Science proves Stradivarius violins just aren’t that great

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In blind tests even violinists prefer newer violins to Stradivari.
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Stradivarius violins – made in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Stradivari family in Italy – are regarded by many as sounding better than any others, especially instruments made in modern times.

But research published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) might have finally consigned that pre-eminence to the realm of myth.

Testing led by Claudia Fritz from the Pierre & Marie Curie University in Paris concludes robustly that concert-goers far prefer the volume and tone of new violins.

The study follows previous work from Fritz and colleagues that showed professional violinists also prefer newer instruments to the revered antiques.

Fritz’s latest work demolishes what has often been a peculiar, yet usually uncontested, aspect of the Stradivarius legacy. Even though the old violins sound rather quiet to any musician who plays one, their projected sound is held to be far superior.

To test this contention, the scientists conducted two separate “blind listening” experiments, in which audience members in an auditorium were asked to rate the projection qualities of six violins: three modern, and three by the Stradivari. 

The instruments were played solo, and with orchestral accompaniment.

“Results are unambiguous,” the researchers report. “The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without.”

When projection assessment among audience members was compared to how loud the actual musicians found each instrument, the contradictory reputation of Stradivarius violins disappeared, a niente.

“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,” the paper concludes.

Listeners were also asked to note which violins they preferred listening to – a necessarily subjective response – and here too the blind votes fell heavily on the side of the modern instruments.

The finding harmonises with the research published by Fritz and colleagues in 2014. In a blind listening experiment, professional violinists asked to distinguish between Stradivari and modern instruments were unable to do so at a rate better than chance.

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