an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Exclusive: how I blind-tested old violins against new

One of the participants in the controversial Indiannapolis test of Stradivarius and modern violins has broken cover to offer a personal view of how the tests were conducted and how his perception of the sound of violins was changed. His essay is published exclusively on Slipped Disc for the benefit of violin professionals who want to read the story without newspaper and internet hype.

UPDATE: Beneath John’s report, I’ve added a link to accounts by the editors of Strad magazine and violin.com, both of whom also took part.

 

The Old/New Violin Trial – One Insider’s View

John Soloninka, Toronto, Canada.

I was one of the 21 violinists in the hotly-debated “old vs new” violin experiment run by scientist Claudia Fritz and luthier Joseph Curtain at the 2010 IVCI in Indianapolis.     It was fascinating – but so too is the debate triggered by release of the results.  The double-blinded, scientifically-run experiment showed that “expert” violinists could not tell whether an instrument was new, or by an “old master”.    In addition, of the 3 high-quality new instruments, valued collectively at $100K and 3 venerated old master instruments valued at about $10M, the widely preferred instrument was a new one, and the least, a Stradivarius.   These findings are consistent with many past comparisons, but this is perhaps the most scientifically rigorous experiment to-date.  As an accomplished amateur violinist and violin maker, I wanted to give you both an insider’s view of the experience, and address some of the questions posted on the many blogs and internet sites.

My participation was serendipitous:  my wife and I were audience members at the IVCI competition, and spending time at the violinmakers’ display running jointly with the competition.  I had known Joseph Curtin and many other of the world’s best violin makers from overlapping music and violin-making conferences/workshops over the years.   

When discussing the violins on display, I lamented to Joseph that I had played several $300K-$1M instruments, but never a Guarnerius…he jumped at the chance to sign me up, along with 20 others (IVCI competitors, judges, symphony musicians and people like me) to take part in the formal experiment that next day.

On the walk over to the hotel, I told Claudia Fritz, the lead of the study, of my experience of a few years earlier: Michael Darnton, a violin maker and expert at the famous Bein and Fushi in Chicago, home of the Stradivarius Society, laid out 8 anonymous, old and new violins in a practice room for me, ranging in price from $10K up to $350K.   I proceeded over the next hour or so to play them, arranging them in “quality” (price really), being careful not to look at the labels. A friend wrote down my impressions of tone, projection, colors, response etc. Of course I couldn’t help but see the outside of the violins.    Given the price range, there was also wide range of playing quality of the instruments.    According to Michael, my eventual rank ordering was spot on, with a modern instrument at the bottom, and an old master “Goffriller” at the top.  Even though it was unscientific, the result seemed obvious to me!

So we arrive at the hotel room and get administrative and waiver stuff out of the way (the rest of the experiment and setup is well described in the PNAS paper by Fritz, Curtain et al, and I won’t repeat it here).   I concocted my method of assessment as I walked over the hotel:  opening of the Bruch G minor and Tchaikovsky concerti, sampling low to high registers; Barber concerto opening…lyrical mid range up to high registers; Paganini Moto Perpetuo… measuring response, and Tchaikovsky 2nd movement to test high on the D string…with some solo polyphonic Bach, mixed scales and open strings.   I tried to do this identically with all instruments. (Knowing I was handling $10M in instruments was a pretty heady experience!)   And the results?    I loved all of the instruments.   Some were more or less to my liking, but all were wonderful.   I had NO ability to tell which instruments were old or new.

I expected old instruments would have greater purity and richness of sound, greater range of tonal “color”, little extraneous “surface noise”, effortless/rapid response, and projection ranging from good to great. I expected new instruments to range from ordinary to “loud”, but to be a bit less responsive to the bow (taking just slightly longer time to create quality sound from any given bow gesture, requiring more “work” from the player), to have more “rustle” and surface noise (perceptible perhaps only to the player…but perhaps imperceptible from an audience’s perspective) and perhaps to have less complex of an overtone structure (i.e. “flatter sound”).    Also, I expected the old instruments, on average, to be physically lighter weight, as many newer instruments made with acoustic tuning methods that can tend to heavier plates, and use younger, less desiccated wood.

 

I was completely wrong. I experienced my anticipated “old instrument” characteristics on almost all of the instruments. Only one I considered “weak, easy to break the sound” and having less than high quality tone (that was a Strad!!!!!). My favourite was a new one, New2, and it played exactly as I had “expected” a Guarnerius Del Gesu would have played…powerful, difficult to “overplay”, complex, highly responsive, and joy from the moment I picked it up (but so were virtually all of them).

