January 3, 2012

"Double-Blind Violin Test: Can You Pick The Strad?"

The experts can't.
In fact, the only statistically obvious trend in the choices was that one of the Stradivarius violins was the least favorite, and one of the modern instruments was slightly favored.

39 comments:

Erik said...

I'm not surprised at all. Modern manufacturing equipment with incredibly small tolerances routinely creates fantastic musical instruments. It's amazing that old world craftsman could make such good instruments the old fashioned way, but it doesn't surprise me at all that machines run by humans can do just as well. We should be happy: great instruments can now be had by all. I doubt some will see it that way, though.

CJinPA said...

In the old days, they'd find the Stad by putting a dozen violins in a room with Jerry Lewis, Harpo Marx and Curly Howard and waiting for a crunching sound.

Non-scientific, but 100% reliable.

CJinPA said...

The "Strad" even.

The Crack Emcee said...

They also fail at picking wine, telling organic from normal, and tons of other things. It's all fraud. Rampant fraud.

All of it.

The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we'll get out of the situation we're in.

Well, that and quit persecuting those of us who CAN tell the difference,...that would be a really big help.

Patrick said...

I'm reminded of Joshua Bell's comments regarding his Strad, and how it is so unique, and the wood thikness is so perfect that even a new coat of lacquer would screw up the sound. I was impressed at the time, but now I sort of wonder if he'd notice a new coat of lacquer. He's got quite an ear, so he just might.

traditionalguy said...

This study posits that as humans we need a good story behind an item in order to judge it. We open up when we judge based on one history and we close down when we judge based another history.

Therefore a rose by any other name is never as fragrant to humans. And Old Coke tastes better.

Ergo, a good Historian can make hard political realities acceptable to us.

Now how the heck can we put our trust in a cardboard Mormon who cannot tell one wine from another, or one cigar from another, or one coffee from another, or one political tradition from another?

Dan in Philly said...

I agree with Erik and Crack Emcee. 100 years ago, the art of making such instruments meant a great deal of variation in quality (this holds true for wines and other such things as well). In the modern age it's so much easier to standardize the best so it's commonplace.

What does this mean? IMHO, it means that what only the very few and priviledged enjoyed at one time now everyone can, which makes the experience much less pleasureable for the elite.

Chip S. said...

Woo-hoo! I got it right. I want a badge from npr to display on my blog.

I'll bet about half of all Althousians who take the test will get it wrong.

Coketown said...

Technology puts all the very best things in the hands of paupers. Imagine mass-produced Strad-quality instruments--for everyone! We already use the same cell phones and MP3 players as the British royal family. It's high time we listened to the same instruments, too.

I can imagine a commercial for it already. "We secretly switched so-and-so's Stradivarius..."

cassandra lite said...

So this is a double-blind of the theory underlying The Emperor's New Clothes.

craig said...

I got it right. Modern instruments (in pretty much every family of instruments) are designed to produce a fuller, louder sound than the old ones were. The Stradivarius was designed for the chamber, not the 2000-seat concert hall. Old violins can only produce the volumes they do today because their neck sections have been fortified to handle the increased string tension favored by modern musicians.

madAsHell said...

I once worked with a fellow that swore by his gold plated speaker wires, and how they produced a superior sound.

He was also schizoid. We called him Screwy Louie.

Chip S. said...

I once worked with a fellow that swore by his gold plated speaker wires, and how they produced a superior sound.

They're less subject to interference from tinfoil hats.

Bob_R said...

This is interesting. There have been similar studies over the years showing that listeners could not distinguish between high quality instruments in blind tests, but I've never seen one in which the players were blind. Players had very strong opinions about which instruments "sounded" better when they were playing, but could not tell the difference when listening on the other side of the screen. (I've seen this study on line, but can't find it now.) As a guitar and bass player, I'd assumed that there was some "feels better = sounds better" stuff going on in our heads. Now it seems that it's "looks better = sounds better." Confirmation bias is a bitch.

Bob_R said...

I think Crack's post about all the experts being frauds except him is a bunch of Shinola. But I'm no expert.

Freeman Hunt said...

I once worked with a fellow that swore by his gold plated speaker wires, and how they produced a superior sound.

