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Many violinists truly believe that these instruments are better than newly made violins, and several scientists have tried to work out why. Some suspected at the unusually dense wood, harvested from Alpine spruces that grew during an Ice Age.
Others pointed the finger at the varnish, or the chemicals that Stradivari used to treat the wood. The duo asked professional violinists to play new violins, and old ones by Stradivari and Guarneri. One of the new violins even emerged as the most commonly preferred instrument.
Ever since the early 19th century, many tests have questioned the alleged superiority of the old Italian violins. Time and again, listeners have failed to distinguish between the sound of the old and new instruments.
But critics have been quick to pick holes in these studies. Three of the violins were new; one was made a few days before. The other three had illustrious, centuries-long histories.
Two were made by Stradivari and the other by Guarneri. All three have featured in concerts and recordings, bowed by famous violinists.
Their combined value is around 10 million US dollars, a hundred times more than the three new ones. They had played for anywhere from 15 to 61 years, and some of them were even involved in the competition as contestants and judges.
They played the instruments in a dimly lit hotel room chosen for relatively dry acoustics. The room was dimly lit. The instruments had dabs of perfume on the chinrests that blocked out any distinctive smells.
And even though Fritz and Curtin knew which the identities of the six violins, they only passed the instruments to the players via other researchers, who were hidden by screens, wearing their own goggles, and quite literally in the dark. First, the players were given random pairs of violins.
They played each instrument for a minute, and said which they preferred. Unbeknownst to them, each pair contained an old violin and a new one.
For the most part, there was nothing to separate the two, and the players preferred the new instrument as often as the old one. There was one exception: O1, the Stradivarius with the most illustrious history, was chosen far less often than any of the three new violins. Next, Fritz and Curtin gave the recruits a more natural task.
They saw all six violins, laid out in random order on a bed. They also picked the best and worst instruments in terms of four qualities: This time, a clear favourite emerged. As before, O1 received the most severe rejections. Curtin, being a maker of new violins, has an obvious bias, but the double-blind design should have prevented that from affecting the results.
The sample size — six violins and 21 players — is fairly small, but as large as can be expected when dealing with rare and incredibly expensive objects. This ability has come out in other areas. Take wine, another product where certain specimens fetch critical acclaim and exorbitant prices on the basis of superior quality.
And yet, study after study has shown that expensive wines taste the same as cheap plonk when you test people under double-blind conditions. The imagined link between price and quality is a delusion but, as Jonah Lehrer skilfully arguesit can be a pleasant one.
The same could be said of violins.
The joy of owning and playing a Stradivarius comes not from any objective advantage in its sound, but simply from the knowledge that it is a Stradivarius. For this reason, studies like this are useful for busting some myths, and they may boost the credibility of new violins, but they are unlikely to diminish the lust for the old ones.
Fritz and Curtin recognise as much. John Soloninka, one of the 21 violinists who took part in the study, has commented about his experiences below: I too, expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not. 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!Start studying DNA Fingerprint Analysis Gizmo.
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