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Music Science

Elite Violinists Can't Distinguish Between a Stradivarius and a Modern Violin 469

Posted by samzenpus
from the have-you-tried-the-gold-cables? dept.
sciencehabit (1205606) writes "If you know only one thing about violins, it is probably this: A 300-year-old Stradivarius supposedly possesses mysterious tonal qualities unmatched by modern instruments. However, even elite violinists cannot tell a Stradivarius from a top-quality modern violin, a new double-blind study suggests. Like the sound of coughing during the delicate second movement of Beethoven's violin concerto, the finding seems sure to annoy some people, especially dealers who broker the million-dollar sales of rare old Italian fiddles. But it may come as a relief to the many violinists who cannot afford such prices."
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Elite Violinists Can't Distinguish Between a Stradivarius and a Modern Violin

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  • by Richy_T (111409) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:31PM (#46688041) Homepage

    I bet that's worth a fair bit.

  • by Tablizer (95088) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:32PM (#46688055) Journal

    It's because they are "playing it wrong" in the tests

    • by exomondo (1725132) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:55PM (#46689023)

      It's because they are "playing it wrong" in the tests

      No it's because they weren't using Monster Cables!

    • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @07:50AM (#46692805)

      They should have listened to it through top quality Bose speakers, connected to a 1930's vintage mic and amp with oxygen-free Monster cables. I bet then they would know the difference.

  • Moo (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chacham (981) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:33PM (#46688067) Homepage Journal

    Important paragraphs:

    Fritz cautions that the study is too small and too subjective to draw broader conclusions about new or old violins in general. "Our observation is about these 12 violins," she says. "Maybe if we had done this with 12 other violins people might have been able to tell the difference." One aim of the study was to determine what violinists look for in an instrument, which remains hard to quantify scientifically. "I donâ(TM)t like violins that are too direct," says soloist Solenne PaÃdassi. "I like a sound that's more diffuse."

    Not everyone is convinced that there isn't something special about the old instruments. Hou says she found the study somewhat artificial in that choosing an instrument for one tour isn't the same thing as choosing one to use for the long haul. A modern instrument may sound better right away she says, but an old Italian may be able to produce more colors of sound that only become apparent after months of use, she says. "I played the Avery Fisher Stradivarius for 6 years," she says, "and it took me 3 years just to get accustomed to it."

    • Re:Moo (Score:5, Funny)

      by seepho (1959226) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:51PM (#46688295)
      Too late. The summary already gave our resident armchair-experts enough fodder laugh over how everyone is stupid except them.
      • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

        by LordLimecat (1103839) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:04PM (#46688453)

        Forgive me, but

        colors of sound that only become apparent after months of use, she says. "I played the Avery Fisher Stradivarius for 6 years," she says, "and it took me 3 years just to get accustomed to it."

        Sounds an awful lot like

        Simply put these are very danceable cables. Music playing through them results in the proverbial foot-tapping scene with the need or desire to get up and move.

        Elitists come in many shapes and sizes. That doesnt mean there universally substance behind their claims.

        • by seepho (1959226)
          But there's not much substance to the study, either. You're doing exactly what you're complaining about.
          • Re:Moo (Score:4, Interesting)

            by sexconker (1179573) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:01PM (#46689093)

            But there's not much substance to the study, either. You're doing exactly what you're complaining about.

            It's a double blind test. Elitists can't pick out the over priced, over hyped thing from the other things. What more do you want?

            Audiophiles, wine connoisseurs, art critics, and fashion designers are the masters of bullshit. They even trump holistic healers and political/religious leaders/zealots.

            • Re:Moo (Score:4, Informative)

              by Wootery (1087023) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:44PM (#46689453)

              They even trump holistic healers and political/religious leaders/zealots.

              I don't think that's necessary the same crowd as the audiophiles and wine-tasters...

              (Granted it's a similar form of bullshit: the kind which, in a happier alternate universe, is illegal by means of false-advertising law.)

      • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:26PM (#46688689)

        Too late. The summary already gave our resident armchair-experts enough fodder laugh over how everyone is stupid except them.

        Except the armchair-experts are probably right. There is a huge number of precedents for snobs thinking their choice is objectively superior, but being unable to distinguish them in a blind test:

        1. French wines consistently win tasting contests over California wines, yet have no advantage in blind tastings.
        2. Steinway pianos are indistinguishable from other high end (but much cheaper) pianos, when played out of sight.
        3. Some of Rembrandt's greatest paintings, the very paintings that made him "great", and were considered quintessential Rembrandt masterpieces that could never be equaled by lesser artists, turned out to be fakes.
        4. Monster gold plated cables.

        • Re:Moo (Score:5, Informative)

          by Solandri (704621) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:25PM (#46689287)
          Your analogies are wrong. If you read TFA, this isn't a case of people being unable to distinguish between the instruments in a blind test. It's pretty clear the violinists playing the instruments (blindfolded) could tell the instruments apart. It's just that when they tallied up which violins they most preferred playing, a modern one got the most votes.

          I'd say this is more a testament to how much modern violin building has improved. It's no longer a black art like it had been for centuries. With modern measuring instruments like accelerometers and oscilloscopes and computer analysis, it's become possible to deconstruct what made the violins crafted by the old masters so great. Then replicate many of those features into modern violins. This in no way diminishes the reputation that Stradivarius violins have built up with centuries of use. It just means modern building techniques have finally caught up to and surpassed what Antonio Stradivarius was able to do in his shop 3 centuries ago.

          And I've played on many Steinway pianos. I probably cannot tell from the sound if the music is coming from a Steinway, but I sure as hell can tell if the piano I'm playing on is a Steinway. There are subtle nuances from the weighting of the keys, to the dynamic range between soft and loud, to the consistency of the weighting and tone of the notes as you play them in sequence which are characteristic of Steinway. As a friend of mine said, it's like playing on butter - so soft and responsive. (I'd add easy, except Steinway tends to weight their keys rather heavily, making them not so easy to play for younger/smaller people. The German Steinways are more guilty of this than the NY Steinways; some of the heavier ones will give your fingers quite a workout.) The cheapest piano I've played on where it was obvious the builder paid attention to little details like this was $22k, and that one still had flaws in its tone and feel. Most of the pianos I'd consider comparable to a good Steinway for playing on are in the $50k+ range - the same as a Steinway.
        • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @08:23PM (#46690049)

          I remember once I was practicing billiards in the afternoon. A group of young adults came in and played at the table beside me. I was just messing aroung but making some impressive shots consistently and when asked how I did something, I showed them but went back to my own thing.

          After an hour of this, they weren't very trying but not very good at making the shots I showed them and I was running racks of 9 ball in self practice and a few trick shots, they asked with a lot of admiration how much I paid for my pool stick. It was a two piece, carbon fiber looking thing that was matte gray-black and looked rather pretty and sleek. I told the truth. $19.99 at walmart.

          Immediately, something about them changed. I still don't know exactly what. Maybe I was no longer a billiard magician honing his craft with his expensive and unobtainable wand but just some hustler with a cheap stick playing parlor tricks anybody could do with some practice, but they went quiet and we interacted little the rest of the night I was there.

          If I had told them $500, but that it was only my practice stick and not the expensive one I use only on tournaments, they would probably have believed me and marveled at it and my skill some more, and probably commented how they wished they could afford such a fine piece and that my real cue must be really something.

        • Re:Moo (Score:5, Informative)

          by phantomfive (622387) on Monday April 07, 2014 @09:20PM (#46690293) Journal

          2. Steinway pianos are indistinguishable from other high end (but much cheaper) pianos, when played out of sight.

          Wow, this is completely not true. I can teach you how to hear the differences.

