In the minds of many musicians, no instrument can compare to a Stradivarius. Just last month, a festival was held in Los Angeles featuring eight violins crafted by Antonio Stradivari in the early 18th century—further evidence of the unique fascination they hold.
But are these revered instruments truly superior to their contemporary counterparts? A newly published study, which describes a blind comparison test performed by 10 world-class violinists, strongly suggests the answer is no.
The results “present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about old Italian violins,” writes a research team led by Claudia Fritz of the University of Paris. Its study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The data rather clearly demonstrate the inability of the players to reliably guess an instrument’s age."
Fritz and her colleagues conducted an initial experiment comparing old and new violins in 2010, which also found Stradivarius instruments are not inherently superior to newer ones. Not surprisingly, that study was greeted with some skepticism, in part for the way it was structured. Participants were a mix of players with various levels of expertise, and all only spent one hour examining the instruments.
For their follow-up, they decided to restrict participation to 10 world-class violinists, all award winners and experienced soloists. During two 75-minute sessions—one in a rehearsal room, the other in a 300-seat concert hall renowned for its acoustics—they played six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new ones.
“During both sessions, soloists wore modified welders’ goggles, which together with much-reduced ambient lighting made it impossible to identify instruments by eye,” the researchers write. In addition, the new violins were sanded down a bit to “eliminate any tactile clues to age, such as unworn corners and edges.”
“The experiment was designed around the hypothetical premise that each soloist was looking for a violin to replace his or her own instrument for an upcoming solo tour. Tests were structured to emulate, as far as possible, the way a player might do this search in real life.”
In the concert hall, the violinists were given free reign: They could ask for feedback from a designated friend or colleague, and a pianist was on hand so they could play excerpts from sonatas on the various violins.
Afterwards, they rated each instrument for various qualities, including tone quality, projection, articulation/clarity, “playability,” and overall quality. Finally, they briefly played six to eight of the instruments and guessed whether each was old or new.
The results: Six of the soloists chose new violins as their hypothetical replacement instruments, while four chose ones made by Stradivari. One particular new violin was chosen four times, and one Stradivarius was chosen three times, suggesting those instruments were the clear favorites.
“Among these players (seven of whom regularly play Old Italian violins) and these instruments (five of which were made by Stradivari), there is an overall preference for the new,” the researchers write. “Ratings for individual quality criteria suggest that this preference is related mainly to better articulation, playability, and estimated projection (in the new instruments)—but without tradeoffs in timbre.”
That last point may be the key. Seven of the soloists said in an interview that they find general differences between old and new violins, including “new violins are easier to play,” and old ones “have more colors, personality, character, and refinement, and are sweeter and mellower than new ones.”
That latter belief appears to be inaccurate, Fritz and her colleagues write—at least if those characteristics “can be considered aspects of timbre.”
Regarding the guesses over whether an instrument was old or new, 31 were right and 33 were wrong. “The data rather clearly demonstrate the inability of the players to reliably guess an instrument’s age,” the researchers write.
So the centuries-old search for the secrets of Stradivari—what combination of wood, varnish, and craftsmanship made his instruments stand out—may be based on myth. As the researchers put it: “Given the stature and experience of our soloists, continuing claims for the existence of playing qualities unique to Old Italian violins are strongly in need of empirical support.”
You might call that a shot across the bow.