 

From the transcripts Claudia sent me, here are some or my amusing comments at the time.  Remember I did not know which instruments were which.  I have denoted after the fact the instruments New1-3 and Strad1, GdG and Strad 3 as the old Masters:

  • “[I think] New2 is old and GdG is new. I told you on the way that I could tell whether old or new … actually I can’t tell at all!”
  • “Strad1: dramatic difference between the A-string which has a muted sound and the D-string which has a bold sound. The G is also bold but it has a bit of rustle.
  • “New1: feels like a new instrument. High up on the D (notes B & C) don’t have a crystalline/penetrating quality. Complex sound but not clear.”
  • “ New2 is definitely the one I’d take home. It feels like it would really project at the back of a hall. It’s a good complex quality of sound. No dead spots. It’s a style of sound which suits me. Big powerful G. You don’t drop a few dB as you go across the strings.”
  • “Strad1: I don’t like it. I don’t feel like it will project in a hall. Not a bad sound but a bit nasal. Sounds like a French instrument, from 1800-1840.”

Some have criticized the choice of a hotel room rather than a concert hall.  This is a good point, but in fact was addressed informally.  Zack DePuy, Concertmaster of the Symphony also did side-by-side comparisons of 8 new and old instruments on stage before the final announcements were made for the IVCI. Although a Strad was eventually chosen, in short, the audience in the concert hall had only slight leanings on which instrument was better in each of the pair-wise instrument comparisons…with Zack playing the same excerpts from Ein Heldenleben and Bruch G minor. Listening to Zack…I could tell slight differences in the instruments…but overall they were all great. None of them sounded substantially weaker than the others.

Many internet commenters quote expert violinists who claim old instruments are superior.   Are they delusional?  No, not in that they lack a sense of what quality sound is, or the dynamics of what a good instrument is. But endless psychological research shows that 1) people’s subjective impressions of violin sound, wine, etc are highly unreliable and unrepeatable over time, and 2) people are overwhelmingly influenced by knowledge or impressions of what they are testing. Note in the Fritz study, that the same pairs of instruments were unknowlingly and repeatedly tested by each player….and players were not consistent in their evaluation of them, on the same day, in the same room. This is why double blind studies are the only true test. Of course those earlier quoted “experts” chose old instruments….this is “cognitive dissonance” at work…they want or believe the old masters to be the best.

Some have commented that the projection and frequency distribution of “good” instruments are able to fill a room and “bad” instruments not.  This is very true and can be show experimentally that different regions of the sound spectra get less degraded than others in real concert halls. But that “good” frequency distribution is not unique to old instruments…as Martin Schleske and others shown in his extensive frequency analysis of good old and new instruments.

I agree with others’ comments that these were instruments by the best modern makers…and not all new violins are by the best makers, and not all new or old instruments are the best examples from those makers! It is not hard at all to tell a cheap instrument from a great instrument.   But the goal of this test was just to say that the best modern makers are as good as the best old makers…and that sound, not age, is what counts.

The whole point is not that fine old violins aren’t great…but rather, that from a sound perspective, brand new violins from the finest makes are just as good, and in many cases better. People may pay millions for a Chippendale or Louis IV furniture…or Rembrandts (or Rothkos!!!).

In those cases….AND in the case of Strads, the sound is NOT a factor in setting the price. It is history, provenance etc. This experiment is just more proof that the price is NOT related to sound.

It was a privilege to be involved and fascinating. If, after this, you cling to picayune critiques and dismiss the study, then I think you are in denial. If 21 experienced players could not tell old from new in controlled circumstances, and an entire audience could not hear material differences in a hall…and this is consistent with past studies…then it is time to put the myths out to pasture.

UPDATE: The editor’s tale… here are reports fromLaurie Niles and Ariane Todes

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. Thank you for this.

  2. I’m very happy to read this first hand account, but I’d still like to know who the modern makers were.

  3. Michael P Scott says:

    And now…on to the pianos!

  4. I betcha one of the good new ones was made by Joseph Curtin.

    • I wondered, but since he was participating in the “experiment” I wondered if that wouldn’t introduce some bias on some level, even though it’s all supposed to be blind.
      I also wondered if one was Zygmuntowicz. But I’d really kind of like to know.

  5. Thanks for nice article! So good to know Where is a future of violin sound!

  6. I repeat ,spot on -Mr.Soloninka !!! but I would like to point out that a lot also depends on the player, whatever
    instrument is being played- this is all a quick “read” ,it does take time to “find” out the instruments best points .
    One may on first playing highly praise one instrument but settle for another for the most abstract of reasons .
    I have heard such comments as “It speaks to me “” unscientific perhaps but valid for the player .

    No reflection on the players of this test but if you get players who think accurately scurring around the finger board
    supposedly knocking off some technical hurdles
    and such players understanding of tonal range is limited from A_to B then we have a serious problem and the
    test is of little use . A tremendous portion of what the instrument “can do” rest with the player .
    What a surprise to read Mr. Soloninka is from Toronto which has a history as the home of some superb violinists.

