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← Violinists can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and new ones

Violinists can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and new ones - Comments

beau53's Avatar Comment 1 by beau53

I suspect they could all be on the fiddle.

Mon, 02 Jan 2012 23:14:35 UTC | #904672

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 2 by Alan4discussion

This looks like a fair double-blind test, but there could be other factors.

In a stringed instrument, factors like when it last had new strings would be important in determining the tone. Being tuned and played regularly can also be important. With very old instruments, any re-build or repair would also be relevant, - as is pointed out below.

Not every Stradivarius sounds alike, and frankly, says Bissinger, even a genuine Stradivarius violin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be sometimes. The passage of time can exact a devastating toll. Many of Stradivari’s surviving instruments have deteriorated to the point where they are primarily collector’s items. Play a violin too frequently, and the parts wear down and must be replaced, altering the sound; play it too little, and the sound deteriorates, too.

Most of the Strads still played today do not have all their original parts, although Joshua Bell prides himself on the fact that his Strad still boasts the original varnish. Still, even Bell adapts his playing to his instrument to get the sound he desires. Bissinger claims there is no “perfect” instrument, and Stradivari — who devoted his life to the quest for perfection — would probably agree.

As for the claimed acoustical superiority of the instruments, yes, they do sound lovely. However, “There’s way too much psycho in the acoustics,” according to Bissinger, referring to a subfield known as psychoacoustics. Basically, the very name Stradivari instills respect and awe, and this can’t help but influence how people subjectively evaluate and/or respond to the instrument. “The truth is, there are many very fine world-class instrument makers today, producing violins that can hold their own against the Strads, but their names don’t evoke the same awed reverence, and thus the perception is that they are not as good,” Bissinger told me.

Mon, 02 Jan 2012 23:41:47 UTC | #904680

78rpm's Avatar Comment 3 by 78rpm

I am a hobby beekeeper. Besides gathering nectar and pollen, honeybees gather resins from trees. From these resins they make the sticky substance called propolis that they use to waterproof the cracks in the hive and to stick together the comb frames within it, to the beekeeper's annoyance. There is a belief (more of a myth, I'm sure) that Stradivari added this propolis to the varnish on his instruments, and that is the secret of their superiority. Hard to believe, but I don't know. Anyway, I once briefly made the acquaintance of a young violin maker, and when he found out I kept bees and that every hive has plenty of the stuff that I just scrape off and discard anyway, he was most eager to obtain some. Sometime soon after, I gave him a golfball-size wad of it, and didn't even want any money for it. He was overjoyed! I never saw him again, but with propolis in the varnish,as with many other things, it is good to BEE-LEEVE!

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 00:29:07 UTC | #904699

Daryl 's Avatar Comment 4 by Daryl

I am certainly no musician, but am an amateur cabinetmaker, and can tell you that there was very little made in the "old days," we don't know now. In fact, many parts made today in one shop (or bought) was made by experts in other shops. Carvings, for instance, were done by the carver down the block. Chances are the knobs and bridge was not done by Stradiverius, but by the bridge guy in the next street. And if you've read Macolm Gladwell, and his piece on blind auditions making orchestras more integrated in spite of prejudice, you will see that it's all in the belief. I do have some friends who are luthiers (they all make guitars) and another friend who is a cabinetmaker and great musician, and he can tell you that some guitars do sound better than others. And yes, wood is different now, old growth wood is much tougher to come by. But there is almost no chance that Stradivarius had the deep dark secret to violins that aren't known now. And to believe otherwise is to take it on faith (I expect hearty groans for that one!!!!)

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 00:51:33 UTC | #904704

Nunbeliever's Avatar Comment 5 by Nunbeliever

As a guitar player myself I find this study interesting. Yes I tend to agree with the conclusion. Not, just with regard to violins but instruments in general.

