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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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  • Moo (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chacham ( 981 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @05:33PM (#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."

  • Sigh.... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by niftymitch ( 1625721 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:01PM (#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.

  • by HnT ( 306652 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @06:25PM (#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?

  • Re:Moo (Score:4, Interesting)

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

  • by Frobnicator ( 565869 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @07:22PM (#46689265) Journal

    ...not to include a couple of clunkers in the test; the sort of violins the average student may possess at high school.

    Why? They can be dismissed out of hand. Not a professional by any means, but almost a decade of lessons during childhood. The difference between a "clunker" and a quality instrument is instantly obvious to the player.

    There are the differences in construction and the parts. I have seen student violins pop their glued seams. I have heard the wood creak as they are handled and placed in position, as pressure from the bow is applied. Cheap fingerboards tend to vibrate uncomfortably. I went a few times to a violin shop and just played around on the various instruments. I was young enough that I didn't care about cost, just went around playing them. Violins in one area felt like fingernails on a chalkboard and sounded similar. I found part of the shop with a stash of violins that felt like silk and had beautiful tone, and after falling in love with several of them was gently told that those were far outside hat we could afford.

    If I could tell that kind of difference as a non-professional youth, I cannot imagine a professional picking up a squeaky, creaky 'violin shaped object' as they are called, and confusing it for a well-made instrument.

  • Re:Moo (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @08:44PM (#46689881)

    Even more interesting however was a man around the WW2 who make 'original' Vermeers, i.e. paintings which were not copies of existing paintings but were so good and a such a match to the style and quality that people believed they were (almost) real Vermeer works.

    That would be Han van Meegeren [], one of the greatest art forgers of all time. After the liberation of Holland, he was arrested, and charged with treason for selling Dutch masterpieces to the Nazis, including some to Herman Goering. He faced the death penalty. His defense was that he had indeed sold the paintings, but that they were forgeries, and he painted a new "Vermeer" to prove it.

  • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Monday April 07, 2014 @09:32PM (#46690077)

    I am not sure about the 20KHz limit. I have high frequency hearing loss. However I swear I was able to sense a 32 kHz sonar transponder within a meter or two of my head. It must have been cranking out the dB's. Gave me a headache. It was a rare occasion of my hearing what others could not.

    You were hearing the harmonics.

Would you people stop playing these stupid games?!?!?!!!!