          One of the most important differences is the scale design, how does the designer want the piano to sound? Do you want a note to sound clear like a bell, or have more color, like a trumpet (in terms of sound waves, the bell tone will emphasize the fundamental, the colorful tone will emphasize the overtones more). Steinway chooses to make the middle and upper notes clear like a bell, and the lower notes more colorful. Steingraeber (another top piano) chooses to make it clear like a bell all the way through. Bosendorfer is notable for the extremely clear tones in the low bass.

          Next up is the sound for the milliseconds when the note hits, and the sound of the sustain. Pleyel makes their pianos sound 'colorful' when the note hits by adjusting the hammer density, but during the sustain the note becomes more clear.

          Another difference is the length of the sustain of the note. Once again, Steingraeber chooses to make the sustain on their piano last much longer, as compared to the Steinway, which chooses to have a shorter sustain.

          There are plenty of other differences. Now, this isn't to say you will always be able to tell a difference. Yamaha in the last few years has changed their high-end piano to sound more like the Steinway. Furthermore, Steinways are inconsistent in quality; since they are made by hand, you can get two Steinways that are not of the same standard, which is frustrating when you are trying to buy one.

          So, if a piano technician is trying to trick someone, they can probably get the right Steinway and the right Yamaha and adjust the voicing so the person will be tricked, but when a Steinway is regulated to its best, and a Bechstein is regulated to its best, the differences are clear and easy to distinguish.

    • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

      by the gnat (153162) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:06PM (#46688465)

      A modern instrument may sound better right away she says, but an old Italian may be able to produce more colors of sound that only become apparent after months of use, she says.

      The phrase "confirmation bias" springs immediately to mind. People hear what they want to hear, and the knowledge that they're playing on a three-century-old, million-dollar violin gives them certain expectations.

      • A modern instrument may sound better right away she says, but an old Italian may be able to produce more colors of sound that only become apparent after months of use, she says.

        The phrase "confirmation bias" springs immediately to mind. People hear what they want to hear, and the knowledge that they're playing on a three-century-old, million-dollar violin gives them certain expectations.

        If that were the case, then you'd expect them to think the older, more valuable one sounded better right away, not the newer, less special one; so this seems to be a statement against confirmation bias.

        • Re:Moo (Score:4, Informative)

          by the gnat (153162) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:39PM (#46688835)

          If that were the case, then you'd expect them to think the older, more valuable one sounded better right away, not the newer, less special one; so this seems to be a statement against confirmation bias.

          The problem is that the quote I was addressing was comparing a more subjective, post-hoc judgment to an approximately objective evaluation. (I say "approximately objective" because it's hard to do something like this perfectly objectively; the article addresses a number of the limitations involved.) The blind test showed that the violinists' preferences - based purely on sound qualities - after an hour of playing had no correlation to the provenance of the violin. The complaint of the quoted study participant was that this was unfair because she only understood how special the Strad she used after months of playing it. The difference is that she knew exactly what that instrument was, and her knowledge almost certainly informed her feelings about it.

      • by Immerman (2627577)

        It just sounds better when caressed by the ghost of Stradivarius.

        On the other hand I bet you you've bought a car/bike/game/etc. at some point in your life that was great fun initially, but had annoying little aspects that weren't immediately obvious but started started to really bug you over time. Or similarly started a game that seemed like just a way to kill some time until something decent comes out, only to discover that it possessed some ineffable quality that made it one of your favorites. You can't

    • Another big issue is that these were 12 top of the line violins. Its pretty impressive honestly to say that violins that hundreds of years old can sound identical to 12 top of the line modern violins. No other 300 year old instrument is likely to sound as good as a modern top of the line version.

    • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)
      Even more importantly, the number of True Scotsman arguments that the Strads are different is almost limitless.

