How many notes would a virtuoso violinist pay for a Stradivarius?

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Study finds musicians cannot tell from sound alone whether they are playing an old classic instrument or one made last week

Virtuosos opted for more modern violins rather than an old Stradivarius like the one above.
They are deemed to be among the most exquisite musical instruments ever made, and collectors have parted with millions just to have one to call one their own. But it appears that concert violinists cannot tell from the sound alone whether they are playing a 300-year-old Stradivarius or an instrument made last week. And, for playing quality alone, the virtuoso will opt for the modern one when asked which fiddle they would like to take home.

These discordant findings emerge from experiments by Claudia Fritz, a researcher at the University of Paris, at an international violin competition in Indianapolis in 2010. She asked 21 musicians to play six different violins, three modern instruments and three by Italian maestros – one made by Guarneri del Gesu around 1740, and two made in Antonio Stradivari's workshop around 1700.
Fritz commandeered a large room, dimmed the lights and passed the violins in random order to the musicians, who had to wear welders' goggles and stand on the other side of a dividing curtain. Each had time to play the six instruments and rank them according to their playability, projection, response and "tone colours", a measure of the quality of the sound.

"We didn't blindfold the players completely because that would interfere with their perception too much. With welders' goggles, they could only see the outline of the instrument and not the identifying markings or decorations,' Fritz said. To mask any telltale aroma from the old instruments, the chin rest on each was dabbed with perfume.

Writing in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Fritz and her co-authors describe their findings as a "striking challenge to conventional wisdom". The violinists mostly preferred new instruments, and overall they were least keen on one of the two Stradivaris. And, when each had chosen their favourite violin out of the six, they could not say whether it was old or new.
The researchers could find no link between the age and value of the violins and how they were rated by the violinists. The three old instruments had a combined value of $10m, a hundred times that of the modern violins. "They are beautiful instruments, but the prices are insane," Fritz said. "The old versus new issue doesn't make any sense.

"It doesn't matter if the violin's old or new, all that matters is whether it's a good violin or a bad violin. Many modern violin makers are doing a great job." One shortcoming of the study was that the violinists were asked to rate a particular instrument's projection, how well its sound travels, themselves. Another was that only a few violins were tested.

But, as the researchers note, this latter was perhaps unavoidable. "Numbers of subjects and instruments were small because it is difficult to persuade the owners of fragile, enormously valuable old violins to release them for extended periods into the hands of blindfolded strangers."
Kai-Thomas Roth, secretary of the British Violin Making Association, said that double blind tests, where neither experimenter nor musician knows which violin is played, had already shown people cannot distinguish a modern violin from a priceless work of art.

"There's some myth-making that helps old instruments," Thomas said. "If you give someone a Stradivari and it doesn't work for them, they'll blame themselves and work hard at it until it works.
"Give them a modern violin, and they'll dismiss the instrument straight away if it doesn't work for them. That's the psychology at work. Modern violins are easily as good, but even a good maker can make an instrument that doesn't work out."

Antonio Stradivari, 1644 to 1737, is credited with devising the proportions of the modern violin, thus giving it a more powerful and rounded sound. About 650 of his violins, violas, and violoncellos are still in existence.