Players and Listeners Both Prefer a New Violin to a Stradivarius

The old masterpieces lose for a third time in a new study.

Violinist Mira Wang plays the Ames Stradivarius violin. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

In 2012, Claudia Fritz from Sorbonne University packed a small concert hall near Paris with 55 volunteers from the violin world, including musicians, violin makers, music critics, composers, and more. From the stage, she asked seven internationally renowned soloists to play six violins. Three of these were new. The other three were Stradivarius violins, built by Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Stradivari reportedly made around 1,100 violins and violas. Around half of these survive today, along with the perception of their exceptional quality. They’re favored by the world’s top players, and they fetch millions at auction—not just because of their antique status and unquestionably fine craftsmanship, but because of their sound. Stradivarius violins supposedly just sound better than their modern counterparts.

But try telling that to the listeners at Fritz’s concert hall. Without knowing beforehand which instrument was which, they couldn’t tell the difference between the Strads and the new violins. More than that, they felt that the new violins projected better. And when Fritz repeated the experiment with 82 other listeners at a different venue in New York, they came to the same conclusion, and found that people also preferred the sound of the new instruments. “It was a very well conducted experiment with no room for cheating or tweaking of results,” says Martin Swan, a violin dealer who specializes in old and rare instruments, and who was one of Fritz’s assembled listeners. “I’m sure these will be challenged and sputtered over by the old guard.”

The results of this experiment, published today, mark the the third paper in which Fritz and colleagues have looked at the acoustic secrets of Stradivarius violins—and found that there isn't one. They are exquisite pieces of art and they sound great, but neither violinists nor listeners can distinguish their mythical sound from that of newer violins. “If players feel better because they’re playing a Strad and they like it, then fine!” says Fritz. “But I want young people who don’t have money to know that they could play as well on another instrument. They should be open-minded and open-eared.”

Fritz isn’t a violinist herself; she’s a flute-playing scientist. But she became involved in the controversy over Strads after meeting Joseph Curtin, a luthier and Macarthur genius grant recipient. Together, they somehow convinced Strad owners to part with their fragile and expensive instruments, so that blindfolded strangers could play them.

Their first study took place during the 8th International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, where the team ushered 21 competitors and judges into a dimly lit hotel room, gave them modified welders’ goggles so they couldn’t see, and asked them to play six violins—three old, three new. Together, the old instruments had a combined value of $10 million, 100 times more than their modern counterparts.

But while playing the instruments, the violinists were just as likely to prefer the new ones to the Strads. And when they were asked which violin they most wanted to take home, 62 percent picked a new one. In fact, one of the Strads, which belongs to an institution that only loans it out to the most gifted players, was the most frequently rejected instrument. “I expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not,” violinist John Soloninka told me at the time. “Claudia sent me my comments about the instruments that I made while I was playing them, and it was hilarious how wrong my impressions were at the time!”

Fritz and Curtin published their first study in 2012—to much controversy. Critics said that you can’t get the most out of a Strad after playing one for just 20 minutes, especially in a tinny hotel room. “You don’t test a Ferrari in a parking lot,” said one critic. “What made the old instruments great was their power in a hall,” said violinist Earl Carlyss.

So Fritz and Curtin went to a hall.

With help from Hugues Borsarello, a French soloist and an initial skeptic of the Indianapolis study, the team went to a 300-seat Parisian concert hall with 10 internationally renowned soloists (seven of whom play Old Italian violins themselves). Under blinded conditions, the soloists had 50 minutes to try out the dozen instruments—six old and six new—and to pick their top four. The violins got four points every time they were chosen as a top pick, three points for second place, and so on. And the results were clear: The new violins collectively scored 35 points, while the old ones scored just four.

Finally, the team asked the soloists to rate three instruments—their own, their top pick, and the best-rated instrument from the opposite age category. In terms of overall quality, the players judged the old and new violins similarly. But in terms of everything else—articulation, timbre, playability, projection, and loudness—they scored the new ones higher.

“The new experiments will again bring up the criticisms of how this was not a perfect test,” John Soloninka told me at the time. Critics could point to the various features that affect a violin’s sound, like optimizing the bow, setting up the strings, spending time with the instrument, “but these factors mentioned cannot all be biased in favor of new instruments and against old,” he said.

The third and latest study took place immediately after the second, in the same Parisian hall. This time, having considered the violinists’ perspective, the team focused on the listeners. Seven of the same soloists played excerpts of Tchaikosky, Brahms, and Sibelius on the various violins, always pairing an old instrument with a new one.

Concertmaster Frank Almond once said that “a peculiar (and sublime) aspect of great old Italian instruments is that the sound somehow expands and gains more complexity from a distance, especially in a concert hall.” But the audience in Paris almost always felt that the new violins projected better than the old ones, whether played alone or with an orchestral accompaniment. And when asked to guess whether each violin was old or new, the audience did no better than random chance.

Journalist Peter Somerford, who was one of the listeners, wrote, “When deciding between new and old, it was a challenge to banish some assumptions: why shouldn’t that dark, powerful, Guarneri-sounding violin with a lovely rich mid-range be a new instrument?” In fact, it often was. “The day was quite a revelation,” says Swan. “It seemed that we could all relax about the issue of projection, content in the knowledge that a good soloist and a good violin will succeed in being heard by a concert audience.”

A year later, the team repeated their experiment. They used a larger hall in New York, recruited more listeners—and got the same results. This time, they asked the listeners to judge every pair of violins and explicitly say which they preferred.  The new ones won again.

“We can’t extrapolate these results to all Strads and all new instruments,” says Fritz. But she says the violin world has already begun to take heed of these results. “Violin-makers are telling me that it’s changed their lives, and that they feel liberated. They want to copy the craftsmanship of Strads but they know they can probably do better in terms of musicality. They can see changes in their customers too, who are asking to try new instruments because they’ve read about these studies.” But violin competitions still ask performers about which maker made their violin, or even about the name of their violin. That practice, Fritz says, should stop.

As I’ve written before, Stradivarius violins are testaments to our ability to delude ourselves. Just as expensive wines don’t taste any better than cheap plonk under blinded conditions, these antique instruments don’t sound any better than modern ones. But when people aren’t blinded, their anticipations can toy with their perceptions. “What you hear is related to your expectations rather than the acoustical stimulus that goes through your ear,” says Fritz. “When people say Strads sounded better to them, they really did—but because they knew it was a Strad, and not because of what they actually heard.”

“Will this research have any effect on the market in fine old Italian violins? I don’t think so,” says Swan. “They are expensive because they are rare and because they are originals, and these are qualities that can’t be questioned or undermined.”

“We are artists, and history and imagination are part of it,” wrote violinist Laurie Niles, who took part in the first Indianapolis experiment. When she held an Old Italian violin, she remembers wondering how it could have remained so pristine after so many years. “The wood—it was probably standing in a forest for 200 years even before it was carved by the master into this object. But there was an added dimension: Here was the violin played by Vieuxtemps and so many artists after—what music it has made! This object made by an artist from centuries past not only has survived in body, it has survived in soul.”