I find it especially ridiculous when people say they just love the sound of some old sunburst '57 Les Paul. Yes, the sunburst color seems to be of great importance to these volks ;) I don't deny that an old instrument has a different feel to it. I think my own acoustic guitar really sounds different now than just a few years ago, and I think the change is for the better. But we are talking about a few years not several hundreds of years.

And with regard to electric guitars it's so absurd. I bet most people could not tell the difference between a 50 000 dollar guitar and a guitar made from any random wood board if equipped with the same strings, pick-ups and played through the same amplifier. I guess all the talk about finding the right pieces of wood isn't entirely nonsense, but with regard to electric guitars pretty much so ;)

With regard to acoustic instruments the difference is of course much bigger as the actual sound is produced and amplified within the actual instrument. Still, I am pretty sure all the hype with regard to certain instruments made by certain people or from a certain time period has much more to do with psychology than the actual acoustic properties of these instruments.

How the instrumentalist feels while playing an instrument is a whole different matter though. Although the listener might not be able to hear the difference the experience for the player might vastly differ. Some instruments just seem to be very easy to play. The notes played might have a very different suistain and just how the instrument resonates in your hands and against your body might be of great importance to your playing experience. This is again, for obvious reasons, much more important when dealing with acoustic instruments but in this regard I actually think the acoustic properties of electric instruments might be of some importance although the listener might not be able to hear the difference. Hence it's really interesting that the players weren't able to spot the expensive ones even in this regard.

I definately subscribe to the view that all this talk about Stradivarius violins is mostly due to hype and snobbery.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 00:57:57 UTC | #904705

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 6 by Anaximander

Did they test the possibility that when the player knows it is a Stradivarius, he might be inspired to play better?

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 01:04:09 UTC | #904708

some asshole's Avatar Comment 7 by some asshole

I'm not surprised at all by this. I know most people will object to my choice of words, but I've always ascribed this type of thing to simple human stupidity. I don't care if you think that's too harsh; believing you know something you don't is a form of stupidity. The belief is in place first, and the justification and reinforcement follows.

Yes, yes, yes, I KNOW that literally everyone falls prey to this sort of thing, but not to the same extent. Some people spend their entire lives in this paradigm of stupidity; others delve in it yet rise above it regularly.

The same type of thing applies to every aspect of human life. How many people would swear that a $50 bottle of French wine is superior to a $7 bottle of Australian, whether or not they can get their senses to abide by that judgment in a double blind test?

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 01:28:23 UTC | #904717

DefenderOfReason!'s Avatar Comment 8 by DefenderOfReason!

Accoding to Skeptic magazine, It is not only Stradivarius. This long enduring fiction holds true to any costly historic violin. Like noted, these old instruments get usually virtually reassembled with parts from repairs over the many years of their lives. There were tests done by a person who bought a $5 violin and improved it some. The violin was played, along with a very old and valuable Cremona, behind a screen for an audience made up of a college music department. The audience said the two instruments were "equal in tone". Through many tests it was determined:

It is impossible to distiguish an old instrument from a new one by listening.

There are good and bad instruments from every period.

The superior sonority of the Stradivarius and other old violins is a myth.

Sonority depends on the player and particular the bowing technique.

When played by an inferior violinist a Stradivarius sounds inferior.

Myth BUSTED!

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 01:41:47 UTC | #904720

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 9 by Schrodinger's Cat

There was an edition of the German show Wetten, dass..? not so long ago in which one of the bets ( the show challenges people to take on various 'bets' ) was that a certain top violinist could not guess 6 distinct Stradivarius violins just from a recording of each one being played.

He got all 6 correct.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 01:52:18 UTC | #904725

Nunbeliever's Avatar Comment 10 by Nunbeliever

To some asshole: (very pretentious nick indeed)

How many people would swear that a $50 bottle of French wine is superior to a $7 bottle of Australian, whether or not they can get their senses to abide by that judgment in a double blind test?

Well, I always buy cheap wines. The reason is really simple. I don't know shit about wines, and I'm not all that interested in learning either to be honest. From experience I have realized that I am much more likely to buy a wine I like if I spend less than 10 euros than if I buy a more expensive wine. So why bother... I mostly drink beer anyway.

