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Violinists Can’t Tell the Difference Between Old and New Instruments

Regardless, many report still preferring old-school violins made by Italian masters

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For many professional violinists, Stradivaris, made around 300 years ago in Italy, represent the epitome of instrument perfection. As The New York Times writes, "Sure, there are excellent modern violins, but convention has it that the sound of a $50,000 modern instrument cannot compare to the magic of a Stradivarius worth millions."

But according to the results of a new study, these old classics might be a bit over-hyped. Professional violinists, the study found, cannot tell the sound of an old violin from a new one, and many actually prefer the sound of the new over the old. In the new study, researchers blindfolded 10 professional violinists and asked them to play 12 different violins, evenly split between new and old models and including five Strads, the New Scientist says. The new violins were doctored up a bit to make them feel more like the old ones. Each musician was allowed to play each instrument for over an hour in a large auditorium.  

The muscicians couldn't tell which violins were old and which were new, the researchers found, and six of them chose new violins over old ones when asked which was their favorite to play. However, as the New Scientist writes, not everyone is convinced that new trumps old:

Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University in College Station who studies the chemistry of violins, isn't convinced. He says that players need to play a violin for weeks to evaluate it fully, and that the study did not take into account that Stradivariuses vary in tone.  

Likewise, the Times reports that some players said that "the study could not account for the months it often takes for violinists and instruments to acclimate to each other" and that old violins are superior because they have had time for their sound to grow and develop. Some players, on the other hand, vouched for the bright sound and playability of newer instruments. But regardless of whether newer violins are just as good—if not better—than old ones made by the Italian masters, violinists are unlikely to accept that anti-traditionalist view anytime soon. As one musician told the Times, "I don’t know any great soloist who has a Strad or Guarneri who is trading it in for a new instrument.”

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