Has Stradivarius Finally Met His Match?

Stradivarius has long been synonymous with musical instruments of the highest quality, and countless craftsmen have tried to emulate his efforts, with varying degrees of success. But has his craftsmanship now been matched?

Sounds Good To Me

There are many theories as to what made the sound of Stradivarius’ instruments so unique; his craftsmanship was obviously of the highest order, but other factors may have included the particular type of wood he used and how it was grown.

Stradivarius violins are rare and priceless, and that fact is not likely to ever change; however, is a Strad still the ultimate instrument when it comes to pure sound quality and playability?

Knowing that you’re playing a Stradivarius is naturally going to colour your appreciation of the instrument, automatically adding a positive cognitive bias to the experience. To impartially determine if a modern instrument can compete in performance terms, it’s necessary to level the playing field – which is just what a study by the National Academy of Sciences aimed to do.

The key results were summarised as follows:

β€œIn this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two sessions of one hour, 15 minutes – the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, six of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favourite new violins more highly than their favourite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels.”

Bias Some Time

While this is certainly an interesting study, and does at least support claims that the gap between modern instruments and the Stradivarius classics is not as significant as the mythology would have us believe, I think there may be more cognitive biases at play in these results.

If a violinist were to embark on a tour with a new violin, they would want to be comfortable with both the sound and feel of it; in short, it is likely they would want an instrument that resembled their own violin in many respects – a sort of familiarity bias. While it wasn’t clear from the study, I suspect that most of the participants didn’t actually own a Stradivarius themselves. As such, they may have found the new violins more familiar and therefore would be more comfortable with committing to touring with one.

On the other hand, perhaps the new violins do actually sound objectively better. However, once you get down to such fine-tuned levels of discrepancy, it’s really the performer herself who holds the key to the quality of the musical experience…


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