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The Emperor's New (Old) Violin
January 2, 2012 7:08 PM   Subscribe

In the world of violins, the names Stradivari and Guarneri are sacred. For three centuries, violin-makers and scientists have studied the instruments made by these Italian craftsmen. So far no one has figured out what makes their sound different. But a new study now suggests maybe they aren't so different after all.
posted by unSane (108 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
This reminds me of the excellent short story "Democritus' Violin" by G. David Nordley -- a few physics students experimenting with atomic-level replication of objects attempt to clone a hated professor's Stradivarius, leading to intriguing questions about whether a priceless artifact is really worth more than the sum of its parts molecules.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:22 PM on January 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah, but which of those violins comes with a special wooden volume knob?
posted by c13 at 7:23 PM on January 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


That goes up to 11?
posted by XMLicious at 7:24 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Last year I made a crappy violin out of plywood and asked real violinists and fiddlers to try it. It sounded surprisingly good to me. I agree that the musician is way more important than the instrument. (If you're curious, there are some videos of the thing on my website, linked from my profile)
posted by moonmilk at 7:27 PM on January 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


That goes up to 11?

It turns bad vibrations into good, as far as I remember.
posted by c13 at 7:28 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, I picked this up over at Gearslutz, where minute sonic differences are the entire raison d'etre of the place. Trying to get two audio systems to 'null' is a major occupation over there, which means that you combine the signal of one with the inverse of the signal of the other, so that whatever is left over is the difference, usually minute.
posted by unSane at 7:30 PM on January 2, 2012


I always assumed this is the case regarding the well-marketed Strativaris and the like. It isn't like the phenomenon isn't in so many other items that are labeled superb, special, legendary. It is more hype or needed to be superior than anything else.

Whether it is $10,000 bottles of red wine being described by "experts" as a $4 bottle of white wine due to the label, sunglasses that cost $100's of dollars and are claimed to have special qualities and the ever-popular Monster Cables. Often times there is little actual difference.
posted by 2manyusernames at 7:30 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


(but it is recording studios not audiophiles so it's actually reality based)
posted by unSane at 7:31 PM on January 2, 2012


I don't get it - the Strad was super-obvious in the music clips they offered (they say which at the end). Don't pay attention to the intro - just listen to the high notes in the middle third. It was sufficiently differentiated that I thought I was falling for a deliberate fakeout - and I'm no even a violin snob, just a random asshole who does a lot of audio work in his job and occasionally enjoys classical.
posted by Ryvar at 7:35 PM on January 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I know nothing about classical or violins, but I picked the second one because it actually sounded thinner and less rich to me, and figured the newer ones would have a fuller sound, because that's what people generally like.
posted by empath at 7:40 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joseph Curtin...

I thought that read Joseph Curwen and almost got super excited.
posted by New England Cultist at 7:41 PM on January 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Damn it, now I have to listen to the whole thing or else I'll be twitchy all evening.
posted by maudlin at 7:46 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I could hear the difference, but I preferred the mellower tone of the newer instrument. Of course, I am also an (ex-)cellist, so I am predisposed towards mellow.
posted by inparticularity at 7:53 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't get it - the Strad was super-obvious in the music clips they offered

I listened to both clips on iMac speakers with a noisy PC in the same room, and I've got a fairly tin ear when it comes to audiophile stuff. I spend most of my time listening to kid-oriented pop these days.

Even I could tell pretty easily which one was the better violin - the high notes are so rich and warm and mellow. Yeah, it was the Strad.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:53 PM on January 2, 2012


Interesting...I picked the second one because it sounded fuller to me, and I figured the newer ones would be louder and brighter, so as to compete with a modern orchestra.
posted by uosuaq at 7:59 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I could hear the difference, but I preferred the mellower tone of the newer instrument.

Hmmm... I wonder if it's one of those things where a technical intimacy with the instrument can sometimes blind you to what the audience is listening for. The new instrument seemed harsh and screechy, tho that may be partly due to technique... the Stradavarius seemed more liquid and smooth, especially when sustaining the high notes, and offered more complexity with less variation - it could simply hold a note better, at least to my non-musician's ear.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:00 PM on January 2, 2012


(Also, Tchaikovsky is a really weird choice of sample music, if you ask me. Vivaldi, maybe?)
posted by uosuaq at 8:03 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I finally played both excerpts over and over again and just tried to figure out what was different, not which one was the Strad.

I thought the second one sounded more piercing on the high notes, but not unpleasantly so, and even on my crappy computer speakers, its tones seemed to be a little more complex. I can see choosing one or the other depending on my mood.

In short, the new violin seemed less likely to offend, while the Strad could veer too closely to cat wail for some people's tastes at least some of the time, but it could also achieve the piercing brilliance the other couldn't quite reach.

(Also, Tchaikovsky is a really weird choice of sample music, if you ask me. Vivaldi, maybe?)

Well, Vivaldi offends fewer people than Pyotr.
The first performance was eventually given by Adolph Brodsky on December 4, 1881 in Vienna, under the baton of Hans Richter. Tchaikovsky changed the dedication to Brodsky. Critical reaction was mixed. The influential critic Eduard Hanslick called it "long and pretentious" and said that it "brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear". Hanslick also wrote that "the violin was not played but beaten black and blue", as well as labeling the last movement "odorously Russian".
But if you're looking for how well an instrument can handle a challenging piece, this seems like the perfect source to choose from.
posted by maudlin at 8:09 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Also, Tchaikovsky is a really weird choice of sample music, if you ask me. Vivaldi, maybe?)

Well, Tchaikovsky was good enough for Monty Python.
posted by ovvl at 8:12 PM on January 2, 2012


Some other things to consider:

1. Violin making is now understood well enough that sound-alikes can be made.
2. The Strads are now declining in tone quality as they continue to age, having reached and passed Peak Tone. What you hear today isn't what you would have heard 50 years ago.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:14 PM on January 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


I find it interesting that violins apparently have a platonically ideal sound, versus something like guitars, where the tones and feel will vary enormously from model to model but people generally pick the one which fits what they want to do.

