Toss out the old Stradivarius! | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 09.05.2017

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Toss out the old Stradivarius!

French researchers have busted a common myth that the tonal qualities of a real Stradivarius can not be matched by any other instrument in the world. A new study shows modern fiddles sound better.

Stradivari violin

This Stradivarius belonged to the Hungarian musician Tivadar Nachez. It was auctioned in 2003 at Sotheby's

Music lovers by-and-large agree that there is nothing that can trump the sound of the original instruments built by Antonio Giacomo Stradivari in the late 17th and early 18th century in the Italian town of Cremona.

Just over 600 original Stradivarius violins still exist. The master also built numerous violoncellos and violas besides guitars and harps.

People have researched and speculated, trying to find out what makes the special tonal qualities of a Stradivarius. There are ample possible explanations: is it, for instance, the special quality of the wood? The trees which the master used for his wood grew during a small ice age in the decades before Stradivari was born. The growth rings in the wood were narrower and the fabric of the wood was denser than in later years as a result.

Antonio Stradivari

What was it that made the violins of Stradivari so special? Was it the wood or the craftsmanship?

Or was it simply his craftsmanship? Was it the man himself who the violins their special sound? The material and qualities of the finishing have become serious fields of research, as is the question, whether it's possible to modify today's violins so that their sound approaches that of a Stradivarius.

The multi-million dollar question 

Today Stradivari's violins, and those of Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, whose workshop was near Stradivari's, are so sought-after that hardly any regular musician could ever afford one. Many are owned by banks or insurance companies, which lend them out to top musicians. Auction prizes have gone from low six-digit euro figures in the early 1980s to eight-digit figures more recently.

But is this whole Stradivarius hype justified in the first place? This is the question which French sound engineer and experimental psychologist Claudia Fritz tried to answer with her research team. 

"Because old Italian instruments are now priced beyond the reach of the vast majority of players it seems important to test the fundamental assumption of their tonal superiority," the researchers write in an article, published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" of the USA (PNAS).

Two concert halls and experienced audiences

To find an answer the researchers had classical musicians perform on three real Stradivarius and three new violins. The audience was unable to see which violin was played and had to judge the sound. Also the musicians did not know which instruments they held in their hands - they were blindfolded. Music was played with and without an orchestra.

Bildergalerie Immaterielles Kulturerbe UNESCO Geigenbau Cremona

It doesn't have to be old. Craftsmen like Carlos Roberts make violins in Cremona to this day

The researchers wanted to find out how well the sound of the instrument travelled deep into the room in relation to the perception of loudness that the musician felt in the ears.

It is commonly believed that the outstanding strength of a Stradivarius is its ability to fill a room with sound, even when the player is performing a very quiet piece of music and hence feeling no sensation of loudness in his or her ears. The researchers also asked the listeners about their personal sound preference.

The audience consisted of music lovers, classical musicians and violinists. The test was conducted twice. Once in a Parisian concert hall with 55 participants and in New York with 82 participants.

Violinists and audience agree

It turns out "the violinists prefered playing new violins to old [ones]," say the researchers. And they were unable to tell a new violin from a Stradivarius.

Even among the audience, the results are described as "unambiguous." 

The researchers say a Stradivarius violin does not fill the room better, while sounding quieter at the ear of the musician.

"The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris, whether tested with an orchestra or without, and they were generally preferred by the listeners," the researchers write, "the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old."