Last week there was an enormous amount of press pertaining to a recently published paper that examined whether a group of professional violinists could tell the difference between fine old Italian instruments (such as Stradivari or Guarneri) and more modern (and much less expensive) violins. The researchers concluded that the participants were not able to distinguish the differences with any degree of accuracy, with various implications. I was struck by a number of factors in the press accounts of this study, so I decided to read the actual paper in its entirety and draw my own conclusions.
This analysis was conducted in Indianapolis in September 2010 during the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. The competition attracted quite a crowd of violinists, violins, and violin makers, so the researchers viewed this as an ideal location and time. There were 21 participants in the study, including contestants from the competition (four), jury members (two), and members of the Indianapolis Symphony. Two participants went on to be competition laureates. At least some of the group owned fine old Italian instruments. So one can assume these participants were mostly seasoned musicians with material knowledge of how violins are typically compared to one another.
Six instruments were collected, three new and three old. The newer ones were between several days and several years old and presumably were superior examples of a “modern” instrument, although none were specifically identified in the paper. The others were two Stradivaris (one from 1700, one from 1715) and one by Guarneri del Gesu, from 1740. The participants wore modified welder’s goggles that prevented them from identifying the violins. Regarding the older ones:
“These instruments were loaned with the stipulation that they remain in the condition in which we received them (precluding any tonal adjustments or even changing the strings), and that their identities remain confidential. All strings appeared to be in good condition.”
There are countless factors that can shape perceptions while comparing violins (even in a double-blind study), and this was the first genuine red flag for me. The setup of a fine violin is critical and highly subjective-strings, placement of the bridge, etc. The soundpost can move a fraction of an inch and completely change the way a violin responds and sounds, and this is particularly true for notoriously finicky Strads. It’s not uncommon for a spectacular instrument to seem inferior just because of an unusual setup or old strings (or getting bumped around on an airplane). It is unclear who set up the newer instruments (or when). I enjoyed the confident visual assessment of the strings- for the record, I regularly play on a 1715 Stradivari and use Vision Solo strings. They completely burn out after about a month and the instrument sounds totally different, but they look fine.
“Most violinists prefer to try out violins in a room with relatively dry acoustics…..sessions were therefore held in a hotel room whose acoustics seemed well-suited to the task”.
This is misleading and possibly indicative of preconceived notions by the researchers. It is true that many violinists try instruments in a “dead” room as a first step. No professional I know of would make any serious determination of an instrument’s quality until they played it in at least one hall (and had trusted colleagues play it while they listened). Even with great instruments, the sound “under the ear” is often deceptive- a peculiar (and sublime) aspect of great old Italian instruments is that the sound somehow expands and gains more complexity from a distance, especially in a concert hall. With many “modern” instruments, it is common that in a confined space (under the ear), the sound may also be huge and seem quite promising. But frequent criticism of some newer instruments (not all) is that in a hall it sometimes doesn’t carry past the 6th row, and the sound is often bland or one-dimensional. This entire process took place in a hotel room.
Prior to their arrival at the hotel, the violinists were informed they would be playing several fine violins, at least one of which was a Stradivari. In the main part of the study, each person was given 20 minutes (total) to try the six instruments and then rank them in order of preference using several criteria. To anyone with comprehensive experience in this regard, this is absurd; it’s nowhere near enough time to make an accurate determination, especially in a hotel room. The best one could hope for is a preliminary opinion, which could absolutely change in a different room with a different setup and more time to get used to the instrument.
The second part of the study was even more ridiculous, a kind of “speed date” approach that allowed for one minute of playing on each of two violins (one old, one newer, 10 pairs total), then offer some sort of opinion.
I could go on, but some of you may get the idea by now. The conclusions of the study seem predetermined to a degree: statistically, most of the participants couldn’t tell new from old, and everyone’s perceptions were somewhat altered by the knowledge that some of the instruments were Strads. Is this a revelation, given that actual humans were involved, under conditions that heavily favored the newer instruments? I can guarantee that the results would be completely different if the double-blind study had a third step in a concert hall (or two), with a luthier on hand and some of the participants listening to the instruments as well as playing them.
With all due respect, and despite the rigorous science and controls applied, my sense is that the researchers started with a premise and set out to prove it. The methodology of the study virtually guaranteed that in a momentary, cursory assessment (in a hotel room) the modern instruments would be favorably compared to the older, much more valuable specimens. To be fair, the paper states that the study was “designed not to test the objective qualities of the instruments, but the subjective preferences of the subjects under a specific set of conditions”. That was achieved, and “subjective” is the operative word. It also demonstrates why most professionals won’t form any serious opinion regarding quality until a) they get into a concert hall (or two) and b) they have the violin for an adequate amount of time under various conditions. I’ve played lots of outstanding modern instruments, although none yet that reliably compared to a top-level Strad or del Gesu (just my opinion); this study seems to confirm what’s already obvious to many of my professional colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, the paper itself feels like it was written by, well, a bunch of scientists who are unfamiliar with how professionals seriously assess string instruments. The team seems slightly fixated on instrument valuations and (bizarrely) another research paper from 1993 that I’ve never heard of. Despite the requisite graphs, statistics, fancy charts, and scientific doublespeak, I think it’s an entertaining read for anyone interested. You can get a copy (for a fee) at the unfortunately-acronymed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Apologies to Thomas Dolby for my title. But look for the f-holes.
UPDATE Jan. 18 – Please read the followup article in response to the head researcher, Claudia Fritz.