It would be more or less impossible to run a double-blind test of this type with, say, a Stratocaster, a Telecaster, and a Les Paul, of course, simply because the body types are distinguishable by touch so easily, but there'd be no need. The sounds are clearly different, and that's okay. Some people want the wamth and versatility of the strat. Some want the coolness of the tele, some want the hyper-cleanliness of the Les Paul. And beyond that, they just feel different when playing them. And that's okay.

Maybe it's the difference between a "lead" instrument and one made to generally blend in more with an orchestra, I don't know. It's just odd to me that there would be a way that violins are "supposed" to sound at their best.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:18 PM on January 2, 2012


I don't get it - the Strad was super-obvious in the music clips they offered (they say which at the end). Don't pay attention to the intro - just listen to the high notes in the middle third.

Seriously. The Strad was incredibly obvious -- the brilliance was unmistakable. I listened to both, said "This is so obvious, one is muddled in the highs, one isn't" -- and I was right.

It may be that the modern ear doesn't want such a brilliant, near strident, high register but that's what a Stradivari instrument has always had above all others.

If you want to say that the Stradivarius does not have a superior tone to the modern violin -- a subjective judgement -- that's one thing. To argue that the modern violin has an identical tone? That's another, and it's flat out wrong.

I don't know if players can hear the difference, but sound engineers can.
posted by eriko at 8:22 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


having reached and passed Peak Tone.

Oh, great. One more thing to worry about.
posted by shothotbot at 8:30 PM on January 2, 2012 [20 favorites]


It's interesting that Metafilter seems to be pretty much duplicating the results of the study - i.e., responses are all over the map. For myself, the first violin sounded harsher and edgier...more resinous, perhaps; while the second was smoother and sweeter (not saying one's better than the other - chacun à son goût, you know?). I didn't know until the end of the article which instrument was which.

Bear in mind that just because one newer instrument sounds a particular way doesn't mean all of them do. I have a friend who's a rabid archtop guitar enthusiast, and it's been obvious to both of us over the course of 15 years and umpteen different guitars that "old classic vs. new no-name" isn't a nearly adequate enough criteria for selecting an instrument - there's far too many variations relating to builder, design, construction materials, environmental conditions while the instrument matures, string choice, etc. etc. etc. Not to mention that one's selection criteria for a "solo" violin can be very different from that of a section violinist who would primarily need to be able to blend in rather than stand out...even the needs of the repertoire can have an effect on one's choice, as one person pointed out (Tchaikovsky vs. Vivaldi),

And who knows, maybe the old Italian instruments have a built-in selection bias in that all the less stellar instruments have fallen by the wayside over the centuries.

TL;DR: Joy is in the ears that hear.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:36 PM on January 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I asked a violinist friend what made his instrument better, and he described it in terms of responsiveness and precision rather than sound. The better violin would turn on a dime, allowing an expert to do things that would be impossible on a cheaper instrument. It would also mercilessly reveal any flaws in the player's technique.
posted by nixt at 8:37 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


ITT: People who got one question right on a 50/50 chance think that it means something :)

I got the Strad right, but I freely admit it was a wild ass guess. I'd have a hard time telling you the difference between sampled strings and someone playing live, even.
posted by empath at 8:38 PM on January 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


I could easily tell the difference. The first one sounded hollow, the second was thick. I don't think that was a very good example, maybe the first one was drowned out by what sounded like a live performance, while the other seemed to be in a sound stage.
posted by Malice at 8:40 PM on January 2, 2012


I was about to write something about how in the case of the sound clips, the violinist may have known the difference between the instruments and approached the playing differently because of it, rendering the test imperfect by nature........

Then I basically realized what empath said: it's a 50/50 game and the people who got it right will be the only ones to gloat about being right.
posted by pokermonk at 8:41 PM on January 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, they certainly sounded different. I'm not a violinist, or even a regular listener of classical music, so I have no way of knowing what a Stradivarius is supposed to sound like, but I apparently prefer it to the other one.

Now, let's try the comparison with a jig.
posted by cmoj at 8:44 PM on January 2, 2012


Whether it's a matter of guessing 50/50 or not, I can say that the one that sent shivers down my spine on the high register is the one that turned out to be the Strad.
posted by scody at 8:47 PM on January 2, 2012


Everyone who has ever done double blind audio studies knows that you can give people X v X or Y v Y tests and they will pronounce that the difference is night and day--that is, they are hearing exactly the same input twice in a row, and they will subjectively here them as strikingly, radically different in qualitative terms. Hearing is incredibly susceptible to psychoacoustic effects (that's why all almost new concert halls are clad in wood--which is acoustically irrelevant, but makes an enormous difference to what people think they're hearing: "warm"--"full bodied" etc.).

So empath is absolutely right. What a few people report hearing from a couple of sound clips on a website is really uninteresting as data. The experiment itself--which only confirms what has been found every other time this has been tested with any rigor at all--tells us everything we need to know.
posted by yoink at 8:50 PM on January 2, 2012 [17 favorites]


If you want to truly geek out about the scientific properties of Strads, check out the Strad 3D project. My brother (he's Director of R&D at D'Addario) participated in this project which measures these violins with modern scientific equipment (3D laser vibration scans, CT Scans). Here's a news article on it.
posted by girlhacker at 8:56 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're listening to an audio file with LOSSY COMPRESSION and guessing which is the Strad? When experts couldn't tell the difference in a double-blind test? *headdesk*
posted by davel at 9:02 PM on January 2, 2012 [36 favorites]


To argue that the modern violin has an identical tone?

