Study Challenges the Supremacy of Stradivarius Violins

A French researcher set out to solve a long-standing fiddle riddle: do these infamous violins project sound better than new ones?

Is this violin the best in all the land? A new study says no. Σπάρτακος/Wikimedia Commons

The Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari made 1,100 instruments during his illustrious career in the 17th and 18th centuries. And those instruments are still treasured today, selling for millions of dollars. Though part of the draw comes from their historical value, many believe that they simply produce the best sounds. A new study, however, challenges the supremacy of the Stradivarius, Rebecca Hersher reports for NPR.

French acoustics researcher Claudia Fritz set out to test a common assertions made about “Strad” violins, namely that they are most effective at projecting in concert halls. She assembled an audience of 55 experts—including musicians, instrument makers, and other aficionados—in a concert hall outside Paris. She asked them to listen to six violins: Three Stradivarius instruments and three relatively new ones. The instruments were played both with and without orchestral accompaniment, and the date of the violins’ craftsmanship was not revealed to participants. 

After the performances, audience members were asked to fill out questionnaires about the violins: which instruments sounded better, and which did they prefer? And as Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic, participants were not able to discern the Strads from the new violins. In fact, many actually preferred the newer instruments and said that they were better at projecting sound.

One year later, Frtiz and her team repeated the experiment with 82 people at a concert hall in New York, though this time the audience was made up of experts and non-experts. Audience members listened to the same violins, and once again, they said that they liked the new ones better.

The results of Fritz’s experiments were revealed this week in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is the third such study that Fritz has conducted in her quest to gently nudge Stradivarius violins off their pedestal.

In 2012, she sought to find out if professional musicians preferred playing so-called “Old Italian violins”—ones made by Stradivari and his contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri. Fritz and her team assembled 21 contestants and judges at the Violin Competition of Indianapolis in a dimly lit hotel room. The musicians were asked to strap on welder’s goggles, which made it difficult for them to see, and play six violins. Researchers found that violinists were equally likely to prefer the new violins as the old ones. And when asked which violin they would most like to take home, 62 percent chose a new instrument.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study ruffled feathers. Critics argued that it was impossible to gauge the quality of a Stradivarius in a hotel room—the instruments were meant to be played in a concert hall. So Fritz took ten musicians to a concert venue and asked them to play the violins under blinded conditions. The violinists overwhelmingly preferred the new instruments.

With these studies, Fritz wasn’t trying to prove that Strad violins do not sound wonderful.  “If players feel better because they’re playing a Strad and they like it, then fine!” she told Yong. And she concedes that the latest study only includes six instruments, so many not necessarily apply to all Strads and all new instruments. But maybe—just maybe—Strads don't produce the most spectacular music, and musicians can achieve similar greatness with newer and cheaper instruments.

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