Double blind testing comes to music — how much did you overpay for that Strad?

Today the New York Times  reported that a Stradivarius cello was sold for north of 6 million.  Was it a ripoff?  According to the following article in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol. 109 pp. 764 – 769 ’12) it probably was.   It has long been claimed that a pro can tell a new violin from an old within a minute (according to two ‘experts’).  In the absence of evidence, theory fluorishes.  Explanations for the superiority of the violins and cellos made by the old masters (Stradivarius, Guarneri) abound.  These include

l. properties of the varnish

2. effects of the Little Ice Age on violin wood

3. Differences in the relative densities of early and late growth layers in wood

4. Chemical treamtnets of the wood

5. Plate tuning methods (whatever that is)

6. Spectral balance of the radiated sound

The paper gives references for all 6 should you like theorizing, but wait until you see what actually happened before you look.

So at the September 2010 International Violin Competition in Indianapolis — the home of one of the great  University music departments in the country, or anywhere, the authors decided to actually check out the superiority of Strads and Guarneris  They studied 21 violinists, 19 professional,  ranging in age from 20 – 65, playing for 15 – 61 years.  The prices of the violins they owned  ranged from  $1,800 to 10 million.  4 violinists were contestants, 2  the were jurors in the competition, and most of the rest were from the Indianapolis symphony.

The violinists were told that they were going to decide which instrument was the best, and that 1 of the 6 was a Strad (actually there were 2 Strads and a Guarneri among the 6, the rest being new instruments).   So how in the world did they blind the musicians?  The 3 new violins were at most a few years old.  It would be obvious which was new and which wasn’t just  from looking.  The authors put welder’s goggles on the violinists, and a dab of scent under the chin rest of the violins to make them all smell the same.

The violinists were given a pair of violins (one new, one old) and asked to choose which was best.   They used their own bows (the price of bows is another story).  There were 9 possible new/old pairs of violins. All 21 violinists were asked to chose the instrument they preferred from each pair (21 * 9 = 189)   They chose the new violin 112/189 times and the Strad or the Guarneri only 77/189 times.  The aggregate market value of the 3 new violins was 100,000 (so they were hardly cheap instruments, and had been selected by the authors for their high quality), but that of the old ones was 10,000,000.

There’s a lot more but you get the idea.  It’s going to be interesting to see the reactions of the 7 or so string players I play with on a fairly regular basis (I xeroxed the paper for them).

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