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posted by n1 on Wednesday April 09 2014, @06:21AM   Printer-friendly
from the music-to-our-ears dept.

Seth Borenstein reports at AP that ten world-class soloists put prized Stradivarius violins and new, cheaper instruments to a blind scientific test to determine which has the better sound and the new violins won hands down. "I was surprised that my top choice was new," says American violinist Giora Schmidt. "Studying music and violin in particular, it's almost ingrained in your thinking that the most successful violinists on the concert stage have always played old Italian instruments." Joseph Curtin, a Michigan violin maker and Claudia Fritz, a music acoustics researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France had the ten violinists put a dozen instruments through their paces in a rehearsal room and concert hall just outside Paris. They even played with an orchestra. The lights were dimmed and the musicians donned dark welder's glasses. The dozen violins together were worth about $50 million and the older, more expensive ones required special security. The 10 violinists were asked to rate the instruments for sound, playability, and other criteria, and pick one that they would want to use on a concert tour.

The finding shocks music aficionados, because of the mythologies built up around the Italian violin makers of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the Stradivari and Guarneri families. Along with violins made by other Italian masters in this era, Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments have gained almost mythical status, with musicians insisting these instruments have a quality that cannot be reproduced.

Canadian soloist Susanne Hou has been playing a rare $6 million 269-year-old violin made by Guarneri del Gesu called by some the greatest violinmaker of all time. Like other participants, Hou was drawn to a certain unidentified violin that ranked No. 1 for four testers and No. 2 for four more. "Whatever this is I would like to buy it." Hou, whose four-year loan of the classic Italian violin has expired, is shopping for a new one this week. She wishes the researchers could tell her which one she picked in the experiment, but Curtin said the researchers won't ever reveal which instruments were used to prevent conflict of interests or appear like a marketing campaign. For Hou finding the right instrument is so personal: "There are certain things you can't explain when you fall in love."

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  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by dvorak on Wednesday April 09 2014, @07:08AM

    by dvorak (1194) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @07:08AM (#28639)

    Strands are great violins, and I don't think we'll ever quite be able to replicate them and their sound qualities perfectly, but I haven seen compelling proof that we can't make something that sounds different, but just as good.

    Still, I don't think you can deny the uniqueness of the experience of playing an old Italian instrument. I one played my violin teacher's Guarneri, and it was a pretty thrilling experience, not just because the instrument sounded good, but because I was playing a violin that had been made hundreds of years ago. It made me feel like a better violinist, and when you're on a stage in front of thousands of people, that can help.

    • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @03:24PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @03:24PM (#28854)

      Would be a stressful experience for me- I wouldn't want to become famous as the idiot who tripped and destroyed it...

      Here's another angle on the same story: /stradivarius-violins-arent-better-than-new-ones-r ound-two/ []

      "We couldn’t address all the issues in one study anyway," she says. "We needed the first one to attract attention, so we could do a better one. This time people were really happy to loan me some instruments."

      Unfortunately that's what a lot of science nowadays seem to be about - attracting attention and possibly $$$$. Not saying this study and the previous one was bad, but I see too many "troll" studies that seem solely for attracting attention and $$$, not really for finding out anything concrete.

      By the way it shouldn't be shocking. It's a follow up study. There have been other experiments before where cheaper violins beat the famous ones. Or where people can't figure out which violins are which (or better). 4111418.htm [] /2012/01/02/violinists-cant-tell-the-difference-be tween-stradivarius-violins-and-new-ones/ []

      • (Score: 2) by naubol on Wednesday April 09 2014, @08:28PM

        by naubol (1918) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @08:28PM (#29084)

        Science has always had steps where initial, simpler, cheaper studies were done to decide whether it would be worth staging a more rigorous, expensive study. You can take the words about attracting attention and use it to say that the existence of this motivation means that the first study wasn't good enough to even infer that further study is warranted, but that would be fallacious.

