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Music Science

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

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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  • misleading title (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:35PM (#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.

  • I'm an OK violinist (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:40PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:48PM (#46688255)

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:57PM (#46688353)

    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 lot more sound than I'm used to from one violin.

    We now have the tools and tech to analyze the wood, finish, glues, bracing, etc., and people have, so I fully believe a well-made new violin could duplicate the Strad's sound. The $ value is, like any antique, based on who is willing to pay what.

  • Article Is Wrong (Score:4, Informative)

    by GODISNOWHERE ( 2741453 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:16PM (#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.

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

    by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:32PM (#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.

  • Re:Moo (Score:4, Informative)

    by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:39PM (#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.

  • Re:misleading title (Score:5, Informative)

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:39PM (#46688845)

    "cannot tell the difference" -- that's not what is being said here.

    That is what is being said. TFA states that they could distinguish between individual violins, but that they could not tell which were old and which were new. So if you have two violins, A & B, and you play one and then the other, and then you pick either A or B at random, the subjects could tell whether you are playing the first or the second, but they could NOT tell which was old and with was modern.

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:39PM (#46688849) Journal

    You can only hear up to like 20k Herz.
    But there are so called overtones, multiples of the base frequency. In this case 40k, 60k, 80k 100k etc.
    No human is able to hear 40k and above frequencies, but we all can hear if a 20k frequency is combined with an 40k overtone, or an 100k overtone even. Modern lossy compression algorithms cut off these overtones (as the overtone itself is unhearable) ... nevertheless we can hear if it is 'there' or not.

    Completely false. Often repeated. But completely, utterly false.

    The human ear can only make out an amplitude rise equivalent to a ~20k Hz sine wave (lower as you age). No amount of "overtones," monster cables, or megahertz sampling will change the ability of the hairs inside the ear to move/accelerate only so fast. The ear is mechanically band limited.

  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:07PM (#46689131)

    Sorry, that is bullshit!

    Not exactly. Most audio systems out there cannot reproduce much above 16Khz or below 60Hz. Your average amplifiers and speakers are going to be rolling off pretty badly at 16Khz so even if YOU could hear stuff above 20Khz, it won't be coming from your speakers trying to reproduce the material. You might be hearing distortion products that high, but I doubt it. Headphones tend to be a bit better on the high end, but even then the average starts to roll off at 20Khz but most of us simply cannot hear above 20Kzh, ever.

    Human hearing rolls off pretty badly above 18Khz, even for the young. It's worse when you get older. And I dare say that you know NOBODY who can hear much above 25Khz and if they do they are under 25 years old. Nobody is going to hear 30K, so I have no idea how you think you can hear 100K. What you MIGHT be hearing is distortion products caused by your equipment trying to reproduce material above 20K, but these products will be BELOW 20K and are actually DISTORTION not really the material.

    So your point is correct in part, just not for the reasons you suggest. I'll bet you cannot hear above 25Khz (20Khz if you are over 30) measured using a pure single frequency sine tone no more than 10dB louder than a minimum discernible 1Khz pure tone. Higher sampling rates really only matter when transcoding between sampling rates, which points to the ONLY real reason you would like to over sample beyond the Nyquest rate for the highest frequency you can hear. What's more, I'll bet that while you MIGHT be able to hear a difference, you won't be able to reliability tell me which material was recorded at a higher sample rate if you let me choose the material. In fact, I'll bet I can get you to prefer the lower sample rate more often than not.

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

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Informative)

    by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:25PM (#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.
  • by Sique ( 173459 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:27PM (#46689295) Homepage

    I've got about a dozen recordings on both CD and vinyl. My own experience is that vinyl has different timbre, which many describe as "warmer" than the CDs I have. It certainly feels more... I dunno what words best describe it... "organic" maybe? It's definitely different. But is it better? That's up to you.

    Yes, that "warmer" sound is called "low pass filtered". As a vinyl recording is limited to about 60 dB, while a CD has 96 dB, the vinyl recording is missing lots of higher frequencies (and some of the very low ones too). You can easily simulate the "warmer" sound of vinyl by just low pass filtering the CD signal. And the "better" sound in this case is more likely "what I was listening to when my listening taste developed". As the turnover from vinyl and MC to CD happened between 1980 and 1995, older people born before 1975 tend to like the low pass filtered sound better, while younger people who were never that much exposed to the 60 dB sound of vinyl, think it just sounds hollow or muffled, if they hear it now.

    (Real, live music has a much higher share of high frequency noise than both vinyl and CD, but it gets mastered and filtered to the tastes of the listening public.)

  • Re:misleading title (Score:5, Informative)

    by steelfood ( 895457 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:30PM (#46689323)

    Here's an informative blog piece by one of the testers:

    http://www.violinist.com/blog/... [violinist.com]

  • Re:Moo (Score:4, Informative)

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

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:46PM (#46689475) Journal

    The 4k Hz "beat" signal is perfectly captured by the digitization. What's your point? Lack of understanding what a band pass filter actually does?

  • Easy to believe (Score:3, Informative)

    by spkay31 ( 3607869 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @08:46PM (#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.
  • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @09:55PM (#46690177)

    Yes, that "warmer" sound is called "low pass filtered"...

    (Real, live music has a much higher share of high frequency noise than both vinyl and CD, but it gets mastered and filtered to the tastes of the listening public.)

    Since you know so much about live music, what instrument do you play?

    I play keyboard, electric and acoustic six string fingerpick and steel string guitar and electric bass, Harmonica, flute, and dabble in drums. And I agree 100 percent with him.

    And while we're at it, what gear do you listen on which so accurately informs you that digital is so much better.