No one is making that argument. The interesting thing here is that in a sighted test the Strad wins easily--in a blind test it doesn't; even when the judges are expert. Not only that, even people familiar with the qualities of stradivari cannot identify those qualities in a blind test. So while the tone is different from violin to violin, it is not "characteristic" in the ways that people imagine it to be.
posted by yoink at 9:08 PM on January 2, 2012


Anyone who has sat at a mixing desk and turned up the treble on a track in the EQ and listened to it get uncomfortably bright, only to discover that they had actually been adjusting a muted channel and done nothing at all to the one they were listening to, will be sceptical of self-reported discrimination between audio signals.
posted by unSane at 9:20 PM on January 2, 2012 [27 favorites]


So the second one still sounds more piercing on the high notes to me. If you listen and listen for any difference, I guess you'll get one.

Then I tried playing both tracks at once, and I found that the second track would slowly pull ahead on the player and get to the end about a half second to a second before the first one. I tried starting one stream before the other, then pausing it briefly so the other could catch up, and then I tried starting the other stream first, then pausing it, reloading the page for each attempt. The second stream was always speedier, whether it was first started and paused or just left to play. It's like hearing the Portsmouth Sinfonia in a music box.

So if I'm not just imagining that, or if it's not some weirdness with my computer, then the second sound file is being played a little faster than the first one.

I'm short of sleep, so go ahead and prove me wrong. Fish. Barrel.
posted by maudlin at 9:21 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


No-one's saying there isn't a difference, just that even experts cannot reliably correctly pick the Strad blind. Typically, older instruments are prized for their warmth (ie mids and low mids) rather than cutting (high frequency) tones. There are certainly physical changes that could lead to instruments becoming 'warmer' over time, but modern instruments are capable of targeting that tonality, and it may be that they actually out-Stradded the Strads, causing confusion.
posted by unSane at 9:39 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there anything to be said about the fact that the individuals being asked to judge the sound of the violins were also the individuals engrossed in playing the control song? I'm not a musician so I'm not quite sure whether or not someone in the act of playing is as likely to "get" subtle gradations of quality between modern masterwork and classic masterwork instruments. On the face of what I'm reading, it would seem more valid to me if one person played every instrument (to limit inter-subject variation in playing style) and then skilled listeners (e.g. composers, conductors, violin players) were asked to make the relevant distinction.
posted by Keter at 10:22 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


lol, maudlin...it's probably just a shorter clip...get some sleep ;)

for me, i pegged it right away, no question...it sounds...older...to me...thinner, brighter...more expensive.

i think they might have their methodology wrong...just as your own voice sounds incredibly strange and unnatural when recorded and played back, it may be impossible to be completely objective about any sound you make yourself, even with an instrument. it would seem logical that the brain would be processing much less information (and making less errors in judgement) in sounds you are merely hearing than in those which you are first imagining, then producing, and the whole time matching and synching that which you imagine with that which you produce.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:22 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I repair violins for a living, and to me this is all pretty ridiculous. Stradivarius made better violins and less good violins, just like any other maker. They weren't all equally wonderful. Plus, they've all been repaired many times. The necks have virtually all been extended and the neck angle reset. Wood has been removed and added due to repairs. They are not the same violins that they were originally.

And there have been countless fine violin makers in the centuries since, who have also produced better and less good instruments. How did they pick the 'modern' violins used in the test? Did they try to pick violins that sounded like their illustrious counterparts? Did they pick violins made based on the same measurements and patterns? Additionally, violins sound different under the ear than they do from a distance.

There is no 'platonic' ideal violin. Some sound darker, some sound lighter. Some are richer and more even than others. Some project more than others. Some play and speak more easily than others. But most often these things involve trade offs.

_AND_ the violin is only half the instrument. A bow that perfectly matches one instrument might not work on another. In fact, three bows will bring out three totally different sound spectrums from the same instrument, even if the bows were made by the same maker.

I have read countless explanations for the quality of the violins made by the Italian masters. Dense wood from the Little Ice Age. Sodium silicate in the finish. Spirit varnish on top of oil varnish. I think it boils down to Stradivarius being really good at his craft. He was rich and so did not need to cut corners, and he had plenty of time to work on it.

So I do not think in this 'test' that they proved there is no magic in old Stads and Guaneris compared to modern instruments, so much as they proved that different people will prefer different violins, which was obvious to begin with.
posted by jabah at 10:25 PM on January 2, 2012 [22 favorites]


Typically, older instruments are prized for their warmth (ie mids and low mids) rather than cutting (high frequency) tones.

Hey, that explains why everyone could tell it was the strad by the piercing, shrieking high notes. lulz.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:26 PM on January 2, 2012


Headline: In a double-blind test, expert violinists were unable to tell the difference between a stradivari, guarneri, or modern instrument.

Internet commenters: GUYS I CAN TOTALLY TELL THE DIFFERENCE. Man those violinists must be some real tin-ears, huh? Maybe all that violin-playing ruined their ability to hear good playing, is all I'm saying here.

--

My personal data: could not tell the difference between the two clips as played on my 2006 macbook's speakers at work. The little snippet of that piece sounded nice both times though!
posted by kavasa at 10:30 PM on January 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


"If you want to write a romantic love letter, you need some tool to write it with.
But anything - a pencil or ballpoint pen - is fine."
posted by steamynachos at 10:30 PM on January 2, 2012


And this experiment asked seasoned violin players, not listeners, to choose.

Oh, they were seasoned were they? WTF. I'll bet that I can find the Strad just by touching the thing. I have been able to touch one, and to my wonderment it was wonderful.

Next thing is you're going to tell me that California wines are just as good as French wines.