  7. Well thanks for walking us through the experiment and sharing your thoughts. Lots to mull over here…

  8. Joep Bronkhorst says:

    Nice addition to the growing roster of experimentees. The editor of The Strad’s put her experiences up on her blog too:
    http://www.thestrad.com/BlogArticle.asp?bID=196

  9. Wow, this is amazing. Thanks for posting! I remember another study done in Germany wherein listeners were asked to hear recordings and watch videos of different performers, male and female, and rate the sound. It was concluded that what a performer wears is something that DOES influence an audience member’s perception of the quality of a musical performance. So dress nice! ;)

  10. Guilherme Fontão says:

    According to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a lot of old violins were radically adapted to new demands in nineteenth century and, because of it, their original qualities probably were lost; in this case, we don’t know how exactly they sounded. Whether new demands prevail, the test is extremely important and desirable – excepting to old violins merchants; after all, there are many very talented violinists who cannot buy a Strad and would be glad with a similar violin for a reasonable price.

  11. Kudos to you for being so forthright. Perhaps someone else can go demolish this nonsense about vintage guitars?

  12. Does being blind folded also help when giving a concert? There are certain other cases I’ve heard that it helps…

  13. Thomas Mowrey says:

    I listened to a comparison of one Strad and one new instrument on this NPR website:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/01/02/144482863/double-blind-violin-test-can-you-pick-the-strad?sc=emaf

    They don’t tell you which is which until the end. I guessed the Strad correctly. To my ears, the modern instrument sounded thin and quavery, while the Strad was rich and warm. Of course, these were just two of many instruments used in the complete test, but if these two are indicative, I’ll stick with the old guys!

    Incidentally, I’m a former producer for Deutsche Grammophon and Decca.

  14. ANDREW BEER says:

    Nonsense. Not all Strads are good instruments (some of them are downright lousy), but the best Strads are better than any other instruments. Let me take part in a blind test any day, and I would choose 17th/18th century Italian violins above all others, 100 percent of the time. Seriously, who the heck were all these people on the jury? What kind of “ears” do they have?

    • ANDREW BEER says:

      And why were the participants’ names not disclosed? And the modern violin makers? And what was the year on the Strads and Del Gesu? And why were so few instruments used in this experiment? Typically, when doing tests to find a favored instrument, dozens are sampled. It seems to me that this study was done to glorify modern makers, who apparently aren’t quite happy enough with their massive profit margins just yet.

      • ANDREW BEER says:

        And which bows were being used with the instruments? Obviously, each violin responds better or worse to different bows, and it takes a long time to find the right matches. Most importantly, as you should know very well, the old violins are more delicate, sensitive and personalized when it comes to playability. It takes more time to get used to them, and to learn how to bring the full potential out of them. Unless such instruments were being played by their owners (or someone who played on them regularly), one can’t expect a fair comparison.

        • ANDREW BEER says:

          And who chose the six instruments? What kind of rules or regulations were set forth to ensure that the selection process would be a fair and impartial one?

        • Jared Johnson says:

          I’m sorry,but what a load of bs. Any instrument can be delicate, sensitive, etc., and to ascribe those attributes to making them superior is simply to propagate some potential myth as to making a preselected instrument superior. You’re showing your bias. At least the study is attempting to remove these biases. For the sound, the sound of the instrument should be the determining factor. As the author points out, “old” violins may be more valuable for historical purposes, but shouldn’t be judged to sound superior based on history rather than sound. Furthermore, of course an owner who has owned the instrument for years could make it sound better, but you certainly couldn’t make a comparison that way. The other instruments they play wouldn’t sound as good. And, if you have different players play each instrument for the audience, you couldn’t remove the skill of the player from the equation.

    • John Soloninka says:

      Andrew….I tried to capture in my essay that before the experiment, I too felt as you do…ie that it is easy to tell which is old italian and which is new. And as a violin maker, have had an added conceit. I would love you to try the experiment, because you would be fooled. I stand on my account and on the unbiased data it presents.

      • John Soloninka says:

        Also…the questions you ask about bows and instruments are answered in the PNAS article.

  15. I do think these kind tests miss the point largely. A violin’s tone has a lot to do with if it is a good match with the bow and this can create a huge difference. A violin can sound great with one bow but awful with another. The opposite is also true that a bow can draw a beautiful sound from one great violin and much less beautiful sound from another equally great violin. In addition, violins from different time periods generally sound better with certain types of bows. (Not to mention, a great violinist can draw great sound on one violin and much less great sound on another equal quality violin.) These are basic common knowledge among professional musicians. Since there is no mentioning of different bows used here, I assume that all instruments were played on the same bow in this test. If that is the case, to this reader, the test has a very weak intellectual base to support the claim it makes, which can only be made from having optimized bow for each instrument and with multiple players playing all the instruments.

