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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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  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:32PM (#46688055) Journal

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

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:37PM (#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 jfengel ( 409917 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:39PM (#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 kruach aum ( 1934852 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:48PM (#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 @05:56PM (#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 ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:00PM (#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.

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LordLimecat ( 1103839 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:04PM (#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.

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

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

  • by bondsbw ( 888959 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:18PM (#46688573)

    that there's no difference

    That's not the original claim. It was:

    There are people who insist that they can hear the difference

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:26PM (#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.

  • by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:50PM (#46688973)

    A violin made in the 1700s is still worth a lot of money, it just doesn't sound any better.

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2014 @09:23PM (#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.

  • by wagnerrp ( 1305589 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @11:52PM (#46690831)

    You're unwittingly pointing out the flaw in the study.

    The point of the study was to show that for the purposes of musical performances, there is no value in a Stradivarius over a modern recreation. Stradivarius violins should be appreciated as a work of art and for their historical significance, but no longer as a musical instrument that is actively used.

The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first. -- Blaise Pascal