That's just plain nuts. If you can't feel how wonderful a Strad is, then something is wrong with you.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:37 PM on January 2, 2012


Scientist does research, determines that experts can't tell the difference between Stradivariuses and other violins, people in this thread all chime in saying "Nu-uh, I can totally tell the difference"

There were only two samples, so you had a 50% chance of getting right if you guess. I'm betting that, were there more samples and an online test where you actually have to mark your guess before seeing if you're correct you couldn't do it.
posted by delmoi at 10:52 PM on January 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I bet they all sound just great... when you SMASH 'EM UP!
posted by not_on_display at 10:53 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK, but have they figured out the special quality that makes Strads get left behind in taxis?
posted by dhartung at 10:54 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Next thing is you're going to tell me that California wines are just as good as French wines.

Funny you should mention that.
posted by empath at 10:58 PM on January 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am a professional violinist. I couldn't pick out the Strad. I doubt very much that this particular Strad had enough distinctive "Strad-ishness" to come through clearly over streamed internet audio. I would need to be listening at the back of a concert hall to have a fighting chance, and even then I'd be more comfortable picking out the instrument that seems better suited to the particular player.

Why? Because I'm not an expert. Violin makers, dealers, and recording engineers are much more likely to pick up on some subtle quality of a specific maker's instrument(s). Their livelihoods depend on that ability, whereas mine really doesn't.

They gathered professional violinists in a hotel room in Indianapolis.

Two major problems right there...

In Top Gear, they take a car out on the track and review it by just tossing it into corners, spinning it out, and generally having fun with it - it's about finding the soul of the car. Is it silly or sophisticated? Ferocious or tenacious? This kind of violin test (of which there have been many) reminds me of the second part of the Top Gear review, where The Stig drives a lap, reducing the car to a ranked number. Which part of a Top Gear review is more meaningful to you? When I try violins, I don't play the same piece over and over on different violins - I'm not interested in lap times. I let the violin tell me what it wants to play, and I'll know pretty quickly whether it's a match for me.

tl,dr: this is silly. Also, your Strad sucks, but sure I guess I could take it off your hands.
posted by violinflu at 11:00 PM on January 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


1. Violin making is now understood well enough that sound-alikes can be made.

The old growth, large diameter trees, that the Stad uses, has compact growth rings from an unusually cold period. Cold-grown wood has tighter rings, and has a harder structure.

The French Polish lacquer that was applied required a ten year apprenticeship to enter. One possible factor is the use of fine calcium to polish the surface. They also knew to save any wood dust from sanding, and combine it with the calcium dust, and then with the shellac. They would exhaustively rub it into the unusually tight grain, with the calcium added to the same wood that came from the site. Several hundred layers of shellac are used to bind it in place. The result is a transformation of the wood towards a kind of crystalline or glass structure.

The shellac is made from roasting a special bug that required long ocean voyages to obtain, and then squeezing the juice out of them over a fire in something like a twisted tube sock, onto hot rocks, where the dried flakes are collected and brought back to be meticulously dissolved in pure alcohol, and then rubbed into the wood, using various proprietary "baby dolls" which are little hand held bundles of wool and cotton fabrics tied up just right for the purpose.

The lacquer could perhaps be repeated, the rubbing of calcium into the grains might be too, if it was better understood.. The exceptionally tight-grained old growth wood is going to be a problem, though.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:09 PM on January 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Scientist does research, determines that experts can't tell the difference between Stradivariuses and other violins, people in this thread all chime in saying "Nu-uh, I can totally tell the difference"

Because I'm still awake: some of us were saying we could hear A difference, not THE difference. I actually expected the Strad to be richer and warmer on the low notes, but the only difference I could detect on my (shitty) speakers was in the high notes. I hunted for a difference on repeated listens and it wasn't what I expected.

Anyway, as unSane said, the experts couldn't reliably differentiate the collection of violins into old and new, but even they still heard something in that hotel room that made them tend to prefer one violin over another. And a lot of them liked the new ones.
First, the players were given random pairs of violins. They played each instrument for a minute, and said which they preferred. Unbeknownst to them, each pair contained an old violin and a new one. For the most part, there was nothing to separate the two, and the players preferred the new instrument as often as the old one. There was one exception: O1, the Stradivarius with the most illustrious history, was chosen far less often than any of the three new violins. ...

Next, Fritz and Curtin gave the recruits a more natural task. They saw all six violins, laid out in random order on a bed. They had 20 minutes to play any violin against any other and to choose the one they’d most like to take home. They also picked the best and worst instruments in terms of four qualities: range of tone colours; projection; playability; and response.

This time, a clear favourite emerged. The players chose one of the new violins (“N2”) as their take-home instrument most often, and it topped the rankings for all four qualities. As before, O1 received the most severe rejections. Overall, just 38 percent of the players (8 out of 21) chose to take an old violin home, and most couldn’t tell if their instrument was old or new. As Fritz and Curtin write, this “stands as a bracing counterexample to conventional wisdom.”
PRI's The World had a feature on this as well, interviewing the lead researcher.
posted by maudlin at 11:17 PM on January 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


First, the players were given random pairs of violins. They played each instrument for a minute, and said which they preferred.

Sounds like a Bose speaker demo. The over produced artificial loudness, etc, will catch attention, for a minute.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:40 PM on January 2, 2012


I think it boils down to Stradivarius being really good at his craft.

The lesson here is that it boils down to people thinking Stradivarius was good at his craft. It's not that his violins actually sound better, even to experts. People expect them to sound better, so they perceive them as being better, but remove or swap the expectation, and the perception follows right along.

All the other stuff you mention is true, but if so, then why do Strads almost always "sound better" when people know it's a Strad? Your argue that violins are exceedingly complex, yet the Stradivariuses ALWAYS do better, no matter what, if people know that's what they're listening to.

