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"Player preferences among new and old violins" is a scholarly paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2012. It describes a double-blind study in which researcher Claudia Fritz of the Pierre and Marie Curie University and violinmaker Joseph Curtin asked judges and participants at the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis to pick their preferred instrument from a pool of three modern violins, two Stradivariuses, and one Guarneri 'del Gesu'. Fritz and Curtin found that participants most frequently chose a new rather than old violin. This result, which contradicts the widespread belief among violinists that the best 16th and 17th century Golden Age violins are superior to the best modern ones, attracted significant media attention.
Fritz and Curtin performed the experiment at the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI), selecting participants for the experiment from the competitors and judges. The experiment was held in a dim room, with the participants wearing welding goggles so they could not identify the instruments. Additionally, perfume was placed on the chin rest of the violins to avoid identification through smell.
Three tests were performed :
A total of six violins were tested, three old and three new. The combined value of the old violins was approximately $10,000,000 USD. This was roughly 100 times the value of the new violins.
The three new violins were each made by a different luthier and were from several days to several years old. "They were chosen from a pool of violins assembled by the authors, who then selected the three they felt (i) had the most impressive playing qualities and (ii) contrasted with each other in terms of character of sound."
The number of violins tested was small due to time constraints and the difficulty in obtaining multimillion dollar instruments to be played by blindfolded strangers.
The older violins were loaned to the experiment by those in attendance at the IVCI, with the stipulation that they not be modified in any way (strings, sound post placement, etc.) and with the additional restriction that the lender and the violins not be individually identified.
|O1||Antonio Stradivari (c.1700)||"...once the principal instrument of a well-known 20th century violinist, and currently belongs to an institution that loans it to gifted violinists. It came to us from a soloist who had used it for numerous concerts and several commercial recordings in recent years."|
|O2||Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ (c.1740)||"...from the maker’s late period, during which he made some of his most celebrated violins."|
|O3||Antonio Stradivari (c.1715)||"...from the maker’s ‘Golden Period,’ and has been used by a number of well-known violinists for concerts and recordings."|
Twenty one violin players were used as subjects in the experiment. Four subjects were contestants in the IVCI competition, two were jury members. The others were members of the Indianapolis Symphony. Two of the contestants were eventually selected by the IVCI competition as "competition laureates".
All of the players played all of the violins, using their own bow. Four of the subjects did not bring a bow and were provided a "high quality" bow by the experiment's organizers.
13 of the 21 violinists preferred the new violins. Only eight subjects chose an old violin to take home. The violinists could not reliably identify which instruments were old and which were new.
The study revealed that there was not a statistical correlation between the age of an instrument and whether it was preferred in the head-to-head competition.
Earl Carlyss, a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, was critical of the study, saying it used totally inappropriate methods of evaluating the quality of the instruments. He said that what makes the older violins better is how they sound to an audience in a concert hall and that it is irrelevant whether a violinist prefers a certain violin in a hotel room. He felt the test was as valid as comparing a Ford and a Ferrari in a parking lot.
Samuel Zygmuntowicz, a noted violin maker, however, said the study is "highly credible" and that it "puts cold water on some old myths and should certainly be good news to young musicians who yearn for violins that they will never afford."
Some commenters (including participants in the study) have criticized that the old violins may not have been recently adjusted or may have had older strings, while the new violins were adjusted by the study organizers.
John Soloninka, who was one of the violinists who played in the study, said "It was fascinating. I too, expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not" and that "If, after this, you cling to picayune critiques and dismiss the study, then I think you are in denial. If 21 of us could not tell in controlled circumstances and 1500 people could not tell any differences in a hall, and this is consistent with past studies…then it is time to put the myths out to pasture."
Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad magazine and one of the participants in the study, reported "It's a stretch to get to the myth-busting generalisation that violinists can't tell a Strad from a modern instrument. There are too many philosophical issues and variables to be definitive about that. However, the data clusters around a popular modern instrument and an unpopular Stradivari force one to consider the preconceptions that are so hardwired. Although of course, here at The Strad, it comes as no surprise to us that modern instruments can sound fantastic."
Another participant, Laurie Niles, has criticized the characterization of the study - stating that she wasn't asked to identify old vs new violins, only state what her preferences were. She also noted that the new violins were adjusted by the organizers, while the old violins were in whatever state the lender had them. Her overall conclusion was "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." She added: "Honestly, I have no issue with the idea that a well-made modern can sound as good as an $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. "
There have been many comparisons of Stradivarius and other old violins with more recent violins since 1817. They generally have not found differences in either subjective impressions or acoustic analysis. However, the tests have been criticized on various grounds. In a well-known 1977 experiment, Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and a classical violin dealer, Charles Beare, listened to a Stradivarius, a Guarneri, and a 1976 British violin. They were also unable to identify which instrument was which, and two of them mistakenly identified the 1976 violin as the Stradivarius.
The experience of three participants in the study: