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Musical Surprise: Virtuosos Prefer New Violins in Blind Test

WASHINGTON — Ten world-class soloists put prized Stradivarius violins and new, cheaper instruments to a blind scientific test to determine which has the better sound. The results may seem off-key to musicians and collectors: The new violins won handily.

The top choice out of a dozen old and new violins was by far a new one. So was the second choice, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Five of the six old violins were made by the famous Stradivari family in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Strads and other old Italian violins have long been considered superior, even almost magical, instruments. They cost 100 times the violins made today, with an overall price tag amounting to about $50 million, the authors said.

The study attempts to quantify something that is inherently subjective — the quality of an instrument, said authors Joseph Curtin, a Michigan violin maker, and Claudia Fritz, a music acoustics researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France.

A few years earlier, the duo blind-tested violins in a hotel room, but this test was more controlled. The 10 violinists put the instruments through their paces in a rehearsal room and concert hall just outside Paris. The lights were dimmed, and the musicians donned dark welder's glasses.

The violinists were asked to rate the instruments, and after they had whittled down their choices, the soloists were asked whether the instruments they preferred were old or new. The musicians got it wrong 33 times and right 31 times. Six of the 10 soloists said they'd pick a new violin for a hypothetical concert tour.

Even Curtin, who makes new violins for a living, was surprised.

"I remember trying the old violins and the new violins among ourselves just before the testing got going and saying, 'You know, maybe the old ones will win,'" he said.

Curtin said the researchers won't ever reveal which instruments were used, to head off any suggestion that the study was part of a marketing campaign.

— Seth Borenstein, The Associated Press

Check out Peter Somerford's 2012 report for The Strad on the Paris violin test.