1 March 2012

There’s been a media flurry over the publication of research showing that experienced violinists couldn’t tell from sound alone whether the instrument they were playing was old or new – even though two of the violins in the test were made by Stradivari and worth millions. The Guardian’s science correspondant reports here and the abstract of the peer-reviewed research paper is here.

As I understand it, Fritz’s research is an attempt to broaden the criteria by which violins are judged to include a parameter called PLAYABILITY.
This test was examining how players assess violins (irrespective of what they are) for playability and other performance characteristics. The test and the use of statistics relate as much to social sciences as to physics, and this experiment should be seen as part of a wider attempt to find ways of testing violins which relate more closely to players’ experience and the needs of real musicians … up until now we have been relying largely on physics and art history!

Physics can help us to identify some tonal characteristics in individual violins, but so far it hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding of playability. Professional or experienced players will always rate this quality of playability over “static tone”, and for all the talk to the contrary, they will always choose a violin which sings for them at close quarters and which makes music (assuming the label’s right).

Using 6 good violins, the parameters explored by this test were
“Playability” : a subjective assessment which is of paramount importance to a player
“Projection” : we can debate whether an experienced player can tell this from a nearfield test, but in the context of this test I think it means something more like “volume”
“Tone Colours” : note the deliberately wide classification, which accepts that tone is not a single or static parameter
“Response” : also a player’s term, which signifies a very personal amalgam of otherwise measurable parameters

The findings of the study have really put the cat among the pigeons, not least on the on-line forum Maestronet. I’ve been quite involved in the debate, mainly trying to get people to forget about what the violins were and concentrate on what’s revolutionary about this test. It’s a peer-reviewed experiment, well conducted and published in a major scientific journal, which is not about impact hammers, ffts and spectrum analysis, but about what players actually look for in violins.

Maybe people should take a time out and allow that idea to actually sink in …..

I’m fascinated by the findings of acousticians and other scientists, but for me Fritz’s investigation into playability is an essential counterbalance to the cult of measurement.