I used to be the marketing director and one of the technical people for a company that did wholesale distribution of speaker wire among other things. It was hilarious the stuff that people believed about speaker wire. You could even tell people, "Well, we carry this other one for people who insist on it, but it costs twice as much, and the extra 'features' it has are wholly meaningless to sound quality," and they'd *still* buy the more expensive one sometimes.

Hagar said...

Bennet Cerf had a story about Fritz Kreisler, I think. The NYT had an article about a performance he was giving with a statement that good Americans should only attend to listen to the marvellous sound of Kreisler's Stradivarius, not to admire the playing of this artist from Nazi Austria.

So Kreisler(?) played his opening number and got a standing ovation, whereupon he lifted his violin high over his head and broke it into pieces over his knee.
The audience gasped in horror, but Kreisler bowed and said, "I played that piece on a violin I picked up in a pawnshop for ten dollars this afternoon. Now I will play for you on my Stradivarius!"

Bob_R said...

The audiophools are the worst. Behold the $1000 power cable.

Peter said...

So? If you tell the audience which one is the Strad., it WILL sound better.

Besides, I'm sure Sears, Roebuck sold many thousands of Stradivsrius model violins in the early 20th century. Although if the audience knows they came from Sears, I'm sure they won't sound very good.

Here in Plato's Cave, perception IS reality.

edutcher said...

Having inherited my hearing from my mother's family, I'd be lucky to tell it was a violin.

Peter said...

BTW, anyone who's ever sold audiophile speakers knows that, in an A-B test, practically everyone will choose whichever speaker is louder. Even if it's just a little bit louder.

So, perhaps the modern instrument won just because it plays louder than the old one?

Bob_R said...

Is that a real violin or is that a Sears violin?

bagoh20 said...

It's getting so hard to be an elitist. We need to get back bloodlines and royalty, where there just was no argument, and a person could just say: "I was born better, so bite me, serf".

Levi Starks said...

I started playing the violin about 2 years ago, and I've read a few books about violin making, both historical, and recent, and I can tell you that there may be no other area of endeavor where pretension is so rampant.

Kirk Parker said...

Bob_R,

Wow, I'm sure in the wrong business. OTOH, how do those folks sleep at night?

timmaguire42 said...

The Crack Emcee said...They also fail at...telling organic from normal..."

Oh, that's easy. If it's expensive and looks like crap, it's probably organic.

Kirk Parker said...

OMG, did you see their DAC? Not only does it cost €1,995 (no, there's not too many place to the left of the decimal place there) but they've engineered with two huge internal batteries that need replacing every two years or so (or maybe I should say "need" replacing, since I doubt they really age on such a short timespan.)

Bob_R said...

Kirk -
Have you met any of the really rabid audiophiles? I'd take their money and sleep like a baby. It's like walking by someone who is lighting $100 bills on fire.

The Crack Emcee said...

Bob_R,

I think Crack's post about all the experts being frauds except him is a bunch of Shinola. But I'm no expert.

Dude, you can't even read:

I didn't even imply it's "all the experts being frauds except" me. How could I, when I said, "quit persecuting those of us who CAN tell the difference"? "Us" means there's more than one person who can spot such things, right?

Such lapses in logic and comprehension are also why cults have it so easy.

But here's the thing - nobody seems smart enough to stop it even when it's spelled out for them:

Probe reveals feds pressuring agents to rush immigrant visas – even if fraud is feared

Now when that's the case - coming straight from the top - how does anyone think we're going to get this country on the right track?

Rampant fraud is going to topple the Western world,...

Tyrone Slothrop said...

This post reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Red Violin.

Bob_R said...

Crack - I can read. You just can't write. Or your just write bullshit. Some of it is entertaining bullshit, and I enjoy it. But it's bullshit.

When you write "It's ALL fraud. Rampant fraud. ALL of it." and then contradict yourself a sentence later talking about "those of us who CAN tell the difference" I don't feel obliged to take you seriously or parse your words carefully when I'm making a stupid little joke at your expense.

Kirk Parker said...

Bob_R,

I hear you, but still it somehow feels like stealing candy from a baby or something.

T.K. Tortch said...

Well, as craig pointed out up-thread, Mr. Stradivarius designed his violins with the music of the day in mind, not today's music. Further, back then the violins were strung with gut, not steel, which is going to give you a different tone quality. Violins began to be strung with steel sometime in the later 19th Century, IIRC. So could be that to the ears of musicians and listeners closer to Stradivarius' day his shop's instruments really did tend to sound much better than others, and his reputation lingered on due to initial impressions.