      We will however know that we are nearing the end of them when the Majick argument comes into play:

      "The Strads know, and they refuse to play better than the other violins when they know they are being tested"

      I already know musicians that believe that magic was used in the construction of Strads, (as well as Zildjan cymbals) so it isn't at all unlikely they will use the same excuses that the E

  • misleading title (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:35PM (#46688107)

    "cannot tell the difference" -- that's not what is being said here. Instead, the violinists were asked which ones they preferred. Certainly they could distinguish between them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:37PM (#46688135)

    This is nothing new. Audiophiles and musicians are notoriously stubborn when it comes to accepting reality. There are still people who insist that vinyl records are a more genuine/accurate representation of sound than digital formats. There are people who insist that they can hear the difference between 320kbps mp3s (using the highest-quality available compressor) and their uncompressed counterparts.

    Science and math proves all of these things wrong, yet people still insist they're right.

  • by istartedi (132515) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:37PM (#46688143) Journal

    Yes, but you *can* tell the difference if you play the recordings on the original vinyl with a tube amp. That's how Stradivarius intended his instruments to be heard. He even held the wood close to a fire for a few minutes, to give it that warm sound.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      nice.

    • Damn! *stands and claps*

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Your jest might not be too far from the truth. While the violinist are extremely skilled in their playing ability. Are they of equal skill in listening, to the degree an audiophile would be? The older violins will have more of an earthy sound. A bit flatter but with greater depth and woody-ness. (My experience on this is my 1920 German violin to my 1990 Italian one) The influence of modern day size and dynamic compression techniques in recordings has in general made us treble happy. We like sharper more acu

    • You're unwittingly pointing out the flaw in the study. The Stradivarius arguments been going on for hundreds of years... the tube amp argument for 30. But technology has changed. New violins are better than what was made even 10 years ago. The same goes for transistor amps (at least in regards to instrument amplifiers) If I were to play guitar for you on a 1950s tube amp, and then a 1980s transistor amp you would immediately declare the transistor amp utter crap. Trained ear or not. Now if I were to use one

  • by jfengel (409917) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:39PM (#46688161) Homepage Journal

    People have some kind of innate (or maybe learned, but deep) fondness for "authentic". They'll pay for things that were touched by celebrities, as if there's some kind of magic that's transmitted through it.

    These were, almost surely, the best violins available. The Stradavari family had extraordinary skill, surpassing anybody else at the time. It's remarkable and amazing that it should take us centuries to make other instruments with similar precision, balance, and quality.

    But it's not amazing that we should eventually do so. There was no magic to these instruments, just tremendous hard work and a commitment to quality. These are rare, but hardly unique, especially over the course of centuries.

    Let us appreciate these for what they are: remarkable artifacts of history, hand-made to extreme precision, durable enough to stand the test of time and be selected for their quality. There's no point in adding an additional layer of BS about some magic, unattainable extra that can't possibly be reproduced. It doesn't diminish the instrument, nor does it make every hack a great musician. Great instruments and great musicians will continue to make great music; surely that should be enough without sullying it with gullibility.

    • by ArcadeMan (2766669) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:00PM (#46688387)

      Just like ancien mechanical clocks are marvels of engineering especially at the time of their fabrication, they're totally imprecise compared to even a low-cost crystal-clock Timex plastic watch.

    • by Beerdood (1451859)
      I this same sort of parallel with guitars as well; all of my musician friends that play guitar seem to highly value older guitars (made in the 60's and 70's) over those made recently. And they're not just valued for their sentimental value; every decent guitar player I've met seems to have some sort of fascination with vintage guitars and *knows* the sound is considerably better than anything they can buy today. I don't see this parallel with non-string instruments, such as brass, woodwinds, percussion or
  • by geekoid (135745)

    have some play a few violins of different quality and record them.
    See if there is even a scientifically measurable different in the sound. At that point you can determine if any change that may be there is within the optimal human range to detect.
    Of course that's just sound, it could mechanically be better, or feel better when held.