In other words, though you may not realize it, the complexity you allude to very strongly supports the idea that a Stradivarius violin is not objectively different from other offerings, at least not because it's a Stradivarius. It's cachet, not fact. People think they're the greatest violins of all because people think they're greatest violins of all -- it's a self-reinforcing delusion. You can buy other violins that are every bit as good, and far cheaper.
posted by Malor at 11:50 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sounds like a Bose speaker demo. The over produced artificial loudness, etc, will catch attention, for a minute.

Sounds plausible, rather like how extra-sugary Pepsi edges out Coke in the Pepsi challenge but falls behind in sales (although a bunch of marketing, personal stubbornness and sentimentality may also contribute to Coke's market share). And the acoustics of the hotel room, as mentioned, may not have been terrific.

But check the rest of the excerpt: when they could see the violins and play them for a longer period, their preference for the new violins was even more dramatic. And this wasn't a crappy Strad they were rejecting:
During the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis – one of the world’s most important competitions – Fritz and Curtin persuaded six violinists to part with their instruments. Three of the violins were new; one was made a few days before. The other three had illustrious, centuries-long histories. Two were made by Stradivari and the other by Guarneri. One of the Stradivari, denoted “O1”, currently belongs to an institution, and is loaned to only the most gifted players. All three have featured in concerts and recordings, bowed by famous violinists. Their combined value is around 10 million US dollars, a hundred times more than the three new ones.
Also: RC Cola.
posted by maudlin at 12:02 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any conclusion that isn't established by quantitative measurements is probably subjective and unreliable. Science consistently demonstrates this.
posted by hellslinger at 12:28 AM on January 3, 2012


Also: RC Cola.

My roommates mock me for buying RC. But RC is delicious. RC is way better than that red-labeled mass-marketed colored piss. Want to make your homemade Jack and Coke's taste like the one you get at the bar? Use RC. Because it's probably what your local bar uses. Yeah, that's right. And it's better.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 12:53 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


The lesson here is that it boils down to people thinking Stradivarius was good at his craft.

No. What I think it boils down to is that he really was good at his craft, one of the better ones back in his days, but it's not like the world has stopped; over the centuries, many others have also learned to make great violins and his aren't really any better than theirs, even though they might sound different in some ways.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:11 AM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Use RC.

Moon pie sold seperately.


Original article sounds like sensation based research to me. Sure, it is possible for people to delude themselves into thinking something is better than it actually is, but the Stradivarius has been a symbol of violin quality for too long to be just a fad, hasn't it?
posted by MartinWisse at 1:23 AM on January 3, 2012


I find it interesting that violins apparently have a platonically ideal sound, versus something like guitars, where the tones and feel will vary enormously from model to model but people generally pick the one which fits what they want to do.

Well, not exactly. There's sort of an ideal classical solo sound--ringing and bright--but classical soloists aren't the only kind of violinists. There's mariachi violin, gypsy violin, Irish, klezmer, Middle Eastern, and lots more, and they all have their own ideal sound, and suit different instruments.

Stradivarius pioneered the modern shape of the violin, which is less curved in the front and back than prior violins, and is therefore louder and brighter. The "Stradivarius pattern" is the basis for most violins made now. That's why Strads are special--it's not the varnish, though that's a factor. There are violins made with a deeper soundbox (Joseph Steiner's, for example), that have a sweeter, quieter sound.

I could definitely hear a difference between the two clips. I thought the modern violin sounded better, though I'm not a huge Strad devotee in the first place. I can identify the sound of my own violin (a modern Chinese-made instrument I've had since 2001) when someone else is playing it, even if I'm in another room, no matter who the player is.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 1:30 AM on January 3, 2012


Yeah, that's more accurate, daniel_charms. I tried to be cute with my phrasing, and failed both at cuteness and communication. I wasn't saying that Strads are terrible or anything, just that, as far as we can see, they're not as quite as good as well-crafted modern violins.

That's true in essentially every other field of endeavor, so it shouldn't be a particularly startling conclusion. Stradivarius violins probably were godlike when they were made, but the world caught up.

From a different angle: those instruments were made hundreds of years ago, and all our amazing modern technology hasn't improved on them that much, to the point that they can still be used at the highest performance levels. He made instruments that were literally centuries ahead of their time.

Maybe they're not the best ever created, but buying a Stradivarius, in 1700, was like buying a violin from 400 years in the future.
posted by Malor at 1:31 AM on January 3, 2012


Stradivarius has been a symbol of violin quality for too long to be just a fad, hasn't it?

Only because a fad is by definition short-lived. The fact that lots of people have believed something for a long time is hardly a guarantee of its truth.
posted by howfar at 1:32 AM on January 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sorry, typo, 300 years. Hell, maybe 400, but we won't know for another 90 years. :)
posted by Malor at 1:32 AM on January 3, 2012


Strads generally stand out as loud instruments - a quality needed when performing acoustically, and remember, back in those days that often meant playing for social functions that included dancing, not just concerts in well designed halls. Strads have been analysed measured and copied on a regular basis for hundreds of years - from factories in China to modern masters in Cremona.

Since the 18th century violinists have learned to value other qualities beside volume alone. Personally, I own about five violins - which I refer to as fiddles - and all of them are from yard sales and flea markets. Depending on my moods, I switch from among them all the time. The one I am using now really bothers the conservatory trained classical musician playing next to me in my band who thinks it is loud piece of junk, yet it was assessed by a violin shop as an instrument that would command a higher price than my other fiddles.

The prices that violinists pay for a working professional instrument - between $10,000 - $30,000 in most cases - is already higher than the prices a pro guitarist usually pays for his axe. In a market like that the value of a Strad is almost symbolic rather than actual.
posted by zaelic at 1:41 AM on January 3, 2012


Stardivarius can go ahead and exploit the alchemy-smithing loop, but IMHO it breaks the game. I'd rather play with the best ones I find in loot and leave it at that.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:51 AM on January 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't understand the thing about the little ice age and the denseness of the wood. We currently have forests right up to the bit of the arctic circle where trees won't grow. It can't have been colder than that during the little ice age. So surely we could choose wood growing in a geographical location that has a similar climate to that during the little ice age of the part of Europe where Stradivarius would have got his wood.

