Can Professional Violinists Tell if the Violin is from the Old Masters or New?

It has been stated in some studies that professional violinists are incapable of recognizing old and new master violins.

As we look into the history of violins, only two grandmasters were very prominent to all. They are Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu and of course Antonio Stradivari, two of the world’s superior Italian luthiers of all time. With their remarkable handiworks, their instruments had been in many studies and researches, trying to discover the secret of their extraordinary sound that lasts for centuries. However, they only come up with several theories without having definite conclusions to prove anything.

Claudia Fritz a CNRS-researcher in Paris and a Lutherie-Acoustics-Music team member at the University Pierre & Marie Curie and Joseph Curtin and American contemporary violin maker residing in Ann Arbor Michigan shared their views. The absence of proving anything with regards to the secret of the sound of the master’s instruments is nothing more than a myth and not magic. Both Fritz and Curtin have conducted a study in Indiana during a violin competition. To gauge the quality of different violins, they had professional violinists to do the task. They had a variety of violins; some were recently made while some are from the old masters. The result of this experiments shows that these violin masters were unable to tell which violin is of the old masters and which one is not. Also, it seems that they were also unable to say which one is better than the rest.

Conducting this particular study was not as simple as it seems. Fritz and Curtin had to talk to the owners of these multi-million dollar instruments to allow their prized possession to be used in the study and allow others to play them. It was indeed successful as they were allowed to use the instruments but in a limited way. They were able to secure two highly prized Stradivari crafted violin and one violin handcrafted by Guarneri. To complete their set, they added three high quality and newer violins.

They conducted the test in a hotel room with low lights. Twenty-one professional violinists volunteered to do the test. They were given welding goggles to wear so that they will not be able to identify any usual markings and traits on the violins. A whiff of Perfume was applied to the violins to cover up any revealing odors that could provide a hint to the instrument’s history. To make sure that the outcome of the test is not influenced by the testers, third-party assistants were there to present the instruments to the musicians, and they too wore goggles.

During the test, each of the musicians would play two violins. The other one was new, while the other one was the prized old master’s violin. After playing the instrument, each musician was given four criteria to judge: playability, tonal color range, projection, and response. As a result, the winners were not clear, although there is one that came out as a loser and surprisingly, it’s from the older violins.

The next part was that each musician would try all six instruments with goggles on and just pay close attention to their sound for a few minutes. After that, they were asked to pick which one is their favorite, the kind that they would like to take home with. One of the newer violins stands out as the most favorite of all musicians, while the least favorite was the loser on the first test.

Interestingly, the label of the violin that loses the test is “O1”, which means it’s an earlier version and it is the most prominent and the principal instrument during the 20th century. Famous violin virtuosos have been using this instrument in recordings and concerts over the years.

The researchers suggest as they wrote it on their findings that it appears that the old masters do not possess extraordinary violin making skills which are better than the violin makers of today. They added that those who do not believe this are just fooling themselves.