    • There will surely be a difference from example to example; that's not the debate. The debate is whether the old instruments are preferable.
  • I'm an OK violinist (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:40PM (#46688167)

    I'm in my mid-thirties now, and have been playing since I was 5. I played 5 hours a week until high school, which rose to nearly 10 a week. I took a hiatus from playing in college. I play about twice a month now, having many other demands on my time. I'm not all that good, but I enjoy it and hope to pass some form of love of playing music to my children.

    I can tell the difference between my crappy violin and nicer ones in the store. Do you know how much a top quality modern violin costs?

    These things aren't remotely affordable. A crappy old one might cost $1,000. A top quality modern one will cost you what a decent house might. Saying that a modern violin is more affordable than a Strad is like saying that a Bugatti Veyron is more affordable than a F-16 fighter jet. I'm not buying either one.

    • by the gnat (153162)

      I can tell the difference between my crappy violin and nicer ones in the store. Do you know how much a top quality modern violin costs?

      Perhaps a few multiples of $10,000; I've never heard of new instruments going for significantly more than this. (Only the best grand pianos cost that much.) If you're a professional musician, an investment like this isn't unreasonable, and is certainly much more attainable than a Strad. I also know amateurs who play on instruments (not just violins) that cost as much as a

      • by Mithrandir (3459) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:20PM (#46689245) Homepage

        "Few multiples" of $10K won't buy you much in the range of around half the orchestral instruments. You'd be flat out trying to pay $30K for a pair of Clarinets or a trumpet, but the less popular instruments can get very, very pricey. As a bassoonist, many of our top of the line instruments are rather expensive. A good Fox or Heckel will be around $30K - 50K USD before custom keywork is factored in (can add up to $10K to the base price). My Fox Contra was, 10 years ago USD $30K so it would be significantly more than that to replace it now. If I was to purchase the same instruments here in Oz about triple that price in AUD.

        Double basses and 'cellos also are upwards of $50K in the USA for good ones. Harpsichords also up over $30K for a reasonable one that wasn't assembled from a kit (lots in kit form for $15-20K). Harps also waaay up there in price. That's just from instruments I'm personally familiar with that I either play or someone in my family plays.

  • It's well known that many Stradivarius violins have only average sound quality- and there hundreds of them.

  • can distinguish sounds of a violine much better than I'm able to play a violine.
    In fact: I cant play a violine at all.
    Who came to the brain dead idea that an elitist violinist has perfect ears? (I have perfect ears, I'm 47 but on hearing tests I'm 14 year old .... nevertheless: I hvae not such a good ear for 'tunes' or tones ... why should a 45 year old violinist be better off than me?)

    • by gigaherz (2653757)
      The thing is, you can have good ears and bad hands, and you KNOW you can't play the violin. But someone with good hands and bad ears may be playing wrong, and won't be able to tell. Because for all practical purposes, good hands mean nothing without good ears, any elite violinist should by definition have good ears.
  • Well, at least Stradivarius is as good as a top quality modern violin. Maybe they don't consider the Stradivarius as better. It could be something similar to a fancy dress: adding festivity and status. It can be the feeling that you're just playing with something very rare that used to be the top. And sometimes people just want the opportunity to find out if there is something special to a legendary instrument.

    Sometimes period instruments and associated techniques add authenticity. I know that there used to

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The real conclusion that should have been drawn, is most people who claim they are experts, are not.

    Much like how over 90% of Ivy league-educated economists were unable to see a bubble was forming in real estate nearly 10 years ago.

    We live in a society where we act as if a person's credentials actually mean something, but most of the time, in reality, they mean absolutely nothing. It's just a placebo effect.

  • I do not understand why some people believe these instruments have something so powerful it cannot be replicated. If Antonio can do it, so can a good modern human.

    We are all human and what one human can do, so can another. We need to look at our generation as no worse than generations past, and in some ways better.

  • by kruach aum (1934852) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:48PM (#46688263)

    I can't tell the difference between a signed first edition of On the Origin of Species and a regular seventh edition either if I'm only allowed to look at certain pages, but that doesn't mean they're of equal value. The value of a Stradivarius lies not in the sound it produces but in its provenance.