        The strength of a conclusion from a study should mostly, if not completely, rely on the methodological quality of the study, the rigor with which it was performed, the scrutiny brought to bear on it by subject matter experts, and the repeatability of the results in subsequent or previous studies by other scientists.

        I also think that complaining that money and attention is just now a factor in which studies are done is naive.

        • (Score: 2) by Maow on Thursday April 10 2014, @02:18AM

          by Maow (8) on Thursday April 10 2014, @02:18AM (#29210) Homepage

          But, but, then how do you explain all those "scientists" pocketing all those Stradivarius violins at the end of the test, huh? And then they reported the violins stolen and, and, pocketed the insurance money too, uh-huh!

          And all those Porche-driving climate scientists with their yachts and private planes - what about them?!?

          I weep for humanity when I read about the science "scepticism" on tech web sites.

          Of course, other than the Creationists, this sentiment seems to have arrived fully-formed with the climate science deniers.

          One has to shake one's head...

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by mendax on Wednesday April 09 2014, @07:39AM

    by mendax (2840) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @07:39AM (#28645)

    The finest violin I've ever heard was the Guarneri del Gesu-made violin called "David" that the late great violinist Jasha Heifetz played. It has a particularly special full, throaty sound that I've not heard elsewhere, almost as if it were a viola that was tuned too high. He owned a Strad as well but David was his favorite.

    It's really quite a simple choice: Life, Death, or Los Angeles.
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @09:26PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @09:26PM (#29115)

      I remember a sub-plot of "Northern Exposures" decades back.
      The rich guy had bought a Guarneri as an investment.
      Now, you can't just lock these things away in a vault; they have to be PLAYED.
      He found an eccentric violinist (this in a community where everyone was quirky) who would serve that purpose.
      ...then the nutball developed his own agenda and ran off with the expensive instrument.

      -- gewg_

  • (Score: 2, Insightful) by bookreader on Wednesday April 09 2014, @09:14AM

    by bookreader (3906) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @09:14AM (#28668)

    Computer aided design (CAD). You can see the results everywhere. Take photography for example. 50 years ago lenses have been designed by doing manual calculations, trials and errors, and so on. It has been expensive process, and only the most expensive lenses (with highest R&D costs) produced good results. You want good zoom lens from 1960s - mission impossible. Nowadays, using computers it is much easier and cheaper to design lenses, and even the cheapest kit zooms for under $200 produce better results. And lens manufacturers release newer designs each year. And of course, newer materials are available and so on.

    Now, it is true that few centuries ago making the best violin - or wine - required a unique combination of climate, materials, tools, and craftsmanship. Today, these requirements are not that unique anymore.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:40PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:40PM (#28770)
      I'd believe this if violins were made of plastic or silver, but violins are made of wood. Wood is vastly more sensitive to the environment and its treatment than typical CAD/CAM materials, and I don't think you can use CAD to produce legendary-sounding violins in the same way you can use CAD to produce great glass. You still need to start with great wood, formed according to its unique grain, dependent on the humidity and temperature in the shop.
      • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Thursday April 10 2014, @05:50AM

        by Reziac (2489) on Thursday April 10 2014, @05:50AM (#29281) Homepage

        True, but today we have better ways of controlling those conditions in the shop.

  • (Score: 0, Flamebait) by aristarchus on Wednesday April 09 2014, @10:10AM

    by aristarchus (2645) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @10:10AM (#28685) Journal

    Had a Strad once, but then it got cold, and we needed to start a fire. Amazing how well Violin shards make for kindling. But, you may be saying, what about the eternal pleasure of hearers of the music it could have made? Yes, but how would they know that the Strad I kindled was not a fake, sold at an inflated price on a tablet format and not even the same thing at all. Dynamic range, artistic interpretation, real music. iBeta, forever? No, thank you.

  • (Score: 1) by Zedrick on Wednesday April 09 2014, @10:42AM

    by Zedrick (2648) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @10:42AM (#28698)

    I don't know much about violins, but I think that most musical instruments these days are of very high quality, compared to what we had just 20 years ago. Take guitars for example. Gibson guitars are very good, but are they worth the price compared to other guitars? Nah. You pay for quality and status.

