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Vincent Le Chevalier

Location: Paris, France
Joined: 07 Dec 2005
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PostPosted: Sat 14 Jan, 2012 8:11 am    Post subject: Antique vs. modern         Reply with quote

I just ran into an article about the results of a blind-test of antique and modern violins:

This reminded me of the discussions on the relative quality of old and new swords. It's funny to see how they also have studied the old objects and apparently managed to capture most of their qualities. I don't know if we are really at that level of analysis with swords, but possibly not too far... And we possibly miss expert users as of now.

Of course a blind test of swords would probably not be practical Happy


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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Sat 14 Jan, 2012 8:48 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This study needs to be read and interpreted very carefully. The article you linked to is much more general than other articles I've seen on this study, as are a number I've seen reporting on this study. These articles sensationalize the results and miss some very important particulars of the test. See here for a little more info: .

First, the instruments were played in a hotel room, hardly the place to discover how something really sounds. Also, the violinists were asked to pick which instrument they wanted to take home, not which sounded better. Instrumentalists (and I'm one) pick instruments for a variety of reasons, often subjective. Some study participants felt the old instruments were harder to get sound out of, so they picked the modern instruments. Sometimes you need to spend more time with an instrument for it to really work in your hands. Sometimes things work for you instantaneously, but sometimes you need to feel it out or adjust technique a little to get the most out of it. You can't do that in a few minutes in a hotel.

From the NY times article:

A less respectful view of Dr. Fritzís study is offered by the violinist Earl Carlyss, a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet. ďItís a totally inappropriate way of finding out the quality of these instruments,Ē he said. The auditions, he noted, took place in a hotel room, but violinists always need to assess how an instrument will project in a concert hall. He likened the test to trying to compare a Ford and a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot.

I wouldn't decide to buy an instrument after a few minutes in a hotel room. If you only have a few minutes and are in an acoustically unhelpful place, most people will pick the one that feels the easiest to play.

I don't think it's wise to read this study and say a Strad doesn't sound as good as a modern violin. The test wasn't about sound (thankfully, because you can't really tell that in a hotel!), but about which the violinists wanted to take home. This is a very subjective test performed in odd circumstances. If people have to make subjective decisions based on non-real-world situations, the results might be odd.

Also, it's possible that the Strads and Guarneri they used weren't the best. Having played a variety of instruments for over 20 years, I can say that even with modern production technology there can be wide variety in quality, playability, and sound within a make. Now rewind a few hundred years to human input, hand tools, differing characteristics of the timber (for example, how long did the log float in a lake before being selected, dried out, and cut up?), and differing types of care in the ensuing centuries and these old instruments will vary much more widely in their characteristics than modern ones do right now. So saying every Strad is the best example of a Strad is unwise. So is saying that because those particular Cremona instruments were not preferred in this weird test, all Cremona master instruments are less desirable than all modern instruments.


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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Sat 14 Jan, 2012 9:09 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

By the way, don't take my post above to mean that I buy the Strad-rules-all mythos. I just happen to think this test isn't a good one to debunk that.

Modern technology should allow us to recreate old things (violins, swords, etc.) with a startling level of precision. However, the way to define and test the idea of "best" will be difficult to agree on.


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Ken Speed

Joined: 09 Oct 2006

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PostPosted: Sat 14 Jan, 2012 10:29 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

So we're amazed that we can do things as well or better than someone who was doing the same thing three hundred years ago ( in the case of Stradivari)? I really don't find that surprising at all. Frankly I think people have it backward; we should be amazed that instrument makers, sword smiths and other highly skilled craftsmen were able to make things as wonderfully as they did considering the tools and, in some cases, the materials they had to work with at the time or place they were working.

Look at it this way; if you needed to have surgery performed would you rather have the methods of the 17th century used or the methods of the 21st century?
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