    • by gander666 (723553) * on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:56PM (#46688349) Homepage
      That is fine for a collector. For someone who plays for a living, not so much. Most of the artists who play the Stradivarius' don't own the instrument. They are loaned to them from their benefactors.

      I play guitar. I have a few nice guitars, and I thought I had an expensive habit. A friend who is a concert viola player has a "mid range" viola from a good maker, and it cost $45K about 15 years ago. Probably worth $60K or so today. And that isn't from one of the better modern makers.

      And my wife gives me grief for my $2k used Tom Anderson guitar.
      • by pipedwho (1174327)

        The problem with Tom Andersons, is that they're like rabbits and tend to multiply in your collection.

    • By the way, I just checked and there is currently a first edition of On the Origin of Species on Abebooks for 135k, and it's inscribed by Darwin's son. No autograph. Still, if I have Silicon Valley level money I'd probably snap it right up.

    • by timeOday (582209)

      The value of a Stradivarius lies not in the sound it produces but in its provenance.

      But the provenance is only of value because of the superior sound. Paintings by my grandma are 'rare,' but not valuable.

      Of course this is all old news in the art world. Painters are "great" because of their great works. Their works are valuable because they are by great painters. Yet forgeries are indistinguishable from authentic works on artistic merit, so verification is turned over to chemical composition of paint

      • Initially, quality is what is important, because initially quality is the distinguishing factor. However, if there is a large enough amount of time between when this quality first appears and when this quality can be replicated then the provenance becomes important too. There's nothing irrational about it; given a choice between two things of equal quality, the thing that has a greater number of desirable features will be more valuable. And considering the history of an object as valuable is only irrational

  • by suprcvic (684521) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:52PM (#46688307)
    New violins don't have cool names like Stradivarius though. That name is so epic, it could make anything look or sound high brow and expensive. Stradivarius Coffee, home of the $75 latte. Stradivarius Bounce House, let your kids bounce around for only $125/hr. Stradivarius Water, Anything less, will dehydrate you, only $49.99 per 8oz bottle made out of the finest Stradivarius plastics. With a name like that, people will pay anything.
  • by Tumbleweed (3706) on Monday April 07, 2014 @04:54PM (#46688327)

    They didn't use Monster(tm) cables!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    3 years ago I had the privilege and pleasure of running sound mix for a piano (9 foot Steinway) and violin concert. The violinist played a borrowed Stradivarius. I expected it to be deeper, richer, fatter, fuller, etc., like a viola, but it was kind of bright. Turns out that's what makes them so good. The violinist commented that it's like playing an electric guitar- you get much more volume for the same bow effort and enables far more dynamics. He was almost giddy with excitement. It certainly made a

    • by crmanriq (63162)

      So you're saying that the Stradivarius is the single coil pickup of violins? (ie Fender Stratocaster)

      (And you were expecting it to sound more Gibsony?)

  • Sigh.... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by niftymitch (1625721) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:01PM (#46688411)

    Many of the old strads have been modified to have a taller bridge
    or this or that to improve on the voice.

    The old strads that were less than wonderful have been used
    as kindling or rebuilt and refitted to be playable. i.e. only the
    instruments that stand the test of time made it to today.

    One anomaly in the good ones that is almost impossible to measure
    is the way the wood was dried. One supply had been submerged in
    volcanic ash and was gently permeated with silica as well as it
    was cured for decades before being sawn into boards and finally
    dried. Should someone pull some Mt. St Hellen spruce out of Spirit
    lake and slow cure the boards well we could have a modern fiddle
    that in 700 years will prove to be a master.

  • People impose value on something and then suddenly everyone has to have one.

