Very interesting piece! Modern technology has made it better for violins. Yet the author was right: it takes more shocking pieces like this to uproot the good reputation of the old ones. In terms of research method: the key points: double blind tests, free playing time for anyone of the six instruments rather than allocating each piece a 5 minutes of time, for example; finally, separate scales such as playability, tone colour and response but also which one willing to take home with. Nice design overall. The only problem is perhaps duplicating the settings: in private playing as well as public showoff.
For serious players of stringed instruments the products of three great violin-makers of Cremona, Nicolo Amati, Giuseppe Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari, have ruled the roost since the 17th century.
Claudia Fritz of the University of Paris VI and Joseph Curtin, an American violin-maker, have just applied the rigorous standards of science to the matter. Their conclusion, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that the creations of Cremona are no better than modern instruments, and are sometimes worse.
Unlike previous “blind” trials of violins, in which an instrument’s identity was concealed from the audience but not from the player himself (and which have indeed suggested that modern instruments are often as good as old ones), the one organised by Dr Fritz and Mr Curtin sought to discover the unbiased opinion of the men and women who actually wield the bow.
There were two tests: a series of pairwise comparisons between old and new instruments that allowed a player one minute to try out each instrument, and a comparison between all six, in which the player was allowed to play whatever he wanted for however long he wanted, subject to a total time-limit of 20 minutes.
In the pairwise test (in which players were not told that each pair contained both an old and a new instrument, and in which the order of presentation was randomised), five of the violins did more-or-less equally well, but the sixth was consistently rejected. That sixth, unfortunately for the reputation of Cremona, was a Strad.
In the freeplay test, a more subtle approach was possible. Players rated the six instruments using four subjective qualities that are common terms of the violinist’s art: playability, projection, tone colours and response. The best in each category scored one point, the worst minus one, and the rest zero. Players were also asked which violin they would like to take home, given the chance.
In this case, two of the new violins comprehensively beat the old ones, while the third more or less matched them (see chart). The most popular take-home instrument was also a new one: eight of the 21 volunteers chose it, and three others rated it a close second. Not surprisingly, the least popular instrument in the second test was the Stradivarius that did badly in the first
The upshot was that, from the players’ point of view, the modern violins in the study were as good as, and often better than, their 18th-century forebears. Since Dr Fritz estimates the combined value of the three forebears in her experiment as $10m, and the combined value of the three modern instruments as around $100,000, that is quite a significant observation.
Human nature being what it is, this result will probably have little effect in the saleroom: the glamour of Cremona will take more than one such result to dispel it. But it does suggest that young players who cannot afford a Strad should not despair. If they end up with a cheaper, modern copy instead, they might actually be better off.