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Hello String Players,

Stradivarius violins are so famous that almost every violinist wants one. But why is it necessarily superior than other and modern instruments? I think I've read some articles about this and the scientific result was Strads don't necessarily have a better sound than modern violins. Is there anybody who ever done research into this topic?

OTK
 

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There have been a number of studies about this. The last one I saw was from the Sorbonne University. The researchers recruited 21 professional violinists from the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, brought them into a dimly lit hotel room, and asked them to play six violins. Three were new; one had been made just days before. The others had been crafted by either Stradivari or Guarneri “del Gesu” in the 17th and 18th centuries.


The results were very interesting.

'The violinists couldn’t tell. When they tested pairs of the violins, they were just as likely to prefer the new or old ones. When they played all six instruments together, and had to choose which they would most like to take home, 62 percent picked a new violin. And the oldest Stradivarius—an instrument that is held in an institution and loaned to only the most gifted players—was the most frequently rejected one.'

A follow-up experiment with top violists playing them in a concert hall environment yielded much the same results and concluded,
'The results are very clear: Stradivarius violins, despite their reputation, inordinate price tags, and indisputable craftsmanship, are no better than the best modern ones.'

I play guitar (badly) and have tried lots of electric guitars over the years. The holy grail amongst those who prefer the Les Paul cutaway shape is the Gibson, yet I've borrowed Gibsons from my neighbour (he collects guitars) and many feel no better or sound any better when playing than guitars of lesser brands (but I really like one of them). Its the name, the prestige of owning or playing one. Turn up with one and people will say in an impressed tone, "Oooh, youve got a Gibson"!
One of the best guitars ive played and heard belonged to a friend of mine. Its not a big name and cost him £50. He modded it with better pickups, tuners, etc (spent about £200 at most) and it sounds and plays like a dream. Hes even had a Gibson owner wanting to swap his guitar for the cheaper one! And like Gibsons, not all Stradivarius are equal.
 

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I heard it was some combination of:
* Original old growth forest wood
* 'Secret sauce' wood lacquer
* The effect of 500 years of curing on the lacquer
* The effect of 500 years of 'settling in' on the wood

I even read once about stringed instruments being made out of trees salvaged from the bottom of a lake, that had lain untouched (and uneaten, due to the lack of oxygen) for several hundred years.

Didn't hear how they turned out.

And Merl's explanation above is undoubtedly the right one. Like old wine, old instruments have an unearned mystique.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Thank you both. I do think Stradivarius is not supposed to be that superior--because what can't modern technology achieve? Maybe those top class violinists use Strads just because of their mysterious stories and their famous past owners.
 

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I think there's something to be said about the provenance for some of those famous instruments. Think about all of the great musicians throughout the centuries that have played them. That alone has got to be worth millions I would think.
And I would much rather see them continue to be played by the great musicians than see them decay under glass in a museum.
 

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Same reason sports fans seek autographs on baseballs, and film nuts buy cars or ball gowns once owned by film stars. It's a form of animism where inanimate objects are 'inhabited by the spirits of their former owners'.... or something like that. Voodoo stuff if you ask me.
 

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Hello String Players,

Stradivarius violins are so famous that almost every violinist wants one. But why is it necessarily superior than other and modern instruments? I think I've read some articles about this and the scientific result was Strads don't necessarily have a better sound than modern violins. Is there anybody who ever done research into this topic?

OTK
One factor that people tend to forget is that, through a combination of Stradivari's skill, creativity and longevity and the evolution of western music and other historical factors, his design became the accepted and widely copied standard. Interestingly, according to some sources, this did not fully happen until the 19th century, though he was a highly respected maker in his own day.

Once a particular design is considered the standard to aspire to, all others become more or less accurate and more or less successful copies, but are never identical to the "real thing". So, Stradivari's violins become the best, almost by definition.

This doesn't mean there are no advantages to modern technologies and methods unavailable to Stradivari and his Cremonese contemporaries. I would expect violin design to gradually evolve away from the Strad "ideal", but tradition is a powerful thing.
 

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It has been fashionable among physicists in the past years to make a publish such experiments. Though, a violinist distinguishes a good from a bad instrument. The difference is much bigger than between wind instruments of same model. But finding the difference can take more than 5 minutes, it's better perceptible when playing than when hearing, and it needs people with decent ears.

By taking 20 random listeners, and letting someone play a 1 minute melody instead of provoking the violin's weaknesses, bad researchers produced bad research.

Excellent violins were made more recently too. Vilde Frang, Hilary Hahn play on Vuillaume.

It just stands that nearly all the surviving old Italian violins are excellent (which include Guarneri and Guadagnini! Often better than Strad) while more recent violins are unequal. The reasons are unknown: probably not the varnish, not for having been played - but possibly because the wood is old hence lighter.

Old Italian violins are louder, more brilliant, they react faster - everything a soloist wants. But Gypsies or chamber musicians seek a completely different sound, not that strident, and while all violins in West Europe are copies from Amati, Stradivarius, Guarneri or rarely Guadagnini, in Hungary and Romania other lines exist with a nicer sound.

Old Italian violins were not renown until the 19th? No wonder, since all violins were deeply modified in the Romantic era. They got a more curved bridge to accept more bow pressure, so the bridge became higher, which needed to replace the bass bar with a taller one. That's a huge change!

[...] what can't modern technology achieve? [...]
We know extremely little about the acoustics of music instruments and about sound perception. Or even, many ideas common among physicists are just wrong, like sound resulting from a harmonic spectrum, and mislead research in sterile directions.

Technology doesn't help so much. For instance man-made materials are inferior to spruce for simple physical reasons.
This same reason suggests Kiri (Pawlaunia tomentosa) may outperform spruce. Worth a try?
 
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I'm an amateur learning would-be cellist, and I've never played any high-end instrument so can't really make an informed judgement, just hunches and so on. But one thing I've learned is that set-up is *incredibly* important, and loads of care go into the set-up of these multi-million-dollar instruments. I think it's likely that if you put $20 strings on a Stradivarius it wouldn't sound all that much better than the $500 student violin those strings were intended for. Also many of these old Italian instruments have been "rebuilt" so often it's hard to tell how much of them are original.

On the other hand, there might actually be something about these instruments that only a virtuoso player would notice. I honestly wouldn't know.
 

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It has been fashionable among physicists in the past years to make a publish such experiments. Though, a violinist distinguishes a good from a bad instrument. The difference is much bigger than between wind instruments of same model. But finding the difference can take more than 5 minutes, it's better perceptible when playing than when hearing, and it needs people with decent ears.

By taking 20 random listeners, and letting someone play a 1 minute melody instead of provoking the violin's weaknesses, bad researchers produced bad research.

Excellent violins were made more recently too. Vilde Frang, Hilary Hahn play on Vuillaume.

It just stands that nearly all the surviving old Italian violins are excellent (which include Guarneri and Guadagnini! Often better than Strad) while more recent violins are unequal. The reasons are unknown: probably not the varnish, not for having been played - but possibly because the wood is old hence lighter.

Old Italian violins are louder, more brilliant, they react faster - everything a soloist wants. But Gypsies or chamber musicians seek a completely different sound, not that strident, and while all violins in West Europe are copies from Amati, Stradivarius, Guarneri or rarely Guadagnini, in Hungary and Romania other lines exist with a nicer sound.

Old Italian violins were not renown until the 19th? No wonder, since all violins were deeply modified in the Romantic era. They got a more curved bridge to accept more bow pressure, so the bridge became higher, which needed to replace the bass bar with a taller one. That's a huge change!

We know extremely little about the acoustics of music instruments and about sound perception. Or even, many ideas common among physicists are just wrong, like sound resulting from a harmonic spectrum, and mislead research in sterile directions.

Technology doesn't help so much. For instance man-made materials are inferior to spruce for simple physical reasons.
This same reason suggests Kiri (Pawlaunia tomentosa) may outperform spruce. Worth a try?
From what I've read, Stradivari's violins were always highly respected, but in the Romantic era their bigger sound became more desirable than the more delicate sound of those of the Austrian maker Jacob Stainer, for example.

As for wind instruments, the situation is quite different, as in most cases they continued to evolve until at least the mid-19th century. So there would be an immense difference between most modern wind instruments and those that date from before then. Wind instruments have continued to evolve since the late 19th century, but mostly in subtle ways, as is the case with the piano. Old pianos are not considered desirable, in fact a piano is considered to have a useful life of only about 75 years, after which most of the mechanism must be overhauled or replaced. In the case of the flute, metal flutes were developed in the mid-19th century and became standard (for the most part) in the early 20th. Some of these 19th century metal flutes are highly prized and still played by major soloists and in major orchestras. Jean-Pierre Rampal famously played a gold flute made in 1868, though eventually he decided it was too delicate to tour the world with.
 

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I do wonder if this idolization of these old instruments has contributed to the marginalization of classical music. You're not a "real musician" unless you're playing an instrument that cost at least X dollars and is at least X years old.
 

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It has been fashionable among physicists in the past years to make a publish such experiments. Though, a violinist distinguishes a good from a bad instrument. The difference is much bigger than between wind instruments of same model. But finding the difference can take more than 5 minutes, it's better perceptible when playing than when hearing, and it needs people with decent ears.
One difference I read recently is that wind instruments rely on materials for the valves / keys that have improved greatly in the past, oh say 100 years. Fiddles, not so much.
 

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I do wonder if this idolization of these old instruments has contributed to the marginalization of classical music. You're not a "real musician" unless you're playing an instrument that cost at least X dollars and is at least X years old.
Certainly status among players. That's what keeps old instruments so pricy. Listeners probably don't know or care.

It's the same with guitars of course.
 

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I do wonder if this idolization of these old instruments has contributed to the marginalization of classical music. You're not a "real musician" unless you're playing an instrument that cost at least X dollars and is at least X years old.
These Guarneri, Strad and and Guadagnini are really better for the soloist. But some more (Vuillaume) are equally good.

Soloists wish to have more of these excellent instruments, and cheaper! Problem: banks and "non-profit" organisations speculated on them, and now the musicians can't afford their instrument any more. David Oistrakh could still own personally several Strad, presently the best-known soloists play on lent instruments. Hilary Hahn is one exception, owning several Vuillaume.
 
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Certainly status among players. That's what keeps old instruments so pricey. Listeners probably don't know or care.
Professional violinists know exactly how the colleague X or Y plays. It takes few minutes, whatever the instrument. Whether the name of the instrument influences the public, that's quite possible.

Not every listener notices, but neither every listeners chooses classical music and violin. Yes, a decent listeners does hear a difference, quite clearly. There are examples on the Web, I remember one about celli but have most the address.
 
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One difference I read recently is that wind instruments rely on materials for the valves / keys that have improved greatly in the past, oh say 100 years. Fiddles, not so much.
Present materials for valves and keys are more durable but have little influence on the sound. Woodwind bodies were already of Grenadilla, presently manufacturers seek alternative woods but these are less good, and polymers that are bad. Pads are still of goat leather, with the recent addition of kangaroo leather, and for flutes still of sheep gut or fish skin, because man-made materials are bad. Corks are made of cork because alternatives are bad.

Violins use the same materials as for 300 years because man-made ones are bad. It's a matter of flexural wave velocity. Plain carbon-epoxy can't challenge spruce. Carbon sandwich might perhaps, and kiri (Pawlovnia tomentosa) should outperform spruce on the paper.
 
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Professional violinists know exactly how the colleague X or Y plays. It takes few minutes, whatever the instrument. Whether the name of the instrument influences the public, that's quite possible.

Not every listener notices, but neither every listeners chooses classical music and violin. Yes, a decent listeners does hear a difference, quite clearly. There are examples on the Web, I remember one about celli but have most the address.
I greatly enjoyed your posts in this thread, highly informative and with accurate details, except that flute pad covers aren't really "fish skin", though that term is used.
 

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Present materials for valves and keys are more durable but have little influence on the sound. Woodwind bodies were already of Grenadilla, presently manufacturers seek alternative woods but these are less good, and polymers that are bad. Pads are still of goat leather, with the recent addition of kangaroo leather, and for flutes still of sheep gut or fish skin, because man-made materials are bad. Corks are made of cork because alternatives are bad.

Violins use the same materials as for 300 years because man-made ones are bad. It's a matter of flexural wave velocity. Plain carbon-epoxy can't challenge spruce. Carbon sandwich might perhaps, and kiri (Pawlovnia tomentosa) should outperform spruce on the paper.
Are the man-made materials "bad" or simply non-traditional? The carbon fiber cellos I've heard actually sound pretty good.
 

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I'm not a violinist or string player, so I have no personal expertise in this subject, but I just wanted to add that in his album "The Glory of Cremona," Ruggiero Ricci recorded a 30-second extract from the Bruch G minor concerto on about fifteen different violins, including some Guarneri and Stradivarius instruments, which may be illustrative.
 

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I'm not a violinist or string player, so I have no personal expertise in this subject, but I just wanted to add that in his album "The Glory of Cremona," Ruggiero Ricci recorded a 30-second extract from the Bruch G minor concerto on about fifteen different violins, including some Guarneri and Stradivarius instruments, which may be illustrative.
I attended a recital by Itzhak Perlman where he played the first half with a Guarneri violin and the second with a Stradivari. He invited audience members to decide which one we liked better, but he didn't take a poll or ask for our opinions at the end. Needless to say, he sounded good on both.
 
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