    If I had the world's greatest art at my fingertips... would I fill my home with it? No. I already have access to the same art. I can get prints or lithographs of any of it and really its close enough that would would care. And if you want to talk about the texture of the brush strokes... fine, there are some prints that exactly match the topography of the original work so closely that it takes a forensic art expert to suss it out.

    I

  • Looks like thet did the test in someone's living room -- shouldn't they have rented a concert hall or someplace more appropriate to where the instruments would be played on tour?

  • That's not double-blind. I haven't watched TFV in its entirety, but for instance @19:00 there is a violinist playing with goggles and a researcher handing her the instruments that can see clearly what is what.

    Incidentally, sorry but I cannot resist: double-blind? Maybe we should say... double deaf! /ducks

    • by hawguy (1600213)

      That's not double-blind. I haven't watched TFV in its entirety, but for instance @19:00 there is a violinist playing with goggles and a researcher handing her the instruments that can see clearly what is what.

      Incidentally, sorry but I cannot resist: double-blind? Maybe we should say... double deaf! /ducks

      That's what I was thinking too, but they said that the instruments were identified by numbers -- is a Stradivarius obvious to a causal observer?

      I can see why they didn't go truly double-blind with goggles on the researchers when dealing with a 10 million dollar instrument.

  • by russbutton (675993) <russ.russbutton@com> on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:07PM (#46688471) Homepage
    Articles and comments like this are made by people who are not musicians, let alone people who play violin professionally. In the world of today, we live with technology all around us. Everyone has their preferences and some technologies suit some folks better than others. The Mac guys hate Windows and I hate 'em both. But modern technology is consistent. Set 10 MacBook Pro laptops up and they all work EXACTLY the same. Not so for violins. Not even for modern makers.

    These things are analog. You tune them by twisting a wooden peg. They don't even have frets! Each instrument is unique and so are we. Professional players really take their time searching for an instrument that suits them.

    I play trumpet Thank God. Our instruments are MUCH cheaper. But most of the pro players I play with own several instruments because of all the little variations between them. Go to the home of any serious guitar player and ask how many guitars they own... It's quite common to find guys who own a dozen or more.

    Are the Stravdivari and Guarneri violins worth the 8 figure prices? It's all a matter of supply and demand. There are only so many of the old instruments and if enough people want them, then the price goes up. The value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it, which in the case of violins, does not necessarily correlate to how well it plays.

    My wife also plays baroque violin and has a French instrument, made in 1774, which cost her only $12k. She tried out nearly 20 baroque violins before she settled on this one and it's a gem. There aren't many people playing in the baroque style, so there isn't as much demand. Most of the old Italian instruments have been altered over the years from their original form. "Modern" violins (those made after about 1830 or so) have necks that are bent further back and put more tension on the strings. They are engineered to play louder than the older instruments. The bows are bigger and heavier as well. And the bows are concave instead of being convex and have more horse hair on them so they play louder.

    Because there isn't as much demand, the prices for the old instruments are much lower. The old instruments are worth that much because people are willing to pay for it, not because they necessarily are "better".

    • by hawguy (1600213)

      Articles and comments like this are made by people who are not musicians, let alone people who play violin professionally. In the world of today, we live with technology all around us. Everyone has their preferences and some technologies suit some folks better than others. The Mac guys hate Windows and I hate 'em both. But modern technology is consistent. Set 10 MacBook Pro laptops up and they all work EXACTLY the same. Not so for violins. Not even for modern makers.

      That's true as long as you stay within the pure digital design constraints that the computers were designed for, but if you give them to an overclocker and ask him to tweak them to give the very best performance (such as you'd expect a professional violinist to do - get the best sound from the instrument), you'll find that each one behaves slightly differently. One might have a faster CPU clock speed, while another one might be tuned for faster memory timing and/or latency.

    • by the gnat (153162)

      Articles and comments like this are made by people who are not musicians, let alone people who play violin professionally.

