Evidence-based Music

There was recently a fascinating article published in PNAS that compared the sound quality of different types of violins. In this study, researchers assembled a collection of six violins, three of which were made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu and three made by modern luthiers (i.e. 20th century). The combined value of the “old” violins was $10 million, about 100 times greater than the combined value of the “new” violins. Also, they note:

Numbers of subjects and instruments were small because it is difficult to persuade the owners of fragile, enormously valuable old violins to release them for extended periods into the hands of blindfolded strangers.

Yeah, I’d say so.

They then got 21 professional violinists to try them all out wearing glasses to obscure their vision so they couldn’t see the violins. The researchers were also blinded to the type of violin as the study was being conducted.

The conclusions were striking:

We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

First, I’m glad the researchers got people to actually play the instruments. I don’t think it’s sufficient to just listen to some recordings because usually the recordings are by different performers and the quality of the recording itself may vary quite a bit. Second, the study was conducted in a hotel room for its “dry acoustics”, but I think changing the venue might have changed the results. Third, even though the authors don’t declare any specific financial conflict of interest, it’s worth noting that the second author is a violinmaker who could theoretically benefit if people decide they no longer need to focus on old Italian violins.

I was surprised, but not that surprised, at the results. As a lifelong violinist, I had always wondered whether the Strads and the Guarneris were that much better. I once played on a Guarneri (for about 30 seconds) and I think it’s fair to say that it was incredible. But I’ve also seen some amazing violins made by guys in Brooklyn and New Jersey. I’d always heard that Strads have a darker more mellow sound, which I suppose is nice, but I think these days people may prefer a brighter and bigger sound, especially for those larger modern-day concert halls. 

I hope that this study and others like it will get people to focus on which violins sound good rather than where they came from. I’m glad to see the use of data pose a challenge to another long-standing convention.

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