that way thanks in part to a newly sophisticated understanding of how the Cremonese masters worked. “Materials analysis performed in my lab since 1975, and also in several other labs, have convinced many makers to soak their wood in solutions of minerals, including borax,” he wrote. “This kind of treatment makes the violin lighter in weight, purifies the sound and improves the projection. The great renaissance of violin making can be directly coupled to scientific discoveries.” Today, “there are hundreds of violin makers who make very good violins which are better than the average Stradivarius,” Nagyvary went on, using the common Latinized form of the acclaimed craftsman’s name. But “at the end of the day,” Nagyvary added, “players will always prefer the mystique of the old ones.”