  16. Al Miller says:

    My own experience playing old masters has been that they are a little harsh under the ear but that they really can hit the back wall. I have read three reports from participants in the test and two were very capable amateurs and one was a part time gig violinist–not exactly the type of violinists who are experienced handling big solo projection. Even Heifetz had a practice violin for everyday.

    • John Soloninka says:

      Ariane, Laurie and I were only three of the 21…the others were international soloist competitors, former soloists who are now teachers and judges in the competition and symphony musicians. All of the details are in the PNAS paper. It just happens that Laurie, Ariane and I all do some forms of writing as part of our work, and the others are too busy playing their strads to bother writing about it !!! ;-)

  17. This test is good enough to make a nice headline, but it seems that some important facts have not been taken into account:
    - there are indeed some great new instruments, but there are also some Strads that aren´t superb.
    - not every great violin suits every player. It s such a personal choice.
    - never try a violin only in a room, but also in a big hall. Let people sit in the last row and play a pianissimo. This is when you will hear the big differences. A violin that sounds great in a hotel room doesn´t necessarily sound as great in a big hall. Some seem to have a big or beautiful sound next to your ear, but not behind row 10.
    - have all violins actually be played before the test over at least 6-12 months by professionals on a daily base? An instrument that has f.e. been sitting in a safe waiting for a buyer for a certain time “falls asleep”, and it takes a while and some work to wake it up again. Plus, the sound and in particular the response of a violin changes, depending on who played on it lately for a longer time.

    It´s always difficult if you put a price tag on a piece of art. But for me, to have the chance to play on a great Strad is priceless! My own sound imagination has broadened a lot because I have been playing on an amazing violin for many years that gives me all opportunities. It influences me and inspires me, and it is like a great master who teaches you what else is possible.

  18. This is a wonderful discussion. Very interesting to someone like me with little knowledge of these things. Thank you to all who have commented.

  19. Thanks for this. It confirms what I have always felt about the subject. I have mostly played on modern instruments because the older ones were out of my price league, but I always remember violin maker David Rubio saying to me that a Stradivari must have sounded impressive when it was brand new otherwise nobody would have played/bought them at the time. This has stuck with me to this day, if a modern instrument does not ‘work’ immediately, nobody will convince me it will ‘play in’ in a few years time. Besides, professionals haven’t the time to wait! Therefore the logic is: some of the new makers ARE as good as the some of the so-called ‘great masters’. The high value placed on the older instruments is of course based on their antique value and as you say ‘provenance’. I bet the dealers are quaking in their boots…YAY!!!

    • Good point ! the artist buys the instrument that pleases him and answers his needs ,if Paganini had
      walked into his favourite violin shop and tried several instruments and was presented with a “Plutz”
      to play and he liked it , in that famous case to-day would be the famous CannonPlutz and dealers
      would be extolling rare Plutz vioiins and selling them at sky high prices . I doubt dealers are quaking in their boots, they are miles ahead of the ignorant public on how to separate them from their dollars . Did you
      ever go to those dreadful auctions when the latest great violin is on the block – all the puffed up hype, a place where
      they know the price of everything and the value of nothing . For a few people the desire to possess an object at any cost overrides reason. auction houses and dealers operate based on this greed, on the irrational need of
      people to own something rare .it does not have to be good just rare with all the hype that goes with it .

      Unfortunately the person who really looses out in this is the violinist, of which some are part of
      this consumer hucksterism .

