“…the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has not yet been properly investigated.”
Most violinists believe that instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesu” are tonally superior to other violins–and to new violins in particular. Many mechanical and acoustical factors have been proposed to account for this superiority; however, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has not yet been properly investigated. Player’s judgments about a Stradivari’s sound may be biased by the violin’s extraordinary monetary value and historical importance, but no studies designed to preclude such biasing factors have yet been published. We asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments. The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics. We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old. These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom. Differences in taste among individual players, along with differences in playing qualities among individual instruments, appear more important than any general differences between new and old violins. Rather than searching for the “secret” of Stradivari, future research might best focused on how violinists evaluate instruments, on which specific playing qualities are most important to them, and on how these qualities relate to measurable attributes of the instruments, whether old or new.