Violins by old masters beaten by modern instruments

11 May 2017

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Regularly hailed as the best instruments in the business, 17th and 18th Century Stradivarius violins fetch millions on the open market, placing them beyond the reach of most musicians.

Purists say that these gems built in Cremona have the great virtue of sounding quieter yet projecting further in concert halls. But is this true, and does their sonic performance really justify the exorbitant price tag?

According to French scientist Claudia Fritz, from the Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), the answer is no.

Writing in the journal PNAS, three Stradivarius instruments were compared in blind trials against 3 modern-made violins.

They were played, sometimes accompanied by an orchestra, behind a screen by blindfolded musicians to audiences of 55 and 84 people in 300-seater and 860-seater concert halls in Paris and New York respectively.

The musicians repeatedly rated the modern instruments as much easier to play, while listeners could not tell the difference between the modern and ancient instruments.

Contrary to the claims, the modern violins actually projected better than the Stradivari instruments, rather than the other way around.

According to Fritz, "A belief in the near-miraculous qualities of Old Italian violins has preoccupied the violin world for centuries. It may be that recent generations of violin makers have closed the gap between old and new, or it may be that the gap was never so wide as commonly believed. Either way, the debate about old vs. new can perhaps be laid aside..."

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