Monday, January 09, 2012

No secret

Before I post my last Guardian column, here’s one that got away: I’d planned to write about a paper in PNAS (not yet online) on blind testing of new and old violins, until – as I was half-expecting – Ian Sample wrote a regular story on it. So this had to be scrapped.

Radio 4's PM programme covered the story too, but in a somewhat silly way. They got a sceptical professor from the Royal College of Music to come on and play some Bach on a new and and old instrument, and asked listeners to see if they could identify which was which. A good demonstration, I suppose, of exactly why double-blind tests were invented.

At last we now know Antonio Stradivari’s secret. Violinists and craftsmen have long speculated about what makes the legendary Italian luthier’s instruments sound so special. Does the magic lie in the forgotten recipe for the varnish, or in a chemical pre-treatment of the wood? Or perhaps it’s the sheer passage of time that mellows the tone into such richness?

Alas, none of these. A new study by French and US researchers suggests that the reason the sound of a Stradivari is so venerated is because it has never before been properly put to the test.

Twenty-one experienced violinists were asked to blind-test six violins – three new, two Stradivaris and one made by the equally esteemed eighteenth-century instrument-maker Guarneri del Gesù. Most of the players were unable to tell if an instrument was new or old, and their preferences bore no relation to cost or age. Although their opinions varied, the favourite choice was a modern instrument, and the least favourite, by a clear margin, was a Stradivari.

OK, it’s just a small-scale test – getting hold of even three old violins (combined value $10m) was no mean feat. And you’ll have to trust me that the researchers took all the right precautions. The tests were, for example, literally double-blind – both the researchers and the players wore welders’ goggles in dim lighting to make sure they couldn’t identify the type of instrument by eye. And in case you’re thinking they just hit on a dud Stradivari (which do exist), the one with the worst rating had been owned by several well-known violinists.

This is embarrassing for the experts, both scientists and musicians. In judging quality, “the opinions of different violinists would coincide absolutely”, one acoustics expert has previously said. “Any musician will tell you immediately whether an instrument he is playing on is an antique instrument or a modern one”, claimed another. And a distinguished violinist once insisted to me that the superior sound of the most expensive old instruments is “very real”.

But acoustic scientists have struggled to identify any clear differences between the tone of antique and (good) new instruments. And as for putting belief to the test, an acoustic scientist once told me that he doubted any musicians would risk exposing themselves to a blind test, preferring the safety of the myth.

That’s why the participants in the latest study deserve credit. They’re anonymous, but they must know how much fury they could bring down on their heads. If you’ve paid $3m for one of the 500 or so remaining Strads, you don’t want to be told that a modern instrument would sound as good at a hundredth of the price.

But that’s perhaps the problem in the first place. In a recent blind wine-testing study, the ‘quality’ was deemed greater when the subjects were told that the bottle cost more.

Is there a killjoy aspect to this demonstration that the mystique of the Strad evaporates under scientific scrutiny? Is it fair to tell violinists that their rapture at these instruments’ irreplaceable tone is a neural illusion? Is this an example of Keats’ famous criticism that science will “clip and Angel’s wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line”?

I suspect that depends on whether you want to patronize musicians or treat them as grown-ups – as well as whether you wish to deny modern luthiers the credit they are evidently due. In fact, musicians themselves sometimes chafe at the way their instruments are revered over their own skill. The famous violinist Jascha Heifetz, who played a Guarneri del Gesù, pointedly implied that it’s the player, not the instrument, who makes the difference between the sublime and the mediocre. A female fan once breathlessly complimented him after a performance on the “beautiful tone” of his violin. Heifetz turned around and bent to put his ear close to the violin lying in its case. “I don’t hear anything”, he said.


JimmyGiro said...

"Before I post my last Guardian column..."

Have you finally seen the light?

Philip Ball said...

Funny you should say that. Here I simply meant (and should have said) "my previous column". But these columns are indeed coming to a premature end next Saturday, because poverty-induced rearrangements at the Guardian mean that the whole current back page is getting the chop. There's very little chance that I'll ever see the light, however.