Listening for Godot

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What is the best violin money can buy?

You hardly have to be a professional violinist for the answer Stradivarius to pop unhesitatingly into your head. The world’s most famous violin brand is not only the favourite choice of concert violinists worldwide, it is also unquestionably, the most expensive.

But why, exactly? How is it possible that an Italian violinmaker who died in 1737 managed to create an acoustical and aesthetic standard that has never since been equalled despite all of our modern technology and scientific understanding?

That is the question that Joseph Curtin has long been asking himself. A MacArthur Fellow and violinmaker with a passion for rigorous scientific inquiry, Joseph is ideally poised to tackle the age-old question of what makes Antonio Stradivari’s violins so much superior to anything that has been produced ever since. But it turns out that unlocking those secrets is a much more complex quest than might be expected.

“This idea is very embedded in our culture: the secret of Stradivari. But as soon as you start looking at this concept from a scientific point of view, it starts subdividing into many different questions.”

The first thing Joseph likes to point out is that, contrary to what many naively
believe, a Stradivarius is hardly an unchanging icon of musical achievement.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that if you were to take a violin straight from Stradivari’s workshop with a bow from the time, most of the current repertoire would be unplayable. And it would probably be inaudible too, at least in many modern venues.

“A Stradivari or any old instrument is really a re-engineered object. It’s not just the restoration – fixing all the cracks and everything else – it’s a different instrument. The bridge and the bass bar have been redesigned, often the top and back plates have been re-graduated and made thinner, which has profound effects upon the sound. And then there are the effects of often-extensive restoration. But that’s completely ignored by this heroic notion of a Stradivari as the ultimate violin that can never be repeated.”

violinThat’s all very well and good, you might think, but clearly something is going on at the end of the day. After all, a very significant fraction of the world’s greatest violinists play a Stradivari violin, and many of those who don’t would doubtless give a great deal to have a chance to do so. Why?

That’s precisely what Joseph was puzzling over.

“I had initially assumed, like virtually everyone else, that there was an ‘old sound’ that came with age and that, even if it wasn’t best exemplified by any particular maker, there was at least a general quality there. God knows the amount of time we spent looking at old wood samples and trying to find differences, but researchers couldn’t find physical correlates with different instruments.

“If you look at response curves, sound radiation or emittance, you see similar sorts of things. All violins are different, but whether new or old they all have similar features. And people would say, ‘Oh, we’re not looking at the right thing: we’ve got to find a different measurement.’

“But there is always the possibility that maybe there really isn’t a difference. And what do we mean by saying that there is or isn’t a difference, anyway? We’re talking about something that can only be heard if it is being played by a player. So if a player can’t hear the difference, and the listeners can’t, then you have to say that objectively there is no difference. And that is testable.”

“You could say, ‘A violin’s sound is subjective: how can you measure that?’ Well, you get a bunch of them and you start to find statistical trends. The obvious way is to use a double-blind test. It’s the only way you can get rid of subjective biases. If you know this is a Strad then you’re going to hold it differently, you’re going to treat it differently, and listeners are going to be changed by that knowledge.”

So Joseph and his colleagues began a series of experiments of increasing sophistication involving a spectrum of expert soloists playing new and old violins while wearing goggles so they couldn’t see what they were playing. The most comprehensive experiment involved ten soloists and twelve violins, six new and six old, five of which were Strads. The soloists played in front of an expert audience in a small concert hall by themselves and with an orchestra, where the audience was also shielded from viewing the violin in question.

So what happened? Six out of 10 violinists thought a new violin sounded the best. But that’s not all.

“After the players played an excerpt of a concerto, we asked the audience of experts to guess if it was played on a new or an old violin. The first two that were played a majority of people believed one way or the other, but in both cases it was wrong. The rest was completely random. During the second day we presented each player with a series of instruments and gave them 30 seconds to determine whether it was new or old. Again, the results were completely random.”

The key result of his experiments, Joseph stresses, is not that professional musicians are incapable of distinguishing subtleties of sound, that there is a great Stradivarius conspiracy or that one violin is just as good as any other. Instead, the lesson to be learned is that our subjective biases that we bring to a musical performance are every bit as important to our assessment of the performance as the sound waves that are hitting our ears.

“Our findings showed that neither the player nor the listener could tell old violins from new. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any differences. In fact, there clearly are differences, because if they had simply said that all the violins they couldn’t hear as well were old, they would have gotten it almost all right. That’s the crazy thing: there are clearly differences, but that’s not what people are listening for. The thought was that old instruments project better, or that they do this or that.”

What we hear, in other words, is a lot more than simply sound waves hitting a microphone. And what the word “Stradivari” has come to mean, is a lot more than simply a violin.

“When I play a violin now, even knowing everything that I know, it’s really hard for me to subtract my own impressions. If I pick up an old violin, I have to remind myself that what I’m hearing is what hits my eardrum as well as everything I know and love about these old instruments. When I play my own instrument, it’s what hits my ear combined with my own self-doubts and worries. All these things colour my impression of the sound.”

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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Related video resources and eBook that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal: Clips: Defining What You’re Looking For, Subjective Distortions; Compilation: The Science of Sound and Music; Full-length video and eBook: The Science of Siren Songs

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