Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Classic versus modern violins: beauty in the eye of the beholder?

It is a truism among musicians that no modern violin can, or ever will, approach the perfection of the instruments crafted by Renaissance violin makers such as Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesù in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Nichlas Wade describes an interesting test published in PNAS that aims to determine if this is in fact the case. Violinists attending an international competition were asked to wear goggles (so they could not identify the instruments they were playing) and play three classic (a Guarneri and two Stradivari instruments) and three high quality modern violins. (It has been as pastime of physicists for years to analyze the sound qualities of old violins and devise construction techniques that could reproduce them in modern instruments.)
...participants in Dr. Fritz’s test could not reliably distinguish the old instruments from modern violins. Only 8 of the 21 subjects chose an old violin as the one they’d like to take home. In the old-to-new comparison, a Stradivarius came in last and a new violin as the most preferred.
The results are clear, even though there was grumbling from other players that the test was performed in a hotel room rather than a concert hall, so projection qualities of the instruments might not have been appreciated.

This reminds me of the numerous blind taste tests involving hundreds of people have shown no correlation between the price of wines costing from $1.50 to $150 and their reported taste. In fact, I've done a posting on the neural correlates of this effect (see also this related posting).

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