The Myth Of The Incredible Antique Violin

Instruments built by old families are renowned for their resonance. But are they really any better?

Antonio Stradivari
Wikimedia Commons

Even non-musicians might be familiar with the tale of the Stradivariuses, stringed instruments built in the 17th and 18th centuries renowned for their gorgeous tones, supposedly unparalleled, even by today's finest craftsmen. But is that just a romantic, apocryphal idea?

The answer is: yes, probably. Over at _Live Science, _there's a good rundown on how the myth was recently tested. In 2010, researchers pitted the antiques against modern instruments, but the methodology of the experiment was disputed. (It was done in a hotel room. Critics argued a concert hall was the only reasonable venue.) In a more recent study, the same team again had a group of 10 soloists play a set of instruments; modified welders glasses kept the musicians ostensibly blind, and adding wear to the new instruments made them physically indistinguishable from the antiques. The musicians each played 12 instruments, then ranked them. Once they'd picked a favorite, they then attempted to choose between their own instrument, the one they'd chosen as their favorite, and an "alternative favorite"; the "alternative" was was the highest-ranked antique or modern instrument, depending on which type the musician selected as the best.

At the very least, the results proved musicians didn't heavily prefer the old instruments. In fact, just the opposite: six out of 10 musicians picked an old violin as the best, and the new violins were much more likely to appear near the top of musicians' rankings. The musicians consistently rated the older instruments as worse, and couldn't distinguish between old and new at a rate better than chance.

Not that a Stradivarius or Guarneri isn't wonderful—it's beautiful, finely constructed, itself a work of art only incidentally meant to create other works of art. But, as it turns out, modern instrument makers shouldn't be getting short shrift, either.