Some say the secret of the Stradivarius violins lies in the varnish. Some say it’s the wood, cut from spruce trees that matured during the Little Ice Age. Others credit subtle asymmetries in the violins' design.
But the real secret may be that they’re overrated. A new study has found that, in blind tests, even world-class musicians can’t tell the difference between playing a multi-million-dollar violin made by Antoni Stradivari in the eighteenth century and a model made in North America last week. For a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers led by Claudia Fritz, an acoustics expert and professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, asked ten renowned violin soloists to select which of 12 violins they would take on an imaginary concert tour. Half of the violins were made by Stradivarius or another 18th-century Italian master, while half came from contemporary European or North American makers (whose identities aren’t revealed in the paper). The volunteers—including Russian virtuoso Ilya Kaler and former London Symphony Orchestra soloist Susanne Hou—had two opportunities to try out the violins, once in a rehearsal room and once in a 300-seat concert hall.
After spending two and half hours playing around on the different instruments, six out of the ten musicians chose one of the modern violins for the hypothetical tour—and only three picked a Stradivarius. The two most-preferred violins were both contemporary; the least-preferred was a Stradivarius. Fritz also had the violinists guess whether each instrument they played was old or new—and they guessed right just about half the time.
Fritz calls her conclusion a “striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.” Her results add support to a smaller, similarly designed experiment she carried out two years ago, when she had violinists test three Old Italian violins and three modern ones in an Indianapolis hotel room. Though that study attracted attention from the New York Times and The Guardian, critics pointed to the small number of violins and size of the venue.
Fritz’ work adds to a growing body of research suggesting that our appreciation of art has as much to do with perception as with the work itself. In 2007, Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post convinced world-famous violinist Joshua Bell to spend three-quarters of an hour busking at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in DC. Over a thousand people walked by without pausing as Bell, dressed in a t-shirt and baseball cap, played Bach masterpieces on a $3.5 million Stradivarius. A grand total of seven people lingered for more than a minute, and 27 dropped some change in Bell’s case—for a total of $32. One Sunday last year, English graffiti artist Banksy set up a stall in Central Park and started hawking his paintings—which normally go for about $40,000—for 60 bucks. Three people took the bait.
A study published in January shows that we register greater appreciation for art if we perceive the artist as eccentric. People were more impressed by Sunflowers they were told that Van Gogh cut off his own ear; they enjoyed Lady Gaga’s music more after looking at an image of her in a strange costume than after seeing a picture of her in a conventional black dress. The grand concert hall, the shared experience of a performance, even the legend of the artist all affect how we respond to it—though this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who failed Buzzfeed’s modern art vs. toddler art quiz.