A Million Dollar Stradivari Violin Doesn't Sound Any Better Than A Relatively Inexpensive New One

Soloist Ilya Kaler wears modified welder’s goggles when he tests the violins. Image: Stefan Avalos.

Old Italian violins have a reputation as being tonally superior and some are so rare they fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

But a new study using a blind test has found that ten superior musicians couldn’t distinguish the old from the new instruments.

And on average the soloists tended to prefer the new violins.

Claudia Fritz of the Institut Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, and colleagues assembled 10 renowned violin soloists and presented them with 12 violins, six new and six old including five by Stradivari.

Asked to choose the violin best suited to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, the soloists tested the violins in both a rehearsal hall and a 300-seat concert hall.

Each session lasted for 1 hour and 15 minutes with blind test conditions to preclude instrument identification by eye.

The authors report that six of the 10 soloists selected a new violin as their preferred instrument, with one of the six new violins emerging as a clear overall favorite.

When comparing the playing qualities of their favorite new violin with their favorite old violin, the soloists rated the new violins higher on average.

Asked to guess the age of the instruments, the soloists failed to distinguish new from old violins at levels better than those attributable to chance.

The results challenge the long-held belief that old Italian violins have tonal qualities that cannot be found in new instruments, according to the authors.

The study, Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins, is published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

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