    • (Score: 2, Interesting) by tempest on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:47PM

      by tempest (3050) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:47PM (#28775)

      Perhaps a new instrument is high quality, but does it actually sound the way you want? I read an interesting article about Fender attempting to do an anniversary reproduction of a guitar (think it was the first Stratocaster), but they couldn't reproduce the electronics. The manufacturing processes hadn't been used in decades (possibly not even legal with current standards), and no one was really sure what materials they were even made of. If it sounds right, it's the right instrument for you - rarely is it the most expensive choice, but sometimes it is. Not to mention retro features which are sometimes an interesting characteristic worth paying a bit more for.

      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by fadrian on Wednesday April 09 2014, @03:58PM

        by fadrian (3194) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @03:58PM (#28876) Homepage

        But the whole point of the article is that it doesn't matter.

        It doesn't matter that Fender can accurately reproduce a 1950 Broadcaster, nor Gibson a 1955 Paul. Why? Because, in actuality, confirmed by blind tests, the newer ones made with modern technology sound better. Why is this so?

        Start with the fact that an old instrument doesn't survive unless it is in some way special - it's one of the better sounding of its day or it ends up on the scrap heap. You can be certain that instruments that have playability issues, poor tone, etc. will eventually end up at the landfill or used for parts, not to mention random acts of violence []. It is pretty clear that as poor samples are removed, the average quality goes up and the variance in quality goes down. However, if the initial populations of old and new instruments could have been compared, it's almost certain that the average instrument from the newer population would have more consistent sound and quality given modern manufacturing techniques. And I'll even go out on a limb and say that the frequency of high-quality instruments is higher in the modern samples, due to improved materials.

        Also, people have a vested interest in making things they pay a lot of money for seem like they are worth it. People will talk these old things up and up - even if they are crappy. How many antique cabinets have you seen that have crappy slides, doors that fall open, creaky hinges, etc.? Well, frankly, that's your Strad. Most of this stuff spends as much time in the hands of a tech as being played. And, if they don't, well, you get to hear the creaky hinges. Sure, it can look great, but its usability? Not so great.

        Finally, the placebo effect is strong. People hear differences that aren't there, they see what they want to believe, or are deluding themselves in some other way. Why? Because $1000 HDMI cabes [] make the bits cleaner.

        So no, I'm not surprised by this at all.

        That is all.
        • (Score: 2, Informative) by tempest on Wednesday April 09 2014, @04:04PM

          by tempest (3050) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @04:04PM (#28882)

          What I meant by my post is "sound better" and what you want it to sound like are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes older/different things have characteristics that make them desirable.

  • (Score: 2) by WizardFusion on Wednesday April 09 2014, @11:18AM

    by WizardFusion (498) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday April 09 2014, @11:18AM (#28707) Journal

    Sometimes, you are just paying for the name.

    The saying "You get what you pay for" only works up to a point. After a threshold, you are just paying to have a name or label on your items. Clothes, shoes, handbags, etc. Good quality ones that last a long time are more expensive than cheap ones, however, at what point does it become just about paying for the name.?

    • (Score: 1) by lajos on Wednesday April 09 2014, @12:21PM

      by lajos (528) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @12:21PM (#28721)


      posted from my iPhone

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by As_I_Please on Wednesday April 09 2014, @11:25AM

    by As_I_Please (3646) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @11:25AM (#28709)

    Science Magazine article about the experiment: elite-violinists-fail-distinguish-legendary-violin s-modern-fiddles []

    PNAS article: 67111 []

    I think the articles in the summary are overplaying the results. They write like a Stradivarius is the Monster cable of classical music. In a field of 12, a Stradivarius placed third. The ratings were more ambiguous as well:

    On average, the older violins ranked lower in all five categories of the ratings, though new and old violins came out equivalent in the "overall quality" category.

    The older violins may not have the specific qualities looked for in the question categories, but they seem to have good qualities nonetheless.