    His description is exactly what happens with vinyl. It's also similar to tube amps. We tend to like the particular distortions that we like. There are many settings in different programs that will tailor a sound to a particular style, which does depend a lot on the technology used to make them. A typical sample is an equalizer panel, say in iTunes. Assuming no distortion in any other part of the system, there would be no need for anything other than "flat". In fact, in a perfect system, any adjustment is just adding distortion.

    But we don't hear like that. I do love the sound of tube amps. But I'm not so conceited as to declare that the best. You can listen to Rameau with hip hop filtering on your system as far as I care - it's what you like.

    DIstortion is even desirable at times. Guitar on an overdriven tube amp makes for a very interesting sound.

    But to the subject at hand, it isn't difficult to prove that digital has much higher potential for much less distortion compared to vinyl or tube amps. It's all just that some people prefer the distortin that they like.

    Note: a lot of CD music these days is coming out with a lot of distortion and compression in the original mix.

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Informative)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @10:20PM (#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.

  • by Camael ( 1048726 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @11:07PM (#46690543)

    Oh come on, this study is bogus, the artcle said it was a double-blind study, but there is noway in hell that a violinist of sufficient skill to extract from a Cremonese violin anything close to it's potential, wouldn't know a 300 year old instrument the second they picked it up; this study neither proves or disproves anything.

    On the contrary, it appears that you have allowed blind prejudice to cloud your judgement. The study did look into this point specifically, as follows from TFA:-

    The violins were winnowed to six old and six new in a double-blind listening test judged by the soloists. Then, each of them donned dark goggles so they couldn’t distinguish the instruments by sight and tested out these top fiddles in two 55-minute sessions, one in a small room and one in a 300-seat auditorium. (Soloists could also play their own instruments for comparison.) After each session, the soloists picked his or her four favorites fiddles and rated them on scale of zero to 10 for qualities such as articulation, projection, and playability. Finally, after the second session, each subject had to guess whether instruments in a small selection that included some of their favorites were old or new.

    The consistency of results from session to session showed that soloists could definitely distinguish one violin from another. However, the soloists seemed to prefer the new violins, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In their lists of favorites, new violins outnumber old ones roughly 3-to-2, and the most popular violin by far was a new one, denoted N5. Musicians rated qualities of new instruments higher, too. And when it came to telling old violins from new, the soloists did no better than if they had simply guessed.

    There may be other reasons to fault the study, but " noway in hell" is not a scientifically valid reason. It has about as much weight as "because I say so".

  • by outlander ( 140799 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2014 @01:47AM (#46691315)

    Sample size being what it is, this isn't really a surprise. In the lutherie world, tests like these get conducted on a relatively regular basis to determine whether or not the qualities attributed to old master violins are replicable by newer makers. In general, the tests (often conducted under the aegis of the Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) or Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA)) have tended to validate the claim that many modern builders - Paul Schuback, Joseph Curtin, Michael Darnton, Scott Cao, many others - are doing work that matches (or exceeds) the performance of Old Master violins.

    Keep in mind that what we think of as a modern violin is emphatically NOT what the old masters built. Really. They generally made baroque violins, with lower bridges, shorter fingerboards made of maple or other fruitwood, much flatter neck angles, and lower tuning (where A could be as low as 405 to 415 Hz, vs 440 for modern instruments). Over the years, any old master violin which is being played regularly has had its neck reset to a steeper pitch, its fingerboard replaced with a longer ebony board, a much taller and thinner bridge, sometimes a new tailpiece, sometimes even a new scroll. Many times, the top has been regraduated to lighten it in an attempt to reduce mass and increase brilliance. Bass bars are routinely replaced.....some well-known Strads have fifteen to twenty chalk-fitted area patches to repair damage caused by wear, accident, or worm, and at least one has had the entire top thinned to .5mm and new spruce chalk-fitted to structurally rebuild the instrument. (See GAL Red Books; lots of articles on this topic). So the instruments are NOT what the old masters built - they've been hotrodded to suit the needs of players. Baroque violins sound beautiful (listen to Ars Musica ensemble for great examples) but lack volume and power and sustain.....and hotrodded violins have all of these qualities in spades.

    What remains of the original violin after hotrodding? Well, for a lot of Strads/Guarneris/Amatis and the like, it's the arching of the top and back, and the general design of the body The patterns of arching and the shapes and outlines have been studied for over two hundred years by violin makers, and has accelerated dramatically with the advent of computing power whch can measure resonance patterns (laser interferometry. for example, and 3D scanning, and materials analysis) and there are extraordinarily accurate plans readily available for interpretation by skilled modern builders. Since, in general, the violin lutherie world is chiefly an apprenticeship system, notwithstanding a few excellent schools, builders learn their craft at the feet of great design and often with strict but excellent teachers.

    The implication is that the art of violin making has continued to evolve, with greater access to the science behind the instrument as much as great manual skill to actually do the work of construction. Modern builders don't have and generally don't need magic varnishes or magic wood; they have good materials - and in fact a wider choice of materials than ever before, deforestation notwithstanding - and great skill in working with it to create superlative instruments. And honestly, while old master instruments are nice, I'll take a new, slightly 'tight' violin, and play it in until it loosens up; it costs less, is less to risk, and listeners can not distinguish between it and the ancient instrument. And I'll be delighted to be able to interact with the person that made it, and give feedback to help make the next ones even better.

    Oh, and the whole magic varnish theories of people like Nagyvary are nonsense. Construction is more of a determinant than finish....think about it. Which determines structure, the construction, or the extremely thin finish layer? Yes, ash varnishes are beautiful, and salt-of-gems varnishes are beautiful, but they don't necessarily exhibit the visual properties (chiefly dichroism and clarity) of old master instruments.

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