  20. I’m starting to have great difficulty taking this seriously. Not that modern violins don’t deserve all of the chance they can get to prove that they are worth taking into consideration. But there is absolutely NOTHING empirical about any of this. It’s all completely subjective. What would be empirical would be dedication to such activities as seeing, if you gave people different instruments, whether certain instruments caused people to play in tune better (which you could measure with electronics, but then there’s just intonation and well tempered intonation); or seeing which instrument helped people be able to have more endurence, caused more people to spontaineously heal from diseases that our nice little tight hospital attendants with all of their nice instruments determining who needs help and who doesn’t could determine. All of this considered medical and empirical with help of these various objects specifically designed to find diseases and make everyone tremble about it (which is meant to be necessary for healing). Just to avoid having tests to see who could play which instrument longest before dropping from exhaustian, here’s another idea (just to have one rather than test out whether it should be forth coming or not). Modern makers, it seems, (don’t quote me) usually make instruments that have been comissioned. They only make about as many a year as Stradivari made in a month, it seems. And mind you this is being compared. In fact, not that this is emperical, but you could see whether 12 times as many Stradivaris ended up have collectively as many positive votes as 12 times less modern violins, and call this proof of something. Since Stradivari made 12 times as many violins in the same amount of time. But I was talking about um (what was I talking about?).. about comissions. Not only did (I think) Stradivari have the freedom to simply make violins without having to have them suite a particular comission with preset desires as to tone productions etc. (he could simply see what the wood had to offer, and perhaps how to let the wood dictate what it was capable of); but in these times one can peruse in a lifetime many Stradivari instruments before chosing one. This isn’t the case with a modern maker (I think) because they are made on comission mostly. Instead of having so many tests, as if the tests determine whether the violin is better, rather than the violin itself; you could see to it people could chose because the violins were simply sold in a store or studio and are available for people to play on without the pressure of having to make an objective choice for test purposes. Regardless, there’s no way that the two situations are truly comparable. Why not just sell violins via a system where people can try various instruments, and have it remain their personal choice based on choice? This way, makers also would be free to simply make a violin where they would endeaver, would strive to make the absolute best out of the wood they had, the mood they were in, their growing knowledge etc, RATHER than having to make a certain sound desired by someone which involves making a copy of an instrument they then proceed to have various tests about proving that their copies are better or as good as what they are copying. And I’m sorry, but having something like 12 times more time to make a violin, having superior tools, electronic equipment, having 300 years of extra knowledge and know how to add to it: Why aren’t ALL modern violin WITHOUT QUESTION completely better? And why would this need to be tested!? And if all these tests, and all this electronic equipment saying this about that frequency there and that part of the spectrum which creates a portal for projection (which is all fascinating); if this all hasn’t unlocked the secrets of how to make unquestionably the best violin, what does this say about the craft of something that’s fortunately still around, but is used for comparison!? I think that the very fact that you are trying to prove that something is as good as or better means you don’t let it speak for itself… And as I said, I can’t take this seriously. If you could take the best players in the world, completely erase from their minds that they played on old Cremonese instruments or what these were like (as if this could be objectively done) and then have them start all over chosing instruments without there being any predetermined criteria (or myth if you want to call it) at large, and then…. TADA!

    • Demented…

    • Heh, I don’t really know who’s supposed to be “demented.” If this is me, that’s fine. Demented at least has some lilt to it: Crazy, Psychotic, Narcisistic have a field day. I don’t care. But there’s a reason that modern violin makers would want to pull the attention away from $$$$$$$$$$$, and as much as these experiments make me laugh… I’m not going along with such platitudes…

    • The thing that got me about this was that, in the end, it would almost seem like some perverse mind control experiment to promote normalcy; that the majority decision means something absolute; and if all the soloists inspiring people to listen to their performances weren’t, while blind folded and under the stress of test conditions, able to pick out what they in their own private time chose for themselves as instruments, this means there’s something deluded going on. And then there’s such a hype as to what’s deluded and that these people aren’t thinking right, it leads to dangerous ideas about the human mind itself. As if it’s possible to objectively decided such and such is deluded, there’s something wrong with these people; they need to get it out of their mind that Stradivari’s and Del Gesu’s are the ultimate, and in the extreme you end up with attempts to erase everything from someone’s mind (because their preference is supposedly based on a myth) like with the MK-Ultra experiments; as if this is constructive based on what doesn’t conform to some tested norm. All because there’s a sensitivity that’s not understood. THIS is why I jumped at the word “demented.” And in the end the human mind is still the greatest “electronic” equipment; And none of this new technology today, or all the dry knowledge you can conjure up is what happened back then when bel canto singing blossomed, projection of sound was being discovered and this was echoed in for example a Del Gesu violin. I’ve yet to hear a violin maker mention they learned how to sing bel canto and this taught them an instinctive relationship with resonance and the blossoming of expression that is beyond all this new “technology.” And now, I think I’ve said enough…

  21. I realize I possibly misused the word emperical when I meant scientific, or did I? [ɛmˈpɪrɪkəl]
    adj
    1. derived from or relating to experiment and observation rather than theory
    2. (Medicine) (of medical treatment) based on practical experience rather than scientific proof
    3. (Philosophy) Philosophy
    a.  (of knowledge) derived from experience rather than by logic from first principles Compare a priori, a posteriori
    b.  (of a proposition) subject, at least theoretically, to verification Compare analytic [4] synthetic [4]
    4. (Medicine) of or relating to medical quackery
    Sorry, but in regards to experiments done with old violins and then “modern” violins which are most likely copies of old violins, and which are used to determine by comparison that they are as good as the violin makers they are copying –.and who made these violins!? – it once again proves that Not only did Stradivari make the most violins himself but by conduit he also has the majority; and no one stands in that same light as him except Del Gesu… UNTIL you see that what they did was innate to the human condition and part of what makes everyone human.

    I can’t really take this need to prove anything seriously, and I think that Quantum Physics when taken seriously only proves that in trying to prove something, you separate yourself from what it is you were looking for in the first place. Anyone who needs “proof” that their own personal choice for a violin is as good as the other brand, isn’t making a personal choice, according to me.

  22. John Soloninka says:

    I wanted to change the perspective of the discussions on these various threads.

