Old or new? Violinists can't tell, says study

The 300-year-old Stradivarius violin that was taken from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster in an armed robbery is pictured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at a news conference after it was recovered on Feb 6, 2014 . -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
The 300-year-old Stradivarius violin that was taken from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster in an armed robbery is pictured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at a news conference after it was recovered on Feb 6, 2014 . -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A centuries-old Stradivarius, or a shiny new violin? Aficionados often say that older instruments sound better, but a scientific study has found that actually, expert players preferred new ones.

Soloists were also unable to tell the difference between new and old violins at any better rate than simple chance, said the study in this week's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ten professional violinists were asked to choose from six old and six new Italian violins, and decide which they would pick to replace their own for an upcoming tour.

The musicians were unaware which instruments were old or new, and the new ones were antiqued to give the appearance of age.

They had plenty of time to play each instrument, first in a rehearsal room and later in a concert hall.

Six chose new violins, and four chose old ones.

When researchers compared the violins by preference scores based on a top-four list compiled by each musician, new violins outscored old by a ratio of six to one.

"On average, soloists rated their favourite new violins more highly than their favourite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre," said the study.

"Soloists readily distinguished instruments they liked from those they did not but were unable to tell old from new at better than chance levels."

The French and US researchers admitted that the study was small, so it may not be applicable to the worldwide population.

However, they said it improves on a test done in 2010 among 21 violinists - who, when blinded, decided that their least favourite instrument of three was a Stradivarius - because it concentrated on the judgment of 10 highly talented soloists.