Can violinists tell old instruments from new?

A pair of scientists tested participants at the Indiannapolis Competition on whether they could tell a Strad and a Guarnerius apart from the latest $50 lacquer from China. Most, apparently, could not.

I don’t find the results here empirical. Judge for yourselves.

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  • Just posted this in response to a previous posting of this story – thought to share here as well.

    Violins, whether old or new, provide a palette of expression for the violinist. Better violins have greater expressive possibilities and therefore allow and enable a good violinist to play better. It takes time to explore the possibilities of any decent instrument and that’s why people talk about ‘building a relationship’ with a violin. That is also why, IMHO, this experiment is not particularly enlightening. I’ve been lucky enough to play on several violins by established masters in my time, but there are also some very classy instruments being made these days and I’m currently rather enjoying playing on a violin by a highly talented young New Zealand-based maker, Tobias Widemann; the instrument’s exciting qualities are still very much emerging several weeks on. Tobias’ website is at http://www.widemannviolins.com and he has put together a couple of interesting brochures on trying out instruments, ‘old vs. new’ , and deciding which instrument to buy… and you don’t even have to wear goggles!

  • The wonderfully eccentric Cambridge scientist/entomologist Prof Sir James Beament started work on this half a century ago and published some of his findings in http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198167396.do

    His wife is a distinguished violin maker, Juliet Barker (I have a violin by her, which gets better and better even if its player doesn’t) so he knew the making process intimately, from block of wood through to final varnish. He scotches many myths about Strads in line with Leo Phillips’s comments above.

  • This article has a slightly different angle on the same subject: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/01/02/144482863/double-blind-violin-test-can-you-pick-the-strad

    My question is why they don’t want to tell us which modern violins they used. Of course, we are not talking about the $50 range here. What this study really shows, is what we already knew: There are fantastic violin makers out there right now, who know very well what they are doing, and make beautiful instruments that can compare to the old masters. Why on earth keep their names secret??

  • Please, they weren’t testing Strads against $50 violins. The article implies that the combined value of the new instruments was around $100,000 – so perhaps each one was about $25,000-50,000. Those are likely top of the line new instruments.

    The study in no way suggests that instruments of good and poor quality cannot be told apart. Rather, I think it challenges the idea of a highly distinctive, “aged” quality to the sound of antique violins that is missing from new instruments. This is an important point, and should give confidence to those looking for a top-performing, new fiddle.

    Also, the study was based purely on blind observation – I’m curious as to what you did not find empirical about it.

  • As part of the other article on this study, Deceptive Cadence put up clips of the same passage from the Tchaikovsky concerto on a Stradivarius and on a modern violin. You will have to take my word for this, I suppose, but even with the so-so sound quality of the recordings I could identify which instrument was the old one. I am a guitarist and have played many instruments of varying ages (though not 300 years old!) and the sound of older instruments is pretty distinct from that of newer ones.

    I put up a post on this here: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2012/01/violin-test.html

    I’m curious about your misgivings about this experiment, Norman?

  • To say there is such a thing as old sound and new is total nonsense. Sound is sound and the sound one
    hears is completely dependent upon the instrument played whether new or old, plus type of strings, plus
    the magic bow arm ,plus player, etc. etc. To bring money $$ into the equation is equally pointless. The cost
    of the instrument has no bearing on its sound .The price of the instrument has much to do with hucksterism .
    of course one excludes the machine made violins from China and wherever . Mr.Townsend if I
    may suggest was only identifying the sound from two different instruments of which one (modern) could be a vastly
    inferior instrument to the “Strad” so all he was saying was one instrument sounded better than the other and if
    he didn’t know the “Strad” was used would have no way of knowing if the “better” instrument sound was from
    an “older one ” . And if one is comparing violin sound based on recordings however up to date technically then
    the comparison for truthfulness of sound is so flawed as to be meaningless no matter how distinct the difference.

    • Ariel, what you are saying is partly true, of course. Sound is sound. But instruments made from wood change over time, unlike instruments made from metal. As they are played, the wood develops different resonances than it has when it is new. This is a phenomenon I have noticed with every guitar I have ever owned.

  • You are correct – the sound does change over time – and it even changes from day to day depending on
    humidity etc. my point was that if heard in a good room or hall and not seeing the instruments played upon
    and agreeing that both were from masters of their craft , all you could say (and that is subjective) was that you
    preferred one sound over the other – if it happened to be a Strad sound you liked better only meant that it was
    to your taste , another listener may have preferred violin X .
    There is of course a mellow sound , a brilliant sound etc. and all the names one wants to use in between but there is no such thing as an old sound . There is no denying the Cremona school made some truly great sounding instruments , but I doubt they went out to make old sounding instruments -they made the best they could with their great knowledge and hoped for a good sale . I am willing to bet you that if Paganini had
    made his fame with a “Plutz” violin it would be the choice violin the huckster dealers would be pushing to-day .
    Violinists themselves contribute to this nonsense , the social musical standing of saying “I own a Strad ” ,is
    too much for them to deny , unfortunately to-day they can only borrow or get one on loan , due to the sad fact
    of the wealthy barbarians having broken through are buying up “famous makers names “at exorbitant prices.
    If only they were buying violins you could forgive , but they are buying names which auction houses push .
    As for sound they haven’t the slightest interest .

    • Ariel, as you are widening out the discussion, here are some further thoughts. Yes, of course there is tremendous prestige in owning and playing one of the instruments from the Cremona school. And perhaps a lot of this is superficial. Perhaps there are modern builders that make instruments that stand up very well in terms of sound to those from Cremona.

      Going back to the original study, I am still very puzzled as to why the violinists participating in the study were so unable to distinguish the different instruments. Musicians are usually rather good at making this kind of distinction as it is the kind of sensitivity that they work on daily. I don’t really know how true it is, but I have met pianists who claim to be able to identify, just by sound, a Hamburg Steinway piano from a New York one. See this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steinway_%26_Sons#New_York_City_and_Hamburg

      • Well you have hit it on the head and with due respect for the violinists playing in this last experiment
        who are I believe the exception to this observation “-most present day violinists haven’t the slightest
        concept of sound production they are too busy playing on the violin rather than “playing the violin ” they
        mostly look for the violins’ innate sound to carry through the performance and believe the difference
        between piano and forte is a form of tone colouring . There was a time when you could tell who the player was by
        way the sound was produced , you knew the Elman sound the Thibaud , Heifetz Kreisler. nowadays
        thanks much to the so called Russian school of sawing away you can’t tell who is playing , sadly the
        audiences have become accustomed to this artificial nightingale playing and a beautiful sounding
        player would be a jarring experience . The violin circus performers to-day would laugh the likes of
        Thibaud or Kreisler out the door . They adore Heifetz without understanding there was more to him
        than technique. I have observed that many pianists can recognize sound difference better than most present day fiddlers and easily point out the action and sound of a Hamburg Steinway from others in blindfold tests . Would that a violinist could tell the sound belonging to various famous violins .Mr. Soloninka is correct in his observation on the sound-price observation. It is the desire to possess something that no one else has or few can afford plus the rarity of the object that drives the price .
        And quickly follows the human condition – if it is expensive it cloaks itself in many attributes to
        justify the cost . How could a Strad sound mediocre after all the money spent. Did you ever notice
        that when a violinist is being interviewed the observation that the player is playing on a rare old
        violin is always brought to the fore – musical one up game ..after all what respectable virtuoso would
        admit to playing on a violin made by Mr. x who has no Cremona mystique about him – though I
        believe there is one well known player who does admit to this failing .

  • Norman and others….I was one of the 21 participants in the experiment. This was the best attempt to date to remove bias in assessment. If you criticize the experiment on minor points, or suggest that getting used to playing an instrument over 3 weeks and in a full concert hall is required…you would be right, but only in differentiating the subtlest of features. If you need that to tell the difference between a $1M instrument and a $30K instrument…the the is NO SIGNIFICANT difference!

    The whole point is not that fine old violins aren’t great…but rather, that from a sound perspective, brand new violins from the finest makes are just as good, and in many cases better. People pay millions for a Chippendale or Louis IV chairs…or Rembrants (or Rothkos!!!). In those cases….AND in the case of strads, the sound is NOT a factor in the price. It is history, provenance etc. The experiment is just proving that the price is NOT related to sound.

    Norman…what are your critiques of the PNAS paper? And what about the fact that Zack DePuy’s test, on stage,comparing 4 new and 4 old violins at IVCI, showed virtually no difference in audience impressions either?

    • John, I’ve heard some wonderful new violins and carry the sound of some old ones perpetually in my ear. Any judgement is subjective. I rely for guidance on the most accomplished performers I know and they, almost without exception, choose old over new. Are they deluded?

      • I am not arguing in for or against Norman’s question, but I would be very interested to know who the famous string players who choose new over old are. Tetzlaff is one of the most famous ones. Du Pre did too, in her late years. Also, what do we know about the reasons behind their choices?

      • Norman: They are not delusional in the sense that they lack sense of what quality sound is, or the dynamics of what a good instrument is. But endless psychoacousitc research shows that 1) people’s subjective impressions of violin sound, wine, etc are highly unreliable and unrepeatable, 2) people are overwhelmingly influenced by knowledge or impressions of what they are testing. Note in the study that the the same pairs of instruments were repeatedly tested….and people were not consistent in their evaluation of them, on the same day, in the same room. This is why double blind studies are the only true test. Of course your colleagues chose old instruments….this is mass psychology at work…they want or believe the strads to be the best.
        Remember, we are not comparing a “1 out of 10” $50 piece of crap to a “10 out of 10” strad; the new instruments represent the finest luthiers in the world…so you are looking for vanishingly small differences.

        I think a useful comparison is judging beauty. Can anyone say who the most beautiful painting, or type of painting is? It is a matter of perception, highly subjective, changing with time, from day to day, with knowledge of the character of the artist and circumstances, technique used, orthodoxies etc.. There can be many very beautiful paintings….yet one cannot say one is “the most beautiful”.

        Remember….Beare’s, Bein and Fushi, Francais, Hills, Tariso, etc NEVER USED SOUND IN DETERMINING PRICE! From a price perspective, its just a Chippendale chair.

        • I’m very skeptical about all so-called ‘scientific’ studies that touch on music. Here is just one of my posts on the subject: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/12/learning-music-as-adult.html

          Now I have no particular prejudice in terms of old versus new violins. The violinist I have done the most concerts with played a Guarnerius, but he could have played a different violin and still sounded wonderful, I’m sure. As for guitars, there is in fact a Stadivarius guitar, but it is only of historic interest. The best guitars are of very recent design and mostly built by Australian builders.

          So I don’t have any vested interest in the results of this experiment. But I am still very doubtful about it. Despite the fact that modern builders are, I’m pretty sure, trying as hard as they can to duplicate the kind of instruments that came from Cremona and despite the fact that this was a double-blind experiment and despite the fact that those participating were all professional violinists–this experiment proves too much! How can you not tell the difference between a relatively new violin and a very old one? C’mon, I can tell the difference between today’s bread and yesterday’s bread! Wood ages and it changes as it ages, so all questions of quality aside (hey, maybe all the new fiddles are better), why couldn’t these professionals hear any difference? That was the headline.

          I would have found this far more credible if the results had been, yes, violinists, even when blindfolded, could tell whether they were playing 30 year old or 300 year old violins, but still thought the new ones were better. But they ‘proved’ too much, I think…

  • This test is good enough to make a nice headline, but it seems that some important facts have not been taken into account and therefore I can´t really take it too seriously.
    here are some thoughts:

    – have all violins be played before the test over at least 6-12 months by professionals on a daily base? An instrument that has been sitting in a safe waiting for a buyer for a certain time “falls asleep”, and it takes a while and some work to wake it up again. Plus, the sound and in particular the response of a violin changes, depending on who played on it lately for a longer time.

    – it´s clear to me that there are wonderful new instruments. And although most Strads are, not every Strad is superb. I have tried some that were just very good, but not outstanding. At the same time I know cases of new violins, that sounded great for 1-2 years, and then not any more.

    – not every violin fits every player as well. Because choosing a violin is something extremely personal. Some like a brilliant, some a bright sound, the next one prefers a dark timbre, for the other one beauty is more important than that it is a big sound. I remember trying a Montagnana once. It sounded beautiful, but so dark, almost like a viola. It was very hard to play in terms of response, and in such a case I personally would have for sure preferred a new bright sounding violin. Nevertheless, if this sound quality is exactly what you have ever dreamed of, you would go for it. But only then.

    – a violin that sounds great in a hotel room doens´t necessarily sound as great in a big hall. Some seem to have a big or beautiful sound next to your ear, but not behind row 10.

    After all I believe that any sound is the result of the players´ imagination and technical abilities. What a nice anecdote of the lady coming to Heifetz telling him how beautiful his violin sounded. He hold it to his ear without playing on it and answered: “Oh really? I don´t hear anything!”

  • Is anyone going to mention that there are some really bad violins called Stradivari violins (or having another famous label). It can be an instrument that had in later years been taken apart by someone thinking they would make it even better, and then thin the wood changing the whole inner graduation of the violin. I asked one luthier what would happen if they had a Stradivari which was so thin that it was ruined, and he informed me that in that case they would put in patches on the inside of the violin to make up for the lost wood. There’s no way they could know what the original graduation was, in essence making it a violin by someone else (who put in the patches) but having a Stradivari label. And there are violins that are still playable and aren’t all that bad but have been ruined and are still called Stradivari, I’m sure. But there also are Stradivari violins that still have his mark on them. That STILL doesn’t mean there might not be one amongst those that isn’t that great. But there are a group of old Cremonese instrument that almost everybody has to admit are really the best. Having someone do a test which takes a few minutes, an hour, a day or even a week is no comparison to a violinist searching his whole life for an instrument and finally finding the one he prefers. Violinists that can chose despite cost by far prefer Stradivari or Del Gesu. That choice also remains highly personal. And it’s only in recent years that the price range has gone out of the ball park.

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