    Many of you are making very valid observations of how the experiment was not “ideal”. Ideally, you are looking to test the best quality strad and del gesu agains the best quality modern instrument with players that have equally played in on all instruments, with the ideal bows, in halls and close up, in a way that avoids bias in assessment.

    We are never going to be able to do such a study for obvious reasons.

    But is that what we really need to test to bust the myth of the superiority of old master instruments?:

    - The general mythology is that Strads and GdGs are head and shoulders above all other instruments, old and new…so much so that they are worth millions! What “far above others” is in quality is never defined…just a subjective impression. But if SOUND were the factor that led to a $3M price tag vs $30K (and it is not)…then they would have to be at least 50% better in “performance” or more to be unusually good…and would therefore be seen, even on a bad day, to be better than modern instruments..
    - Thus, in this experiment, if you take fine old instruments, in relatively good playing condition, having been used recently for recordings etc. they are representative of a “class” of instruments that should be head and shoulders above all others.
    - So if you knock off 10 or 20% performance for set up, play in, repairs, age, phase of the moon, temperature on the face of the sun, you should still be playing a mythological great thing that is 50% better than the new highly inferior violins (using current mythology) that these lowly modern humans make!!!
    - For people to say: “Well..which strads were they? Some strads are of lesser quality/tired/frail/substantially altered, and are therefore not good examples (and yet are worth millions!!!). Sounds a bit funny to me…you are saying there is a range of quality of instruments…and not a mythological better class of instruments…only good ones that a good maker made. Hmmm…read on for what conclusion we should be drawing on this.

    The additional facts are these:
    - All instruments were tested in the same way…imperfect though it may be…both in the room and on stage (they were tested on stage as well! Go back to the articles to confirm this…and the answer was again equivocal…no big difference between old and new).
    - All but 4 players used their own bows, and I was able to choose from 4 excellent bows…the bow was not an issue.
    - Bow choice can optimize sound and playing dynamics…and comfort. But the differences are second order NOT first oder. If they are all $10K+ bows…you are NOT going to have one bow produce crappy sound on one violin and golden sound on another.
    - People assume that all of the potential degrading things were all combined and biased against the old ones (Bow, set up, strings, repairs, play in, etc.) whereas these things were all idea for the new ones. It would not happen that way…if those factors were at play, there would be aspects for and against old and new instruments. After all, the new violin that was 3 days old was not played in…and yet was perceived as better than a strad!

    Seems like people are you looking for ways to discredit the study, rather than looking for what the study does tell us.

    Ask yourself a different set of questions:
    - Given the study, imperfect though it may be, what does it tell you that 3 old masters in good condition, used professionally, are either the same as or less preferred than new ones?
    - What does it tell you that a new instrument was statistically significantly preferred over the old masters?
    And that these findings have been repeated in other less ideal settings…but still showing the same indistinguishable results. In those less-than-ideal settings, single-blinded, behind the curtain experiments, the experimental bias would have been against the new instruments…yet the new ones still seem to be equal to the old masters.
    - If as some have said, that the players can get more subtlety in colour out of an old master…how is this manifested or even valuable if only you can feel it, but no one can hear it. This was not tested in the experiment…but I wonder…if this is what the difference between old masters and new is, is it really a mythologically superior class of instruments?

    What this experience and many years of observation tell me is several things:
    - There is NO mystery about violin making : good makers then and today can make great instruments (although tremendous skill and knowledge/experience required).
    - Every maker makes a spectrum of instrument quality, some outstanding, some good and some poor…and over time…the outstanding ones will be coveted and cared for and played.
    - Over time, if only the best samples of a maker’s output survive, then the impression will be formed that all of his work is outstanding.
    - There is tremendous psychological and financial bias in valuing violins….anyone who talks about comparisons that are not double blinded is fooling themselves.

    All of us who walked into that experiment believed that we could tell them apart…me included. All of the instruments sounded great…none of them was a clunker or inferior. We could easily tell them apart…but not consistently tell which was an old italian vs a new one. They were different in character etc…but all of them were great. So this is not about crappy old ones verses biased outstanding new ones.

    So rather than dwelling on how the study was imperfect…as a engineer, scientist, violinist, violin maker or whatever you may be….what does the study result tell you about old vs new and relative pricing?

    j

  23. It tells you that
    concerning violins beware of dealers and auctions houses .
    That many “new violins ” are as good as “old ” and the pricing is based on hype
    facilitated by extravagant articles often fed to the newspapers.
    Now I read they are comparing violins to paintings and sculpture.
    $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ rules .

  24. John Soloninka says:

    I am totally fine with a violin being worth millions because it was made by Stradivari, is gorgeous, and pwned/played by people like F. David, Alard, a Russian Monarch, Vieuxtemps, Wieniewski, Ysaye, Stern, etc. What an incredible history!!!

