It is claimed that they have an unreproducible acoustic quality allowing them to produce a sound that no other violin maker has been able to achieve. But despite their multimillion-dollar price tag, it now seems that Stradivarius violins are no better than good modern instruments, and in actual fact, both audiences and professional players consistently prefer the newer varieties.
For centuries, people have tried to understand the near-mythical qualities of the violins produced by the Stradivari family. Consistently, they have been highly regarded for their pure quality of sound, and incomparable projection. Yet experts have tried – and failed – to pin down these unique attributes. Blind listeners have failed to distinguish them, and acoustic analyses have come up empty.
Now a new study has added more weight to the theory that these highly prized instruments, and other “old Italians”, are actually no different from other good, modern violins. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have shown that in double-blind sound tests, neither the audience listening nor the musician playing could tell the difference when a Stradivarius was used.
The latest study builds upon an earlier one that tested whether elite violinists were able to tell the difference between playing a well-built modern instrument or one of the Italian masters’ own. Blindfolded and in a double-blind study, in which even those conducting the experiment were unaware of which instrument was being played, the professionals were unable to tell them apart.
This earlier paper was criticized for taking place in a controlled environment and not in a concert hall with precision acoustics, where the violins would usually be played, which contributes to their harmonious projection. To take this into account, the researchers decided to expand on the experiment, and conducted another double-blind study in which both professional violinists played the violins, and an audience made up of listeners, composers, and music critics, listened to the music while in concert halls.
Again, they found that neither those play or those listening were able to tell which ones were the Strads, and in actual fact, discovered that they undoubtedly preferred the more modern instruments.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t something about the famous violins, which can sell for upward of $10 million. The researchers note that there may indeed be some sort of psychoacoustic effect, in that those who know they are playing a Strad play better, and those listening perceive it as sounding nicer.
Either way, they want to highlight that you don’t need to be spending millions to achieve the sounds of an old Italian masterpiece, many modern instruments are often better.