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Stradivari Violins May Not Sound Better After All

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The mystical aura of perfection surrounding Stradivari violins may be just that: an aura, and nothing more. A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that violinists and listeners alike actually prefer the sound of newer instruments.

“Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments,” the authors write in their paper. “These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.”

For two centuries, the most accomplished violinists in the world have relied on instruments made by the legendary craftsmen Antonio Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu. One concertmaster described the Stradivarius’s “peculiar (and sublime)” sound that “somehow expands and gains more complexity from a distance, especially in a concert hall.”

But does it, really?

To find out, researchers conducted two studies involving both professional violinists and listeners of all experience levels. The first study was held in 2012 in a small concert hall near Paris involving 55 participants, and the second in 2013 in a larger hall in New York City with 82 participants. The listeners were seated in the audience and the soloists on stage. Between them, the scientists erected a sound-conducting screen so that the listeners could hear, but not see, the instrument.

To test the musicians’ own preferences, the researchers covered their eyes with modified welders’ goggles before handing them either an old or new violin to play.

Without the ability to see which instrument was producing the music, neither players nor listeners could actually tell the difference between the new and old violins. But when it came time to rate sound quality and projection, new violins consistently and significantly won out.

“A belief in the near-miraculous qualities of Old Italian violins has preoccupied the violin world for centuries,” the authors write. “It may be that recent generations of violin makers have closed the gap between old and new, or it may be that the gap was never so wide as commonly believed.”

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