Perhaps no name conveys superiority quite like Stradivarius. The roughly 650 extant violins fashioned by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) and his family are worth millions, and they’re thought to outshine even the best modern instruments. But in a pair of "double-blind" tests, in which neither musician nor audience knew which instrument was played, listeners clearly preferred the new fiddles to the old classics.
"The work is terrific," says Christopher Germain, a violinmaker in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a member of the board of the Violin Society of America, who was not involved in the study. "I think it's really helpful to everybody to cut through the folklore and b.s. and focus on what we're hearing."
For more than a century, violins crafted by Stradivari and members of his family have been thought to possess acoustic qualities that new violins simply can’t match. (Violins fashioned contemporaneously by members of the Guarneri family are similarly revered.) For just as long, aficionados have sought Stradivari's secret—was it his varnish or the type of wood he used? None of the countless suggestions has drawn a consensus. Nevertheless, the price of a Stradivarius keeps soaring. In 2011, the “Lady Blunt” Strad sold for $15.9 million.
But some scientists and violinmakers question whether Strads and other "Old Italians" really have superior acoustic qualities. For decades, blind comparisons have shown that listeners cannot tell them from other violins, and acoustic analyses have revealed no distinct sonic characteristics. In 2014, Claudia Fritz, a musical acoustician at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, and Joseph Curtin, a leading violinmaker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reported that in a double-blind test with 13 modern instruments and nine Old Italians, 10 elite violinists generally preferred the new violins to the old.
Now, the team has shown that listeners also prefer new instruments—at least when considering a specific small set of fine violins. The researchers started by looking at a quality considered unique to Strads: They are supposed to sound quieter “under the ear" of the violinist, but project better into the concert hall “as if somehow the inverse-square law were reversed," Curtin says, referring to how the loudness of a sound decreases as the distance from the source increases.
The first listener test took place in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. Researchers gathered three Strads and three top-quality modern violins. An elite violinist played the same musical excerpt—for example, five measures from Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto Opus No. 35—on each of the nine possible pairings of violins. Then, a second violinist played a different excerpt on all the pairs, with the order scrambled. The violinists wore modified welding goggles, so they couldn’t tell whether they were playing old or new instruments.
As the violins played solo and with orchestral accompaniment, 55 listeners rated which instrument in each pair projected better by making a mark on a continuous scale with one violin, labeled simply A, on one end and the other violin, labeled B, on the other. The researcher then averaged all those evaluations, and found that subjects generally thought the new violins projected better than the old ones—although the researcher left it up to listeners to decide what that meant. The effect was unambiguous, Fritz says.
The team then performed a similar test in New York City without the orchestra and with a different set of Strads and new violins. Again, the 82 listeners in the test reported that the new violins projected better. This time, Fritz and colleagues asked subjects which of the two violins in a pairing they preferred. Listeners chose the new violins over the old, they reported yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The New York City study also showed that listeners' preferences correlated with their assessment of projection, suggesting the loudness of an instrument may be a primary factor in the quality of its sound.
So, will the study cause Strad prices to plummet? No, Curtin says, as the value of the instruments is based on much more than just their sound. But it does suggest that violinists can get a top-quality instrument without spending a fortune on an Old Italian, he says. (The record price for an instrument by a modern maker is a relatively cheap $132,000.) "It's good news for players," Curtin says.
The finding also leaves open the possibility that Strads do sound better than modern instruments under certain circumstances—when the listener knows they are hearing a legendary instrument. "If you know it's a Strad, you will hear it differently," Fritz says. "And you can't turn off that effect."
As for Stradivari's secret, the whole notion is misguided, Germain says. "Stradivari's secret was that he was a genius and that he did a thousand things right, not one thing right," Germain says. Saying his success came down to just one trick is, Germain says, "like saying that if I had the same kind of paint as Michelangelo, I could have painted the Sistine Chapel."