      This probably isn't what you meant, but the actual PNAS article makes it clear that the authors have some real expertise:

      The team thus included several scientists, a violin maker and researcher who builds and sells new violins, a violin soloist who owns and plays an Old Italian violin, a professional violist and instrument dealer who owns several Old Italian instruments, and a string eng

  • Article Is Wrong (Score:4, Informative)

    by GODISNOWHERE (2741453) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:16PM (#46688553)

    Read an account about it here:http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20121/13039/

    First of all, the violinists were able to tell the difference between old and new violins.

    It was a double blind study about which violin the violinists preferred to play. And since musicians that play the same instrument have different ideas of what kind of sound they prefer, it should not be a surprise that some preferred newer models. Of course, no two violins are created equal, and some Stradivariuses sound better than others. There were some constraints to the study, however. The older violins are worth several million of dollars and they were loaned on the condition that they could not be tuned.

    • Oops. The study was blinded, not double blinded.

    • Re:Article Is Wrong (Score:5, Informative)

      by the gnat (153162) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:32PM (#46688751)

      The older violins are worth several million of dollars and they were loaned on the condition that they could not be tuned.

      First, your link refers to an earlier article (also in PNAS) with a smaller sample size. Second, the condition wasn't that they couldn't be tuned, it was that "tonal adjustments" like moving the bridge or replacing the strings were not allowed. I would assume that simply tightening the pegs was permissible.

  • next thing you tell me is that i can't hear the improvement my $5k www.lossless.com power cable makes to my audiophile setup?
  • by HnT (306652) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:25PM (#46688679)

    There are more than enough examples of ridiculous amounts being spent on not much more than popularity or a whim. Why is it so surprising people are willing to spend a lot on legendary and very rare instruments from several hundreds of years ago?
    Maybe our modern-day instruments can hold up to those legends simply because today violin makers are standing on the shoulders of giants like Stradivari? A brand-new violin still costs a fortune and the most famous violin-makers today still select their clients very strictly. You essentially have to apply to even be allowed to pay them all that money.

    And without trying to be too "voodoo" about this but as a musician myself, I am wondering just what kind of effect this privilege of playing such a rare instrument could have on the violinist. Maybe part of the "myth" is simply that the feel-good knowledge of playing one of the most legendary instruments out there can slightly improve an artists performance to push it to where "magic" happens?
    World-class athletes do all sorts of "magic" to push themselves beyond their limits, to get just a slightly better performance. Why should the same not be true for performing star musicians?

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:30PM (#46688733) Journal
    These violins are to be heard, not seen. They should have done a double deaf study not double blind study.
  • Easy to believe (Score:3, Informative)

    by spkay31 (3607869) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:46PM (#46689891)
    Modern instrument manufacturing is capable of making incredibly high quality instruments at very reasonable production costs. Higher end instruments require a lot more human hands-on intervention in the manufacturing process but the high precision manufacturing equipment means instruments can be built to exacting specifications and done repeatably. The human finishing and fine tuning process completes the process for high end instrument builds. I play guitar and love to play many of the Paganini pieces from Opus #1 and therefore I listen to violin virtuosos like Perlman, Heifetz, Midori, Mintz, etc. I think they deserve to own the classic instruments with incredible provenance. Much of the tremendous sound they produce though is also a product of having master luthiers perform expert restoration and maintenance to these older but very finely built instruments. As a guitar player I am constantly amazed by what guitar collectors will pay for "classic" guitars. I grew up in the 60's and I love classic Strats, Teles and Les Pauls too but the idea that the sound is worthy of 6 figure prices is rediculous. Many fine instruments are built in the far east, starting with great Japanese guitars built in the 70's and growing from there (South Korea, China, Indonesia). In general I believe today's high end violins are certainly comparable with the finest classic violin masterpieces from the Italian luthiers of the 18th century. But that does not mean that those instruments are not to be admired and sought out by the finest virtuoso violinists who relate to the importance and provenance of these instruments in addition to appreciating their stellar tone.

The tree of research must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of bean counters. -- Alan Kay

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