Beautiful Music: It's All in the Brain

Are old violins really the best?

Posted Jan 10, 2012

 If you are not yourself a classical violinist (or even if you are), perhaps you have marveled and wondered over the claim that no modern violin can match the tonal superiority of the oldest instruments—those masterpieces crafted by the likes of Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu. The secret of perfect sound has been lost over the centuries—or so it's claimed.

To put that claim to the test, French scientists recently conducted a double-blind study in which they asked 21 accomplished violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments. In a sealed room, the blindfolded players tried nine different instruments in random order, playing and replaying some. They could not see the instruments and they were given no information on the violins' makers, age, or history. For each trial, the violinists chose their preferred instrument, even to the point of answering the question, Which one would you like to take home?

The results challenge the assertion that old is best. The most preferred violin was new. The least preferred was made by Stradivari. If there was any relationship at all between an instrument's age and monetary value and its perceived sound quality, the number was tiny. In fact, most players could not tell whether their favorite instrument was new or old.

"These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom," write the researchers. "Differences in taste among individual players, along with differences in playing qualities among individual instruments, appear more important than any general differences between new and old violins."

The scientists suggest that future research should focus not on the lost secrets of legendary violin makers but on how human beings perceive sound. The secret of tonal quality lies in understanding how musicians evaluate instruments, what playing qualities are most important to them, and how those qualities relate to measurable properties of an instrument.

For More Information:

Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Palmer Morrel-Samuels, and Fan-Chia Tao. Player preferences among new and old violins. PNAS January 3, 2012.
Published online before print January 3, 2012. 


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