    I just don’t want someone telling me that that same instrument has a magical quality of sound that cannot be matched orreproduced today and is better than anything else ever to be built!

    Also, eventually all of the old instruments will be too frail to be played professionally, and that’s OK. We have an endless supply of similarly good-playing instruments from today’s top makers! ;-)

    • The irony will be that certain contemporary makers will be similarly ‘hyped’ and the whole thing goes full circle :-)

    • Well, I’m not fine with it being worth millions when it puts it beyond the price range of just about all soloists that would actually play it. That IS corruption based on making something more of an investment than an instrument; leaving most players in this day, even the most highly paid ones, not capable of ever really owning or being able to chose their own from such a price range. Also, EVERY true top quality concert instrument has a magical quality of sound that cannot be matched or reproduced today, yesterday tomorrow or what have you, for the very reason that it’s a completely unique instrument, regardless of whether it was made in Cremona, on the moon, Tomorrow, or last week. Why don’t you stop comparing modern instruments to others yourself or acknowledge how inspiring the ones you compare them too are, since you have to constantly compare moderns to theirs to make “moderns” out to be as good!? The Stradivari’s and Del Gesu’s have lasted long enough they’ll last enough longer, and I don’t see some great injustice that the top players prefer them. If there was another maker that was at their level, and who would inspire generations after him to imitation…. that would be a different story. But that’s not one separate person, that’s one person daring to touch into something that’s an innate part of the human condition for everyone, inclusive.

    • So you are willing to pay millions for history lesson -plus fiddle.
      How many millions for history and how many for fiddle – I can get the history for a few bucks at most.
      Speaks volumes ……………….

      • John Soloninka says:

        Ariel…not sure if you were referring to me when you said “you are willing to pay millions”. I am saying that if you ignore the sound and playing aspect, a violin is like any other historical artifact…and the price is what people will pay for it. I would NEVER pay such prices, but others may. I only have an interest in the playing quality of the instrument.

        Keith…that good makers’ instruments will be “promoted” for their good playing qualities and hence increasing their price…that is inevitable. As long as the quality is objectively true, and not misrepresented (like the magical irreproducible qualities of a Strad), the quality should merit higher price…but only as high as working musicians are willing to pay…as investors won’t be interested in paying for professional work tools, rather than historical gems. In what world would you impose on violin makers and dealers a system of “price controls” forcing them to sell their stuff for what some people think is “reasonable” …In whose opinion?! On what basis should a auction be given an upper limit? Is this not a free world? Should I limit what you can get for your house (with the “one-of-a-kind” ambiance, close to subway and schools, high quality finishes, wonderful view) because new home buyers won’t be able to afford it?

        Roelof….how are market forces “corrupt”? Are you saying that Aaron Rosand’s violin, put up at auction, garners $12M or something recently….that there is “corruption”, i.e. illegality at work? I don’t think so. Very unfortunate perhaps, ill-advised, perhaps, etc. Hyped?? Well…I don’t think the provenance and history is misrepresented (e.g. in Aaron Rosand’s case)….for corruption, or more accurately fraud, people have to be misrepresenting something. I DO think that the hype is about how magical and irreproducible the sound is….because I think the sound IS reproducible. If an instrument IS fraudulently misrepresented…throw the seller in jail!

        As I said above, increasing numbers of 300 year old instruments are frail, with many repairs, grafts etc. and over time, with wear and tear of professional use as concert instruments, will degrade further. So over time, soloists WILL lose the opportunity to play old instruments, due to both price and wear.

        J

        • John – the quotation marks you used make it look like you are misquoting me. Of course I agree that ‘ “price controls” ‘ are impossible, who would possibly suggest such a thing?. However I do disagree with your point ‘ investors won’t be interested in paying for professional work tools, rather than historical gems’. There are many collectors of modern instruments who publish catalogues of their collections, and many professional or amateur players who collect also, just like there are many collectors of modern art. What’s the difference?

  25. Violin makers, like other artists, tend to be judged on their body of work weighted towards their best works. There are throwaway Picassos and Dalis but every scribble is worth more at auction than artists judged less historically important. In the same way, the greatest violin maker is revered by high prices for all his work, even those that were butchered in the 19th Century.

    The dilemma here is that this artifact has a function. Violin players can’t afford the best violins, which then fall into disuse and lose some of their tone. OTOH if they are being used, they are at risk from the constant travel of a soloist’s career.

    I can’t think of anything simple that will curb the appetite of the wealthy to own history. I think it is obvious that modern instruments are not going to command megabucks even if they sound as good, because SOUND ALONE IS NOT WORTH THAT MUCH. Working violinists should be happy to use replaceable instruments with living makers and audiences should listen instead of reading program notes about the rare violin used in the concert.

