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Debunking the Myth of the Miraculous Stradivarius

New research finds audiences cannot reliably distinguish between the sound of new instruments and old masters.
The double bass section of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in performance, circa 1975.

The double bass section of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in performance, circa 1975.

For all the otherworldly creatures and Norse gods it evokes, classical music's most pervasive myth arguably involves old Italian instruments. For two centuries, artists and audiences have passively accepted the received truth that Antonio Stradivari and a handful of other 16th-century masters made violins and cellos that have yet to be improved upon.

French researcher Claudia Fritz has been gradually debunking this notion. In a 2014 experiment, she found 10 world-class violinists who blind-tested old and new instruments and could not reliably tell them apart—and, when pressed, tended to prefer the newer ones.

OK, but what about the real judges—concertgoers? In a just-released follow-up study, Fritz and her colleagues report Strads failed to stand out for two audiences comprised of musically sophisticated listeners—one in France and another in New York.

"The new violins were generally preferred," the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old."

"It may be that recent generations of violin makers have closed the gap between old and new," they speculate. "Or it may be that the gap was never so wide as commonly believed."

The new study described two experiments: One conducted at a small concert hall outside Paris, featuring 55 listeners, and another at the Great Hall of New York's Cooper Union Building, with 82 people in attendance. The French audience featured musicians, music critics, violin makers, and acousticians; the New York experiment was a public event within Mondomusicia, an exhibition of handcrafted musical instruments.

The players were all world-class violinists: Seven in Paris, and two in New York (Elizabeth Pitcairn and Giora Schmidt). All wore modified welders' goggles so they could not identify by sight which instrument they were playing.

Audiences in both cities listened to the same passages played back-to-back on a Stradivarius and a modern instrument. Paris audiences also heard excerpts from popular concertos, with the solo violinist accompanied by an orchestra. Listeners indicated which instrument they preferred, and which they felt projected its sound more effectively.

"The results are unambiguous," Fritz and her colleagues write. Whether the player was performing solo or with an orchestra, "Listeners found that new violins projected significantly better than those by Stradivari. Moreover, listeners preferred new violins over old by a significant margin."

In addition, Paris audiences were asked "to guess whether each of seven violins was old or new. In all, just 122 of 273 (or 44.7 percent) of the guesses were correct."

In an earlier series of evaluations, four out of 10 soloists chose a Stradivarius as the instrument "best suited to replace their own violin for an upcoming tour." Well, surprise: These new results show they "chose violins with significantly less projection than the two best-projecting new violins." The researchers note dryly that this confirms "the wisdom of bringing a trusted listener along when trying out instruments."

As Fritz and her colleagues concede, their studies featured only a handful of instruments; it's conceivable that the Strads they used were not representative. Even if that's true, however, their results suggest his treasured creations vary in quality, which belies their uniformly exulted status.

The precise properties of a great violin have always been something of a mystery, and this research doesn't change that. It does, however, suggest modern makers may be just as likely as their artisan ancestors to forge a first-class fiddle.