For example, my uncle-in-law in Sweden showed us his pine plantation once. We asked him about the little trees growing in one section. "How old are they?" I asked. "Two, three years?" (Because that's how old trees that size are in New Zealand). They were 15. FIFTEEN. Those are slow-ass trees.
posted by lollusc at 3:03 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


From a different angle: those instruments were made hundreds of years ago, and all our amazing modern technology hasn't improved on them that much

We have decided that the sound of a Stradivarius violin is the ideal concert violin sound, so obviously we are never going to improve on an actual Stradivarius violin, not in an infinite number of years. We can only approximate or duplicate the sound of the instrument we have arbitrarily designated as the ideal violin.

If you want an instrument that does that Stradivarius violin sound well enough to fool the experts (and therefore almost certainly all of the regular audience) but also is a lot easier to find, purchase, insure, maintain, repair, and play, you should go with a modern instrument.

If you want an instrument that even sounds better than a Stradivarius violin, make one that does that Stradivarius violin sound faithfully as needed but that also does other sounds (acoustically or electronically). The only thing that matters is whether it pleases the ear.

Then put all of those lovely historic instruments safely away.
posted by pracowity at 3:14 AM on January 3, 2012


> I don't understand the thing about the little ice age and the denseness of the wood. We currently have forests right up to the bit of the arctic circle where trees won't grow.

Yeah, but not old-growth forests with say 100+ years old oaks.
posted by Tom-B at 3:45 AM on January 3, 2012


I've actually played a Guarneri cello (and an Amati) but never a Strad. They were very nice. But I have always maintained that no instrument is worth more than a house, and anyone who claims otherwise isn't talking about musical value, but investment value, about which, as a musician, I couldn't give less of a shit. I have played and heard many modern instruments that were indistinguishable from the antiques anyway.
posted by spitbull at 4:59 AM on January 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Comparison: It sounds to me like the Strad is more pure in its tone. IE, closer to a sine wave. The other one sounded flatter in its frequency response, or just as loud at the low end than the high end. The Strad sounded more resonant, the newer one sounded more rich. I would like to hear a similar comparison on the part(s) of the 1812 overture where the peasants are dancing.

My dad had a Martin acoustic guitar, and I could tell just by holding it that it was more musical. Playing on it sounded louder, like it was in tune with itself. Not the strings, but the actual body of the instrument resonating in concert with itself. (The same way a chamber group that is perfectly in tune sounds louder.) He also had one of those fancy new-fangled plastic acoustics. It sounded nearly as good, but it wasn't as loud.

Reminds me of my high school band days. I have a Yamaha resin clarinet that plays nicely in the natural register, but gets progressively awful in the high and double-high registers. The material is just too "gummy" to vibrate at those frequencies. Whereas the guys who had the wood clarinets sounded much better in those registers, they didn't sound quite as good (to my ear) in the natural register. I assume that a pro instrument would get the best of both worlds and have a more consistent tone.

Trees: yes, Tom-B is right. It isn't so much the absolute temperature, but the relative temperature. Trees that prefer a certain climate being forced to grow in a temporarily cooler climate are the ones that produce the tighter rings that are supposedly more musical.

I also wonder whether the difference becomes more pronounced if one uses older style strings. (I ignorantly assume that they aren't using cat-gut anymore.)
posted by gjc at 5:22 AM on January 3, 2012


As a kid, I got started on clarinet on the usual dreadfully cheap plastic monstrosity that parents purchase because they're convinced the kid isn't going to keep it up. Several years later, I was trying to compete for first chair with an instrument that, no matter what I did, sounded like a shrieking weasel in the upper registers, while most of the other kids who were taking it seriously had moved on to better models. That, somehow, was the point where I suddenly Got these illustrious instruments, the way that if you had given your whole life to the playing, you would want the epitome of the craft to play it on.

But I also got someting else. There was a lot of myth to it all, even among us kids. One person does incredibly well with a particular brand of reed and suddenly everybody wants it. One very good person does badly with a particular brand... I felt a little odd being the only person with a Mitchell Lurie. But I got the best sound that I could get out of my awful little Vito (which someday I swear I am going to find a way to melt down or something just out of spite) with those reeds. But nobody else would touch them because our first chair had gone spectacularly sharp when he'd tried them and that was that. We were, mind you, like twelve at the time. I forget what he used. Pretty much everybody else who cared did what he did.

If you think you get better results from a million-dollar violin, you probably will. If you don't know that it's That Violin, maybe you don't do as well. Or maybe, seeing another great violin as *potentially* That Violin, it can be far easier to play it to its actual potential. Either way, I think I trust the professionals to make the call on what they think is what, with all the data. I mean... my mother claimed she thought the thrice-cursed black plastic cylinder from hell sounded "terrific".
posted by gracedissolved at 5:47 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I expect confirmation bias to be found in these sorts of studies, and it nearly always is.
posted by dickasso at 6:24 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I expect confirmation bias to be found in these sorts of studies, and it nearly always is.

Yeah? Well I say statistics is bunk and I have the numbers to prove it.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:31 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


It sounds to me like the Strad is more pure in its tone. IE, closer to a sine wave.

If true, that would be an exceedingly boring sound. Your ideal violin should sound like a morse code osculator or a PC system beep?
 
posted by Herodios at 6:35 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I picked the right answer for smarter reasons than everyone else did so there.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:36 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Morse code osculators may sound boring now, but were an important development in the early stages of teledildonics.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:50 AM on January 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


The necks have virtually all been extended and the neck angle reset. Wood has been removed and added due to repairs. They are not the same violins that they were originally.

The violin of Theseus?

Funny you should mention that.