  26. Jared Johnson says:

    I think that the way we react to this study says a lot about the way that we react to classical music. We’re afraid to acknowledge that modern makers could make instruments that are “as good as” the classic makers because in part tradition and history are such an important part of our music and the way that we see the medium. But, to outsiders and, frankly, those who we will depend on to maintain the relevance of classical music in the future, to hold old masters (dead people) up to some higher standard is really off-putting to new audiences. They feel as though they’re not welcome (and, truthfully, for some, perhaps they aren’t). To see this study as only denigrating old masters seems to me to reinforce stereotypes that we’re not objective or willing to accept change. That’s damaging both to modern instrument makers, but also to the ability of us to adapt to embrace new composers, new ideas, and new forums for our music, to change in ways that will allow us to grow (or at least hold on to) audiences, and for our symphonies and orchestras to survive in the increasingly fragmented music world, and heck, just *overall* world where options continue to increase and attention continues to be fragmented.

    Stradivarius need not be afraid. A modern instrument made by a modern maker will never *approach* the monetary value of Strad, today or in the future. So, what do we need to be afraid of to admit that, maybe, for the majority of people, you can’t hear a difference? How does this denigrate the master?

    It doesn’t bother me that the study may be flawed. It doesn’t even bother me that the study could be “wrong.” What does concern me is that we seem incapable of admitting that maybe, just maybe, the study could be *right.*

  27. Connoisseur says:

    Playing and comparing well made instruments, whether old or new, is one thing. (Everyone is entitled to their ‘opinion’ of such experiences, but opinions are like rectal orfices – everybody has one.) Net worth? “0″…

    However, living with fine old Italian violins (24/7) is another universe. Finding and identifying the ‘soi-disant’ 17th/18th century Cremonese masterpiece is all together a joy unto itself. That’s what I do and can say categorically that there are instruments yet to be heard (on the concert stage) that will blow the varnish off anything that’s been seen or heard since Guarneri del Gesu died, or since any reproduction was created by any ‘modern’ luthier — since ‘modern’ luthiery began. What’s that? You don’t believe it? Really? Why?
    Because you’ve heard that they’re all ‘accounted for’? That ain’t so! Trust me, I am not a doctor….

    John A. Thornton
    Brewton, Alabama

  28. Glad you ain’t a doctor , can just imagine the frightening state of medicine – One would have to discern
    somehow whether your “o” is just that or could it reflect what is in ones head .

    • Connoisseur says:

      It’s “0″, not “o”.
      Well, my head might be full of useless knowledge but sharing any of it didn’t happen last night.
      What’s your problem?

  29. Modern scientists study the ancient mysteries regarding old violins

    April 1984
    April 2000 January 2012
    1). Finally found, the secret of Stradivarius
    Fritz Reuter 1984 Focus Report
    (German translation available) 2). Science and the Stradivarius
    Colin Gough – Physics Web 3). Violinist can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and new ones
    Discover Magazine – January 2012

  30. A few things:
    A violin is a partner. That’s a choice made in a completely personal manner. A group of people who I won’t name, have made such a choice and they are the most reknowned violinists on the planet and they have for the majority by far chosen Guarneri’s, Stradivari’s or other Cremonese or “old” instruments. They aren aren’t taking part in these experiments. They made their choice in their own private space much as anyone would making such a personal choice. And just to show how this should remain personal, because it is a personal choice. Is this anyway to do things, when a someone thinks that so and so should have chosen his daughter for their wife because she would be as good a partner or better, to suggest that so and so should test out his ability to see which is better while blindfolded under test conditions with a time limit? I think that many of these people also do have a modern instrument which they comissioned, or a copy of their instrument, but it’s usually not their first choice. I don’t see modern violin makers all going broke because the top soloists aren’t playing their instruments (and certainly the dealers aren’t, many of whom are also makers).
    When a different person plays the same violin, it’s as if it becomes a different instrument. And so an instrument with a definite personality is going to find it’s partner, even though most other people might not like it.
    Stradivari, Del Gesu and other older violins as investments have become a whole new splurge for the wealthiest people (thanks to trends created by such people as Machold, who now has been arrested for fraud). This has brought the prices up and up and up; and because they go up and up and up and up, they become good investments and the prices go up and up and up and up. This is just games with money and investments. It’s corrupt. It’s not about history, it’s not about the quality of the violins. And it’s not why the violins were made.

  31. Claudia Fritz says:

    Dear John,
    Let me thank you publicly (as I’ve already done so by email) for this wonderful article. I’d like to thank you as well for your dedication to respond to the numerous comments and reactions: you’re doing an amazing job to defend our study! :-)
    A webpage is now available about the study
    http://www.lam.jussieu.fr/Membres/Fritz/HomePage/Indianapolis.html
    In addition to the complete paper (livened up with some pics!), you and your readers can read our responses to the most frequently leveled criticisms.
    Best wishes.
    Claudia

an ArtsJournal blog