The cult of antique instruments

The violins of Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù, have gained legendary status. Many change hands for millions of dollars, but are they valuable because they sound great or because of the legend that has built up around them? This subject is relevant to guitar players. Vintage guitars, amps and some brands have acquired legendary status and price tags, but are they really any better than gear that you could buy today?

Many people stand to gain from the mythical status. Syndicates of financiers buy instruments as investments, often loaning them out to players who will never be able to afford to buy such instruments. There are collectors whose Stradivari instruments are stored and never played (like the famous Stradivarius Messiah donated to the Ashmolean Museum on the condition that it is never played). There will never be any new Stradivarius instruments; as long as their superiority is unquestioned, their financial value can only increase. But others also stand to lose out: good modern violin makers whose instruments are seen as inferior, and violin players who feel that they are missing out if they can’t play an antique instruments. Does a player react differently to an instrument if they believe it is a Stradivarius or a del Gesù?

There is a simple way to test whether these antique violins really are any good. The blinded test has been used in medicine for years now and is the only way to find out whether one thing really is better than another. A blinded test works like this. The violin player is given two violins which look identical, but only one of which is the antique one. The player plays both instruments and then chooses their favourite. The final stage is to reveal which instrument is which. Repeat this process with a number of players and see whether the antique instrument is preferred more than 50% of the time. You could also do a similar test to see whether audiences could hear the difference. If there is no measurable difference, then the value of the antiques reflects something intangible (like their provenance and their place in history) but not something musical.

While searching for blinded instrument tests, I have only uncovered anecdotal evidence so far. For example

"I played a Strad for some time," said Christopher Whiting, a professional violinist and a writer for Strings Magazine. "Now I have daily contact with a Guarneri del Gesù. I don't believe that expensive old violins sound better than good modern violins. I have never been able to hear the difference when doing a 'blind test,' listening to several violins, one after the other, without looking to see which one is being played. Nobody I've met has been able to do it either. But it's easy to tell the difference between a good violinist and a bad violinist!"

It would be great fun to set up some blinded tests of guitar gear, in the guitar-list laboratory. We could report the results on the website.

Link: Antique violin article.

The picture is from Wikipedia, one of the violins in the Strad collection in the Palacio Real in Madrid.

Article update: I found the following article along very similar lines at the Mottola Lutherie site. Its by a modern luthier who is skeptical about some of the claims for old instruments. He makes the interesting point that natural selection could also be a factor. Over the course of 300 years, the good instruments are cherished and cared for and the bad ones junked, so eventually all you are left with is the good ones.

Link: Lutherie Myth/Science: Older Instruments Sound Better Than Newer Ones


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