But, I get your point. Although I think the problem runs even deeper than you describe. Humans are social animals and hence we all (perhaps with the exception of severely autistic people, etc) compare us with each other all the time. Most of the time we probably aren't even conscious about this process. We might think we choose a shirt because we find it beautiful, but the very concept of beautiful is to a large extent a social construct anyway. What other people think is important to us in so many ways and I think it's practically impossible for humans to entirely give up this line of thinking.

Hence, I think you might just miss the point when you label this kind of behaviour as stupidity by default. Yes, you can of course to some extent become aware of this behaviour and change it. And this might very well be an advantage to individuals who can't afford to buy expensive wines or whatever. But, if you try to eradicate all these forms of stupidity (as you call them) I'm afraid you might be missing the point. I don't think this behaviour mainly has to do with getting the ultimate experience or something like that. I am pretty sure it goes much deeper. It's about status and establishing your position in the flock. Of course we don't think in this way since our societies have changed a lot. Nonetheless the basic instincts and emotions are the same.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 01:55:13 UTC | #904727

DocWebster's Avatar Comment 11 by DocWebster

I did this years ago with a guy who swore my Epiphone Les Paul copy wasn't anywhere close to the quality of sound or playability of his own beloved 68 Studio. I challenged him to the blindfold test. The owner of the music store had several Les Paul copies so I chose 4 and set him in the amp room with a blindfold and turned out the lights. I gave him each of the guitars in turn hooked to an amp and in the middle of the test I actually handed him his own guitar. He didn't even recognize it by feel or sound and picked an old Memphis Les Paul copy as the best for tone and playability. I handed him his guitar again right before I turned the lights back on and asked him if he liked the way it played and he said it was ok but it sounded a bit weak needed a little work on the action. The look on his face when he saw that it was his guitar he was trashing was the definition of priceless.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 02:10:45 UTC | #904731

IDLERACER's Avatar Comment 12 by IDLERACER

Paul McCartney is one of the few people in the world who actually gets this whole placebo effect regarding musical instruments. Someone once asked him what his favorite type of electric bass was and he answered, "Whichever was the last one I received for free from the manufacturer." Apparently, lots of guitar companies like sending him left-handed versions of whatever their latest model is, in the hopes that at some point he'll be filmed using it in concert.

To this day, his live instrument of choice is his signature Hofner, because it's small hollow body is extremely light. He originally bought the cheap thing because it was all that he could afford at the time. It's what you hear on every Beatles recording up through 1965. I hardly think anybody would have noticed any significant difference in the sound, had he been using an expensive Fender Precision instead. Beginning with the "Paperback Writer/Rain" single, he started using a Rickenbacker 4001in the studio, because a solid body will get a bit more sustain, which was particularly needed for that single. For promotional clips, he still used his trusty Hofner to mime to it (HERE).

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 03:42:18 UTC | #904742

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 13 by Cook@Tahiti

Ironic that blinding people allows us to see truths we can't see with our eyes open.

The blinding in blind trials simply disables one of our many cognitive biases that repeatedly skew test results.

And yet, so much analysis and criticism in the humanities is predicated on subjective expert opinion.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 03:43:44 UTC | #904743

mjwemdee's Avatar Comment 14 by mjwemdee

I have bought (in my lifetime) two grand pianos from Yamaha, both identical make, series, price-range. And yet there was an appreciable difference between them qua sound - even though they presumably were produced from the same raw materials and (thanks to modern technology) had the same manufacturing process. There will be superior and inferior modern instruments, so why not the same logic with Stradivarius?

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 03:44:57 UTC | #904744

papa lazaru's Avatar Comment 15 by papa lazaru

They were testing professional instruments, so they'd better sound good! Those 'new', custom-made instruments are made from the best pieces of woods, dried for years, each piece then hand-picked, and the instrument made to the player's specifications. So yeah, they're gonna be good.