    What I find fascinating is that 300-year-old instruments still hold their own against modern creations. In what other field does modern equipment not overwhelmingly outperform those from centuries ago?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @12:37PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @12:37PM (#28729)

      In what other field does modern equipment not overwhelmingly outperform those from centuries ago?

      Anvils ?

  • (Score: 2) by Dunbal on Wednesday April 09 2014, @11:26AM

    by Dunbal (3515) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @11:26AM (#28712)

    So I'm guessing that INC should go ahead with the Polyvarius [] product line!

  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by TrumpetPower! on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:37PM

    by TrumpetPower! (590) <> on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:37PM (#28768) Homepage

    I'm a trumpeter. I learned this lesson as a teenager many moons ago. I was a participant in a week-long masterclass that Charles Schlueter, the since-retired principal trumpeter of the Boston Symphony, was giving in Carmel, California. One day, Charlie wanted to demonstrate something, but he had left his horns in the hotel room. So, he grabbed whatever happened to be closest, played the passage, looked slightly askance at the instrument before putting it down, and kept explaining whatever point it was he was trying to get us to understand.

    None of us participants could believe what we had just witnessed. The instrument Charlie just happened to grab remains to this day the absolute worst trumpet I have ever had the misfortune of playing on in my entire life. It leaked; it sounded like shit; and you couldn't play it in tune to save your life. The guy who brought it did so for exactly that reason: to show off the worst trumpet in the world.

    But Charlie...Charlie playing that piece of shit sounded exactly like Charlie. Maybe a slight change in the character of the sound, but it was still as beautiful as anything else he ever played.

    And that's the most important lesson I took from that masterclass. The instrument is mostly irrelevant. It can make your life easier or harder, and -- considering how much time you spend with it -- it makes sense to find and keep instruments you're comfortable with. But, if an instrument sounds like shit when you play it, it's not the instrument at fault; it's you. Amateurs play instruments; professionals play music.

    Of course, it took just a wee bit more time after Charlie's demonstration for me to truly come to understand the lesson such that it's reflected in my own playing, but I'm proud that I've gotten some of my best, most heartfelt compliments from playing some beat-up old antiques that my teenaged self would have dismissed as shit instruments. And, on the one hand, his assessment would have been right: they've had technical flaws...but, boy are they fun to play with!



    All but God can prove this sentence true.
  • (Score: 2) by Covalent on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:43PM

    by Covalent (43) on Wednesday April 09 2014, @01:43PM (#28772) Journal

    We see it all the time. I am from the Detroit area and, as such, I have amazing tap water. What's that you say? Tap water cannot be better than my Evian/Fiji/fancy water?

    Detroit gets its water from an enormous water filter...namely the Great Lakes. But Fiji and France sound they must taste better.

    You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
  • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @03:57PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 09 2014, @03:57PM (#28874)

    Not telling the violinist which instrument she preferred is a dick move, if they don't want it to turn into a commercial they could let her sign a NDA. She helped them out by participating in their study, but they refuse to help her out in turn by telling her the results.

    • (Score: 1) by Twike on Thursday April 10 2014, @12:50AM

      by Twike (483) <> on Thursday April 10 2014, @12:50AM (#29174)

      Of course then she couldn't be named in the study, or couldn't purchase new instruments, by ANNOUNCING that they wouldn't tell her, they make her choices in future independent and no one can logically extrapolate that "She bought a new Yamaha after the study, she must be enforcing them" or the like.

      • (Score: 2) by Maow on Thursday April 10 2014, @02:21AM

        by Maow (8) on Thursday April 10 2014, @02:21AM (#29212) Homepage

        I think you both make excellent points.

        I guess the consolation prize in her case is the knowledge that there is a modern violin out there that she thinks sounds excellent, but she'll have to discover which make & model on her own.

        Not a complete loss then - I imagine she has the resources to test drive quite a few brands to try to "re-discover" which one she preferred.

        And I wish her luck in her endeavour.