Regarding the results of that survey, it'd be good to know what wines they chose. They classify expensive wines as £10+ and I have bought awful wines for a tenner; a £10 Wetherspoons bottle will still be plonk, no matter how much they charge.
posted by ersatz at 6:53 AM on January 3, 2012


Morse code osculators may sound boring now, but were an important development in the early stages of teledildonics.

True. but the invention of the Telefunken U-47 was the final kiss-off.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:03 AM on January 3, 2012


They had six violins — two Strads, a Guarneri and three modern instruments.

Does anyone have a link to the paper? I want to know which three modern instruments they used. And I bet the makers of those modern instruments would be happy to know that their stuff compared favorably to the supposed best instruments in history.

This reminds me a bit about art and literary hoaxes. When people believe that a story or painting was created by someone they admire, they find the work easy to admire, but when they find out it was created by someone else entirely, the work magically changes entirely without shifting one atom of its being.
posted by pracowity at 7:16 AM on January 3, 2012


Isadora Duncan worked for Telefunken.

-John Lennon
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2012


(Until her scarf made her a girarffe.)
posted by pracowity at 7:26 AM on January 3, 2012


pracowity, this blog posting linked to the paper here, but the paper is not available to the public. Anyone got a subscription?

(A bunch of other articles had a broken link: this is the only one that resolved to anything at all.)
posted by maudlin at 7:31 AM on January 3, 2012


it'd be good to know what wines they chose

Indeed, the "real cost" of a bottle of wine can be hard to determine mainly due to the prevalence of the the mark-up to mark-down swindle in supermarkets. If that supposed ten pound bottle sells for £6 most of the time, it's not actually a ten pound bottle. Also, the result for this test would be wildly different if performed with professional wine buyers, which would be a closer match with the violin test.

Having said that, most of us can't tell much more about the wine we're drinking than whether we like it or not. Drinking what you enjoy is the first and only rule, and the only vital wine lesson is learning what you like. Why, how and when you like it can also be useful for choosing what to buy and serve, but only if it brings you pleasure.

(p.s. that said, most Californian wine is over-oaked glop)
posted by howfar at 7:33 AM on January 3, 2012


It sounds to me like the Strad is more pure in its tone. IE, closer to a sine wave.

Strings are closer to saw waves. And usually a lot more complex than that.
posted by empath at 7:34 AM on January 3, 2012


Of course, having FLAC or lossless versions of these recordings available could go a long way.
posted by samsara at 8:01 AM on January 3, 2012


I'm going to double what unSane said above. I have pretty good ears and have done a fair amount of mixing. I can remember,with some embarrassment, times, when I have applied an effect and thought wow, it opened the whole sound up, such depth, what a change, night and day — and then found I actually hadn't applied the effect. People consistently and hugely underestimate their capacity to hear false effects.

Anyway, the larger point is: Find an instrument you enjoy playing, then stop thinking about the instrument. The number of people who would get more benefit from instrument selection than they would from spending their time practicing is minuscule.
posted by argybarg at 8:03 AM on January 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Reminds me of that thread where Josh Bell played Bach in a subway station, and no one noticed. Ah, here it is.
posted by Melismata at 9:05 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the best recoding engineers I’ve ever known gave me maybe the best advice I’ve ever had;
Don’t A-B. Either it sounds good so move on, or it doesn’t so change it.

Every instrument sounds different. I find one of the biggest differences between people, one that affects how the whole world works, is that some people believe in the concept of "best" and some don’t. I don’t. At any time I may prefer one thing to another. That’s the one to go with, there is no best.

I think people like the idea of "best" for many reasons; it gives order to the world, and it absolves you of your opinions and decisions. It similar to why so many pop vocals are auto tuned, you don’t have to make a decision as to wether something sounds good and have to defend your skill or taste later, you just tune everything and it’s "correct".
posted by bongo_x at 10:36 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


am I really the only one who couldn't hear a discernible difference between the two recordings?
posted by evening at 10:44 AM on January 3, 2012


am I really the only one who couldn't hear a discernible difference between the two recordings?

Only a stupid, incompetent person cannot see the emperor's clothes!
posted by coolguymichael at 11:58 AM on January 3, 2012


In the article, Dale Purves' comment, "that things that people think are 'special' are not so special after all when knowledge of the origin is taken away" reminds me of that old post about Joshua Bell playing in a subway...
posted by BluPrince at 12:05 PM on January 3, 2012


Stradivarius snobbery is but one symptom of the plague that is slowly suffocating Western art music: its fans.
posted by invitapriore at 1:35 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


am I really the only one who couldn't hear a discernible difference between the two recordings?

I couldn't tell either.
posted by juv3nal at 1:39 PM on January 3, 2012


am I really the only one who couldn't hear a discernible difference between the two recordings?

Even if you could hear a difference, it wouldn't matter. It's not enough to tell that Sample A is on a different violin than Sample B. The question is, could even an expert reliably distinguish the sound of a Strad from the sound of a non-Strad, and the answer is almost certainly not.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:03 PM on January 3, 2012


The mp3 files are only 148 Kb in size each (64 K bit rate).

no wonder I can't hear any difference, 64 K is meant for speech not music, if they compressed it just one step further to 32 K it would sound like this.
posted by Lanark at 3:36 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Strad has the ultimate cachet of being 300 freakin' years old. They have history behind them--crafted by a prominent maker, played by historical personages--the whole provenance thing. As long as modern violins don't sound significantly better, they will never be as valuable because of that provenance. A violinist 'moves up' in standing when they play a valuable instrument. And an instrument other than a Strad would likely 'move up' by being chosen by a noted violinist. But Perlman doesn't wear an off the rack tux, and he doesn't play a mass produced violin, either.