The same type of thing applies to every aspect of human life. How many people would swear that a $50 bottle of French wine is superior to a $7 bottle of Australian, whether or not they can get their senses to abide by that judgment in a double blind test?

Cheap wines are often artificially 'boosted' to achieve a particular taste. Not that they would intrinsically taste worse than some old plonk, but there is some added value to an organic, crafted product. Then again, you may get a corked mess that hasn't been properly stored.

"The Sound of Wood" (Warwick basses). The Guitar / Bass world is littered with snake oil concepts, pickups, woods, finishes, amps, strings... None the less, all those factors can impact on the sound of instruments, you just have to not pick lemons. My Brother's beat-up acoustic is probably the best sounding acoustic I've heard, and he paid what, £40 at that time? He just got lucky.

But I'm not exactly immune to the hype, I do have a Warwick bass, wenge neck, bubinga body, with custom Wizard pickups, ect... and another full custom made of exotic woods. Beautiful things, and they do sound sweet.

These double-blind 'find the Stradivarius' tests imo are kinda pointless. What are they suppose to prove, that you can make good modern instruments? Well yes, of course! Technology helps to get there as well. Maybe that old instruments are overrated? Well yes of course they are! Like everything, you may get a great instrument that is just right, or you may get a lemon, Stradivarius, Les Paul, Stratocaster, or not. And I doubt those pro violonists would play a bad sounding instrument (A Strad, if it was just about OK, I suppose would still be worth playing), whatever its origin, whereas an instrument on display, hardly ever played, may have let itself go a bit.

Dunno, I find the experiment a bit biased. There is some misguided snobbery towards new instruments, but that's hardly nothing new.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 03:53:45 UTC | #904746

mmurray's Avatar Comment 16 by mmurray

Comment 7 by some asshole :

The same type of thing applies to every aspect of human life. How many people would swear that a $50 bottle of French wine is superior to a $7 bottle of Australian, whether or not they can get their senses to abide by that judgment in a double blind test?

Why would anyone want to commit such a falsehood in any case ?

Michael

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 04:39:32 UTC | #904757

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 17 by susanlatimer

Comment 12 by IDLERACER

Paul McCartney is one of the few people in the world who actually gets this whole placebo effect regarding musical instruments.

In the world? Really? That's quite a claim.

Most good musicians I know even in my local world understand this concept. People love to buy the magic. Good musicians make even a decent instrument sound good but the market for instruments is based on the magic. For every musician who can hear the difference between a good instrument and a bad instrument, there seem to be dozens of "players" who read the magazines and think they can buy status and talent by purchasing the right brand name. They don't listen. They look at the headstock and talk about the specs. They'd rather shop than really listen. They love to be given the right answers.

Someone once asked him what his favorite type of electric bass was and he answered, "Whichever was the last one I received for free from the manufacturer."

You can bet they don't send him crap. They use their best materials and their best team and test it and test it and re-test it because they're sending it to a "legend". People take him seriously because he's a "legend" the same way people take legendary instruments seriously. It's all about our preconceptions and unconsciousness tendency to believe in magic.

To this day, his live instrument of choice is his signature Hofner, because it's small hollow body is extremely light. He originally bought the cheap thing because it was all that he could afford at the time. It's what you hear on every Beatles recording up through 1965. I hardly think anybody would have noticed any significant difference in the sound, had he been using an expensive Fender Precision instead.

I have to agree. But does that mean that there isn't a significant difference in sound or that most of the world wouldn't even hear it if there was?

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 05:38:02 UTC | #904762

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 18 by susanlatimer

Comment 16 by mmurray

Why would anyone want to commit such a falsehood in any case ?