Or, noting what others here have said about the consistency of modern production methods, could be that what people really appreciated about his instruments back then was that they were more consistently good sounding than what you could expect from other makers.

dbp said...

I liked the sound of the second one, which turned out to be the Strad. Which proves, since most of the experts liked the modern instruments, that I don't have much of an ear.

Bryan Townsend said...

Every article that I have seen in the mainstream media lately about music, especially ones with a supposedly 'scientific' basis, have been frustratingly wrong or misleading. And this is no exception. I didn't have any trouble identifying the Strad in the clip. Neither did one of the more knowledgeable commentors. Old instruments sound more open and warmer than new ones. Very puzzling how they could have come up with a bunch of violinists so seemingly oblivious. Don't for a minute think that Strads and Guarnerius violins are not different from new ones. They are 300 years old. They have been played a lot. The wood changes over time.

I put up a post on this over at my blog:

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2012/01/violin-test.html

Jason said...

I'm a violinist.

There's no doubt that Stradivarius was an ungodly-good instrument maker. But there's so many other things that can make a huge difference, and not every Strad is exactly a gem.

Part of it is wood selection, and the humidity and other conditions in which the wood is stored. Laquer and finish is a big part of the sound, too - it affects how much moisture the wood absorbs or loses over time.

Setup is an even bigger factor in a test like this. You can have the greatest violin ever made, but if you have the soundpost a fraction of an inch out of place, or if the bridge is not set perfectly, it's not going to sound as good as a $5,000 Chinese violin made of good wood that's been well set up.

There are so many violinsts out there that have instruments that they had to mortgage their houses for. Even people playing 2nd violin in the Grumblefuck Orchestra buy crazy expensive instruments. And if you show up to an audition with a cheap instrument, it's a knock against you before you even get to play.

You do need a good instrument for recording, because the mic tells no lies. But the law of diminishing returns really kicks in around the $5,000 level, and the recording violin does not need to be very loud.

For most young players, I recommend getting a modest instrument, and pay for someone to set it up very well. Take the money you save and convert it into practice time, and lessons with great teachers/performers.

I also steer kids of a certain age to seek out people who make their living performing, as opposed to teaching. It's harder to get performers to sit down for a while, and some of them don't even want to teach. But the level of game is much higher among performers than teachers, and the student will rise to that level.

The Crack Emcee said...

Bob_R,

I don't feel obliged to take you seriously or parse your words carefully when I'm making a stupid little joke at your expense.

Then do us both a favor and just shut up,...

Kirk Parker said...

Jason,

"I also steer kids of a certain age to seek out people who make their living performing, as opposed to teaching..."

We got Midori to teach a master class in conjunction with one of her concerts. The stuff she was able to do with her student in that 45 minute was pretty awesome (though she was not in any way a reluctant mentor, education is a big thing for her.)

Allen Garvin said...

No other instrument's community carries anywhere near the respect for antiqueness that the violin family does. It used to be a requirement that any top player must have an instrument made before 1800, preferably one made by Stradivari, Guarneri, the Amati family, etc. To progress to the higher ranks, you had to at least get SOME instrument that was a couple centuries old. You can see this in Sotheby's historical price lists. Even complete workaday instruments (of which MANY survive--the equivalent of factory Chinese and German violins made in the millions since 1900), accompanied by a providence placing them in the 17th and 18th centuries, regularly fetched thousands or tens of thousands of pounds.

And, if you can't afford a real antique, nearly every modern maker will offer to antique them for you. It's somewhat controversial, but no maker can refuse to do it, because a large part of the customer base wants an old-looking instrument. They'll add fake wear to the varnish, fake "repaired cracks", etc.

You can contrast this with the modern historically-informed performance viol crowd. A relative minority of top players play actual antique gambas (for one thing, not nearly as many have survived. There are probably as many antique cellos that are converted viols as there are actual 300-year-old bass viols). Those that play modern copies almost never request that they be antiqued-up to look like old instruments. There is a general consensus in the community (as there, to some degree, in the violin family community) that the quality of string instrument production today is very high, and the best makers today easily rival the best makers of the past. But viol players are much more willing to play new-looking instruments that are copies (without the fake blemish of age) than are violin players.