By Cristina Schreil
What kind of violin projects sound better—a famed Stradivari, or a new instrument by a modern maker? A team of researchers addressed this question across two different blind-listening experiments in Paris and New York City. Their findings: modern instruments projected better into the hall, both when played alone and with an orchestra. The new violins were also preferred overall by listeners. Listeners also could not tell an antique violin from a new one. The study was published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research was done by the same team behind a groundbreaking report in 2012, wherein professional violinists wearing blindfolds could not distinguish between an antique violin (made by either Stradivari or del Gesù) and one made just recently.
“People ask why only projection? Because that is the only criterion that players can’t evaluate accurately, just because they can’t have their ears onstage and at the back of the hall,” says Claudia Fritz, lead researcher. “Everything else—timber quality, articulation, ease of playing—they can judge by themselves.”
Knowing that violinists don’t buy a violin simply because of its ability to be heard in a hall, the research team—also including violin maker Joseph Curtin, Violin Society of America President Fan Tao, and Jacques Poitevineau—asked participants to evaluate six violins—three old and three new—and indicate which instrument they preferred and which they thought had stronger projection.
The Paris Experiment took place in the 300-seat A Coeur de Ville hall, where 55 listeners from the music community—violin makers, audiophiles, musicians, critics, composers, and acousticians—evaluated three new violins and three by Stradivari. Listeners noted, on evaluation sheets, which violins had the best carrying power, which projected best over an orchestra, and which best filled the hall with sound. Both players and listeners were unaware of the identities of the instruments they heard, with players wearing modified welder’s goggles behind a screen. In Paris, soloists played both alone and with the Sorbonne Université’s student orchestra.
In another round in New York City, 82 volunteers, mostly gathered from the violin exhibition at MondoMusica New York, evaluated the same six violins—this time unaccompanied. Listeners were also asked to judge the tone quality. The soloists were a starry group: Ilya Kaler, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Tatsuki Narita, Giora Schmidt, Solenne Paidessi, Elmar Oliveira, Marie-Annick Nicolas, and Elizabeth Pitcairn.
Both experiments revealed that the new violins projected better.
“I suppose that it’s very good for makers for sure, because their work can finally be recognized for their value,” says Fritz. “I think it’s good for players as well. It should make them think.” Fritz says players should note the importance of a second perspective when shopping. “When you choose a violin, you have to check as well with an audience,” she says.
Both experiments also explored an oft-claimed yet paradoxical quality of Stradivari’s work: That his instruments can project well out to the hall, but sound quiet to the soloist under the ear. The researchers found no evidence of this among the violins included. “An important take-away from these experiments is that if you are looking for a violin, new or old, with excellent projection, you should be prepared for a lot of sound under the ear,” says Curtin. “There may be instruments that seem quiet to the player and yet project brilliantly—but we have yet to find one.
“Some people seem to regard our study as an attempt to discredit Stradivari. Surely not! His genius and originality and historical importance are undisputable. Just because new violins are getting better doesn’t mean old violins are getting worse.”
Curtin added the experiments have impacted him as a maker. “Since the day I got home from Paris, my goal has shifted from trying to capture ‘old Italian sound’—whatever that is—to creating instruments that have the particular acoustical qualities that soloists and their audiences respond to so strongly in blind tests. For me, this change in perspective has been liberating.”