Study finds new violins equal to classics

Curtis student Benjamin Beilman took part in the study.
Curtis student Benjamin Beilman took part in the study. (CHRISTIAN STEINER)
Posted: January 11, 2012

When the two young stars from the Curtis Institute of Music were summoned to a hotel room, one by one, to try out some high-quality violins, they were met with an odd sight.

The room was divided in two with white sheets, and the violinists were greeted by scientists wearing tinted welder's goggles.

"It was very mysterious and kind of weird," said Nikki Chooi, a student at Curtis since 2007.

Equally weird, by some reckoning, was what happened next.

Chooi, fellow Curtis student Benjamin Beilman, and 19 others were asked to compare the sound of three modern violins with that from three made by the Italian masters: two by Antonio Stradivari and one by Guarneri del Gesu. Not only did the modern violins hold their own, but most of the musicians were unable to tell if their favorite instrument of the six was new or old.

The findings, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have provoked a minor uproar in the rarefied world of classical musicianship. Some have questioned the validity of the study, which required participants to evaluate the instruments after a fairly brief exposure, whereas others are happy to see modern violin-makers - luthiers - get more respect.

The study represents one of several examples in which science has been brought to bear on various realms of artistic expertise - wine-tasting and painting, to name a couple. Expertise, it turns out, is not perfect.

Beilman, for one, said the exercise was long overdue.

"It really kind of shines the light on the discrepancy in perception," he said. "Yes, the old Italian instruments are incredible. They're magical. They in some ways have their own souls. But for so long, modern makers have been brushed under the rug as second-rate solutions."

The study was conducted in 2010 at the prestigious International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, at which Beilman earned a bronze medal.

The study participants were approached at the competition and asked if they would go a hotel to test some violins. They then donned tinted goggles so they could not distinguish the violins by sight. Researchers wore such goggles for the same reason, so that their behavior would not inadvertently tip off the musicians as to which instruments were which, as they were handed out from behind the sheet.

In one phase of the testing, the players were presented with a series of violins two at a time and were given one minute to play each. Unbeknownst to them, each pair consisted of one old and one new violin, taken from the group of six.

On average, the musicians said they preferred an old violin 3.7 times out of nine. Statistically speaking, this was within range of a tie between new and old, leaning in favor of the newer instruments.

In phase two of the testing, the six instruments were laid out in random order, and each musician had a total of 20 minutes to try them however he or she chose. They were asked to rate each for its "tone colors," projection, playability, and response, and also to pick which one they would most like to take home.

One of the three new instruments stood out - picked eight times as a "take-home" favorite, three times as a close second, and never as a least-favorite. One of the two Stradivarius instruments, on the other hand, was picked just once as an overall favorite and six times as a least-favorite.

Just eight of the 21 musicians picked an old violin as one they would like to take home. The new ones, made by three unidentified artisans, were chosen by the other 13.

The 21 included 19 professional musicians and two accomplished amateurs. The study authors did not disclose the players' identities, but when asked, Curtis revealed that Beilman and Chooi were among them.

One of the skilled amateurs was Ariane Todes, editor of the strings music magazine the Strad. In a blog post, she warned that one study should not lead to any generalization that violinists are unable to tell a modern violin from one made by Stradivari. Yet she said the data "force one to consider the preconceptions that are so hardwired."

Among other beefs, critics have said that the short testing period was unfair to the old instruments, some of which are said to be harder to play and thus require an adjustment period. Others said testing should also be done in a concert hall.

Lead author Claudia Fritz, of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, acknowledged that further study should be done. But she took issue with the criticisms, especially with those who characterized the study as attacking violins made by Stradivari.

"We are saying the modern violins can be as preferred," Fritz said.

One detail no one quibbles with is that price does not correspond exactly with quality. The combined value of the three old instruments in the study was about $10 million - roughly 100 times that of the new violins. Chooi said that's not because the sound is thought to be 100 times better, but because the old ones are rare antiques and works of art.

"As pure tools for making music, the difference is not that great," Chooi said.

Still, both he and Beilman said there is something about the old masters that captivates them. Chooi's personal instrument is a Guarneri made in 1729, on loan from the Canada Council of the Arts, whereas Beilman plays one made by Antonio Gagliano in 1790.

"Even if there is a certain quote-unquote placebo effect of playing on an old instrument that has a long history and pedigree, even that I think can improve your playing in some weird ways," Beilman said. "Having the knowledge that you're inhabiting something that your idols have played . . . can make you feel better and sound better."

Both said they had not been told whether they favored old or new instruments in the study. Fritz said she would share that information if they completed a questionnaire.

Whatever choices he made in the study, Beilman said, picking an instrument is a personal thing, with some better suited to a particular violinist's style of play. Echoing others, he said musician and instrument are like husband and wife and can take time to recognize their bond.

"You find them," he said, "and you don't necessarily immediately know you're connected to the object."


Explore the Curtis Institute's rich musical history in a multimedia presentation at www.philly.com/curtisfactor


Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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