Of two Strads equal in value, if one is purchased by a world-famous violinist, and one is purchased by some rich mommy and daddy for their slightly-more-than average playing scion, I would venture to say the first Strad owned by the famous violinist would immediately start appreciating in value over the second.

Sometimes what you hear is the mellowness of history (and money.)
posted by BlueHorse at 8:58 PM on January 3, 2012


Is it just me, or did they do the wrong study? If 999 violinists can't tell the difference between a Strad and a modern violin, but one violinist can tell the difference /consistently/, then there must be a difference between the two violins.
posted by GIFtheory at 9:23 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it just me, or did they do the wrong study? If 999 violinists can't tell the difference between a Strad and a modern violin, but one violinist can tell the difference /consistently/, then there must be a difference between the two violins.

There was no mythical person who could consistently tell the difference. The whole point was that nobody could, in a double-blind test of the violins' sound.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:11 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Curtin says of the 17 players who were asked to choose which were old Italians, "Seven said they couldn't, seven got it wrong, and only three got it right."

The question wasn't "can you tell the difference" it was "can you identify the Strad?"
posted by gjc at 6:55 AM on January 4, 2012


Is it just me, or did they do the wrong study? If 999 violinists can't tell the difference between a Strad and a modern violin, but one violinist can tell the difference /consistently/, then there must be a difference between the two violins.

If most people can't tell the difference, then it's hard to say that the strad is better, though, isn't it?
posted by empath at 7:05 AM on January 4, 2012


Ryvar: "I don't get it - the Strad was super-obvious in the music clips they offered (they say which at the end). Don't pay attention to the intro - just listen to the high notes in the middle third. It was sufficiently differentiated that I thought I was falling for a deliberate fakeout - and I'm no even a violin snob, just a random asshole who does a lot of audio work in his job and occasionally enjoys classical."

That's funny. The high notes sounded the same to me but I noticed a difference right away with the low tones. The first violin had a rougher sound while the second was smoother and woodier. I wasn't sure which kind of noise was preferred so I said, whichever one is preferred, that's probably the Strad.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:23 AM on January 4, 2012




Wow, that's some crappy reporting of results. They ask which one they "liked" better, which is completely a different question from what they claimed they tested. This is less like "there is no difference" and more like that famous five-dollar-wine thing, where it turns out that sometimes cheap/modern stuff is just as enjoyable as expensive/old stuff, as long as your frame of mind is set correctly.

I feel less weird now about being able to identify the Strad despite having a tin ear. That was a pretty clear difference; it's just that they weren't being asked to identify the old violins.
posted by Scattercat at 7:36 AM on January 9, 2012


Wow is right:

I was not asked to identify specifically which was the modern violin and which was the old violin; only which I preferred. If people are concluding from this study that "professional violinists can't tell the difference between modern violinist and old Italians," then I think we need a different study in which violinists are actually asked to identify that...

I think we can conclude that, with a very limited amount of playing time and under circumstances that are a lot like those in a violin shop (a dry room, lots of testing), we are just as impressed with the tonality of great new instruments as with the tonality of great old ones. Also, different violinists look for different attributes. I'm an orchestral musician, with small hands: I probably prefer something colorful over something loud; and something that fits my hands over something unwieldy for my particular body-type....

Honestly, I have no issue with the idea that a well-made modern can sound as good as a $8 million Strad. The moderns I played under these odd circumstances were just beautiful-sounding. The old Italians were, too. This is good news for us violinists, because virtually none of us can afford a multi-million dollar Strad.

posted by mediareport at 8:02 AM on January 9, 2012


that's some crappy reporting of results

No. It's mainly crappy journalism, and little to do with the study or those conducting it. If you look at the description of the study, you'll find.

"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."

Now, it is this last point that has been picked up on, and there is a query about how it was obtained or extrapolated from the data. But, given that neither you nor I have read the study, criticising those who conducted it on the impressions of one participant, who is apparently embarrassed about some aspects of her involvement, seems like picking the data that supports your instinct.

That was a pretty clear difference; it's just that they weren't being asked to identify the old violins

Well, while it suits you to say this, we just don't know if it's actually true or not, based on the data presented from this study.
posted by howfar at 8:06 AM on January 9, 2012


BTW Scattercat, you do realise that you picking the Stradivarius from a sample of two is the same evidence of your ability to distinguish the samples as me calling a coin toss correctly is of my psychic powers? Even if I actually do have psychic powers, I'm probably going to need to do more than that to convince people of it.
posted by howfar at 8:11 AM on January 9, 2012


It's mainly crappy journalism, and little to do with the study or those conducting it.

Sounds like another example of The Science News Cycle! See also: How Science Reporting Works.
posted by grouse at 9:20 AM on January 9, 2012


in the "what really happened" article, she never made the claim that she could identify a strad, and that was kind of the point.

She is making the implication that the NPR article was disingenuous or misleading while not refuting any of its conclusions. That's dishonest and self-important.

If they did the same test over again and asked them to identify the strad, the results would be the same, and this woman knows it.
posted by hellslinger at 11:34 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Late update: here is some information from my brother, Fan Tao (one of the authors of the study):

We have recently posted on Claudia Fritz’s website our responses to many of the most common criticisms, plus our paper with several previously unpublished photos, and links to many of the popular media accounts.

Our results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article requires a fee, but many details of the experiment are described in the free supplementary information (pdf):

Note that the recordings in the NPR story (the original link in this post) have nothing to do with the actual experiment.

Our experiment was designed as a double-blind preference experiment for players, and not as an identification experiment. The identification was a small part done at the very end of the experiment. The popular press, naturally, concentrated on this aspect.

The most important point is that to accurately evaluate the sound and playing qualities of a violin, one must learn to do so with one’s “eyes closed.” Knowledge of the instrument, whether its history, its value, or even just how it looks, is so overwhelming that it can (and does) interfere with one’s objective judgments.

posted by girlhacker at 5:47 PM on January 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


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