About that Strad vs modern violin study thingy…

My colleague Frank Almond did a very thorough take-down of the whole thing here:

“These instruments were loaned with the stipulation that they remain in the condition in which we received them (precluding any tonal adjustments or even changing the strings), and that their identities remain confidential. All strings appeared to be in good condition.”

There are countless factors that can shape perceptions while comparing violins (even in a double-blind study), and this was the first genuine red flag for me. The setup of a fine violin is critical and highly subjective-strings, placement of the bridge, etc. The soundpost can move a fraction of an inch and completely change the way a violin responds and sounds, and this is particularly true for notoriously finicky Strads. It’s not uncommon for a spectacular instrument to seem inferior just because of an unusual setup or old strings (or getting bumped around on an airplane). It is unclear who set up the newer instruments (or when). I enjoyed the confident visual assessment of the strings- for the record, I regularly play on a 1715 Stradivari and use Vision Solo strings. They completely burn out after about a month and the instrument sounds totally different, but they look fine…

(snip snip)

I could go on, but some of you may get the idea by now. The conclusions of the study seem predetermined to a degree: statistically, most of the participants couldn’t tell new from old, and everyone’s perceptions were somewhat altered by the knowledge that some of the instruments were Strads. Is this a revelation, given that actual humans were involved, under conditions that heavily favored the newer instruments? I can guarantee that the results would be completely different if the double-blind study had a third step in a concert hall (or two), with a luthier on hand and some of the participants listening to the instruments as well as playing them.

With all due respect, and despite the rigorous science and controls applied, my sense is that the researchers started with a premise and set out to prove it.

I’d put it a little differently. I think the researchers did demonstrate something, and not because they set out with a predetermined opinion. But it wasn’t worth demonstrating. Certainly it would have been possible to design the same controls into a test that actually did say something meaningful about the comparative performance of the instruments under the same conditions. But the researchers likely didn’t understand the difference between that and what they did actually prove.

My father spent his entire career designing experiments and analyzing the resulting data. One of his favorite axioms was “if it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well” (which is not quite the version of that axiom you grew up hearing, of course). Aside from its other flaws (can you say “anecdotal data”?) this study was a case in point.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

One Comment

Leave a comment
  • Almond’s assessment is directly in line with what I’ve read from one of the playing participants. The “speed-date” rule, in particular, renders the whole thing meaningless; one minute on violin #1, followed by one minute on violin #2, with no going back allowed. Nobody can form an accurate impression of the qualities of *any* instrument under those conditions. And I agree that the statement that “the strings all looked just hunky-dory” is utterly laughable.

Leave a Reply