April 9th, 2014

Blindfold violin test reveals a surprise

I can’t tell a Stradivarius from a Curtin.

But neither, it seems, could a bunch of professional concert violinists:

There were 12 instruments, six old and six new, with new ones “antiqued” to appear older. The violinists, 10 professional soloists, had more time: 75 minutes in a rehearsal room and 75 minutes in a 300-seat concert hall, both in Paris. They used their own bows, compared the test violins with their own, and could choose to have a listener provide feedback, and to have a piano accompanist. At one point, an orchestra accompanied them; the results of that segment will be published in a later study.

Six soloists chose a new violin for a theoretical concert tour. One particular new violin, with a loud, assertive sound, was favored by four, perhaps because as soloists, they thought about projecting sound over an orchestra, researchers said. The soloists rated new violins higher, on average, for playability, articulation and projection. And their guesses of which violins were new or old were no better than chance.

However, old habits die hard:

Earl Carlyss, a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet, said subjectivity and individuality were key. “It isn’t just the instrument, it’s the player,” he said. “If you’re comfortable with an instrument, automatically it’s a plus, and the newer instruments, they respond easily.”

Nonetheless, he said, “I don’t know any great soloist who has a Strad or Guarneri who is trading it in for a new instrument.”

That makes sense. If a performer is confident in his/her instrument (whether it be a violin, a pair of shoes for a dancer, or a particular baseball bat for a player), he/she will probably do better.

By the way, although the sponsors of the study refuse to say which new violins were involved, new-violin manufacturer Curtin was one of the originators of the research, so I’m guessing that at least one Curtin violin was involved in the experiment (I’d guess that another might have been a Rhonheimer, the fungus-treated violin). Lest you think Curtin violins are going for a song (as it were), prices start at $40,000. Still that’s a whole lot cheaper than a Strad.

[Hat tip: Instapundit.]

8 Responses to “Blindfold violin test reveals a surprise”

  1. Doom Says:

    Hmm, from my experience, it’s… not just fiddles. A true master doesn’t depend on… foreign, or familiar, instruments. It’s in the hands, mind, soul. Just… saying.

  2. Otiose Says:

    And on wine tasting:

    http://io9.com/wine-tasting-is-bullshit-heres-why-496098276

  3. Doom Says:

    Otiose,

    Hahahaha! Oh, I gave up on the experts long ago. Through economic realities and simple taste. I’ve sipped a $5k bottle and found it less than pleasing, while a $10 bottle I spent several years finding is far better tasting, and was one of the few wines my then woman and I could agree upon. I didn’t tell her the price, up front, or she would have turned her nose at it… in spite of her hating expensive wines (also ignorantly, mind you).

    But… that IS funny. And, now I know.

  4. Mac Says:

    Another area where I strongly suspect the ostentatious connoisseurs of jiving is high-end audio. If you’ve never read reviewers and others talking about it, it’s a lot like the way wine experts talk. But there’s rarely a blind A-B test. Not that there aren’t real differences between bad and mediocre and good, but at a certain level of good it becomes so rarefied that it’s probably negligible, and there is very obviously a certain amount of snob appeal affecting judgment, and a susceptibility to mumbo-jumbo.

    And regarding violins: one of my children was at one point aiming for a career as a professional violinist. Just at the college level he needed an instrument in the $10,000 range.

  5. Surellin Says:

    I dug into this about 20 years ago, and the top-flight instrument makers said (of course!) that their stuff was as good as the older instruments. Nice to see that it is true. As for me, after doing the shopping I regretfully stuck to old tried-and-true – it’s a better fiddle than I am a fiddler anyway.

    In regard to wine, I have my own niche – find the best bottles under 20 dollars. Amazing how many of them get a 90+ from the Wine Spectator.

  6. vanderleun Says:

    But…. but…. the Stradivarius is settled!

  7. dtrumpet Says:

    I suspect it comes down to the instrument that has the most playing attributes that goes with one’s approach to playing and performance. An instrument maker can make adjustment that fits the player. After that one has to adapt to the instrument because the instrument cannot adapt to the player. This is true with bows, mouthpieces, et al and finding the best combination of the two items.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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