The results of a double-blind test held at last September’s International Violin Competition of Indianapolis reveal some notable insights into player preferences between new and old violins. The experiment, the details of which have been published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was devised and led by Claudia Fritz, an acoustics specialist at the University of Paris. Together with violin maker Joseph Curtin and other researchers, she asked 21 violinists, most of them experienced professionals, to compare three instruments by contemporary makers with two Stradivari violins and one by Guarneri ‘del Gesù’.
The participants were given two sets of tests. In one, they were able to play all six violins and say which one they would like to take home. In the other test, the players were given a series of pairs of instruments to compare, without knowing that one of the pair was an old Italian and the other a modern violin.
In all the tests players were required to wear modified welding goggles to help prevent them identifying any violins by their appearance. A dab of perfume was placed under the chinrest of each violin to disguise any telltale smells. The testing was done in a hotel room chosen for its relatively dry acoustics, rather than a concert hall.
In the pairs test, one of the Stradivari violins emerged clearly as the least-preferred violin. In the take-home test, one of the new violins was the most preferred, and only 8 out of 21 players chose an old violin. When the participants were asked to guess the making school of their take-home violin, 17 responded: seven had no idea; seven guessed wrongly (mistaking new for old or vice versa); and only three guessed correctly.
Fritz and her colleagues accepted that the numbers of participants and instruments were small, but described the results as ‘a striking challenge to conventional wisdom’. They concluded: ‘Differences in taste among individual players, along with differences in playing qualities among individual instruments, appear more important than any general differences between new and old violins.’