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Can you tell the difference between a million-dollar Stradivari and a violin by a modern maker? Following their 2014 study that found violin soloists unable to tell Stradivari violins from modern instruments at better than chance levels, a team of researchers has published a paper on audience responses to the violins.
Written by French acoustic specialists Claudia Fritz and Jacques Poitevineau, as well as violin maker Joseph Curtin and strings expert Fan-Chia Tao – who co-founded and co-direct the Violin Society of America Oberlin Acoustics Workshop – the paper, titled Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins and published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States website, sought to extend the results of the 2014 study to listeners in a hall.
“Old Italian violins are widely believed to have playing qualities unobtainable in new violins, including the ability to project their sound more effectively in a hall. Because Old Italian instruments are now priced beyond the reach of the vast majority of players, it seems important to test the fundamental assumption of their tonal superiority,” the authors wrote.
The team performed two separate experiments in which three new violins were compared with three by Stradivari. The projection of the instruments was tested both with and without orchestral accompaniment.
Seven soloists took part in the study, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou from Canada, Elmar Oliveira and Giora Schmidt from the USA, Ilya Kaler from Russia, and Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, and Marie-Annick Nicolas from France. Players wore special goggles and performed in low lighting to prevent their identifying the violins by sight, The Strad reported.
The new instrument considered to be the best-projecting violin was most preferred by the audience of 50 participants, as well as by the participating players, while the best projecting Stradivari was the most popular of the old instruments.
“Though the listeners came from various professional backgrounds (and included musicians, violin-makers, and acousticians), very similar results were obtained from all backgrounds,” the authors wrote. “We find a strong correlation between projection with and without orchestra. This seems fortunate for both players and researchers in that an orchestra is evidently not required to meaningfully test projection.”
“Results are unambiguous,” the authors wrote. “The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without, the new violins were generally preferred by the listeners, and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old. The single best-projecting violin was considered the loudest under the ear by players, and on average, violins that were quieter under the ear were found to project less well.”
But does this mean violinists will abandon their love of the old Italian instruments? Not everyone thinks so.
"There’s a sense of history in playing a Stradivari," The Strad editor Christian Lloyd to the UK's The Telegraph. The fact that you’re performing on an instrument that’s been played by countless violinists, most likely the great soloists of their day, adds a feeling of patrimony that spurs you to play like you’ve never played before."
"The reason why Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesu and Amati instruments command such prices is that they are more than mere musical instruments; they are works of art, just as much as a Monet, a Renoir or a Van Gogh," he said. "Many players genuinely do value the sound of a Stradivari above that of a modern instrument, despite the results of this or any other blind test."