Because we like to believe in magic. And we like to believe we have a connection to it when others don't. We're human. It's very strange. Religion is just a part of it.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 05:44:15 UTC | #904763

JS1685's Avatar Comment 19 by JS1685

I certainly agree with the thrust of the article. But let's not get carried away. There is a continuum. There is indisputably some noticeable difference between very well-made instruments and those that are very poorly-made.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 05:48:26 UTC | #904765

Quine's Avatar Comment 20 by Quine

Comment Removed by Author

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:13:42 UTC | #904768

Quine's Avatar Comment 21 by Quine

I play violin, and now, I want one of these.

P.S. See the Ship of Theseus.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:16:46 UTC | #904770

Virgin Mary's Avatar Comment 22 by Virgin Mary

I think the same applies to 70's Stratocasters too although I'm not aware of any tests like this for them, which I would really like to see!

I'm a drummer, and I could tell you with 100% accuracy whether I'm playing a new and top of the range Sonor or a classic Ludwig so I do have some sympathy with this study. For one, you've got to take into account just how much the players WANT the golden oldies to reign superior so the perceived value of the instrument will affect any decision. I reckon most of the violinists would pick up a violin and instantly "know" which one they hope it is and that would bias them.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:21:24 UTC | #904774

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 23 by susanlatimer

Comment 21 by Quine

I play violin, and now, I want one of these.

One of which?

P.S. See the Ship of Theseus.

Thanks for that. I've always wondered that about everything. Everything replacing itself. Everything shifting. Everything becoming. That's what seems to be really happening when we talk about "being". Of course, I have a LOT of reading to do yet.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:26:00 UTC | #904775

Beethoven's Avatar Comment 24 by Beethoven

I am speculating that a similar study will show that the reverence accorded to a lot of "top" US/UK universities is also irrational.

A double blindfold assessment of the research of a professor from Harvard/Cambridge.Oxford will not be found to be superior to the research at many other less known universities.

Even scientists who are supposed to be interested only in objective truths fall prey to irrelevant things like brand name and authority.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:26:32 UTC | #904776

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 25 by keyfeatures

Festishisation but they certainly could tell the difference between a Strad and my violin. The main difference is going to be in the ability of the player. Although owning one isn't going to make turn you into Vengerov, those playing a Strad in a professional / performance setting are likely going to be some of the best violinists around.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:34:21 UTC | #904779

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 26 by susanlatimer

Comment 5 by keyfeatures

those playing a Strad in a professional / performance setting are likely going to be some of the best violinists around.

That's key. You never hear a Strad in the hands of a novice or a hack and if you did, it would be because no one had figured out that it was a Stradivarius yet.

I know some people who can turn an elastic band into music and others who can make a well-made instrument shudder with fear and confusion.

Sound is sound. What are you going to do about it? That's what the best musicians I know understand.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 06:39:25 UTC | #904780

Quine's Avatar Comment 27 by Quine

Comment 23 by susanlatimer: One of which?

The new ones, of course. There is no way the old ones are worth it, except for the media hype. However, there is a feel of an instrument that can couple the energy of the bowing into the specific voicing of the sound you want to produce. You can feel the vibration going into your chest as the instrument sings. I can't adequately describe it to someone who has not experienced it directly. My bad, for failing of words.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 07:08:20 UTC | #904791

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 28 by susanlatimer

Comment 27 by Quine

You can feel the vibration going into your chest as the instrument sings. I can't adequately describe it to someone who has not experienced it directly. My bad, for failing of words.

It's not your bad at all. There are no words. It's vibrations going into your chest. I can even point to the spot in my chest. There might be math. There might be physiology. It's not about words. It makes language shut itself up. Good language knows when it's not needed. I've felt it myself, the vibration going into my chest as the instrument sings, even in my limited way.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 07:54:03 UTC | #904803

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 29 by keyfeatures

Comment 27 by Quine :

You can feel the vibration going into your chest as the instrument sings.

Air on the g string?

I think someone naughty once added an H to that...but that would be to lower the tone and send the vibrations in quite a different direction.

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 07:56:13 UTC | #904804

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 30 by keyfeatures

comment deleted - duplication

Tue, 03 Jan 2012 07:57:03 UTC | #904805