Are Stradivari inferior to new violins? Biochemist challenges recent study

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Joseph Nagyvary, a retired Texas A&M University professor who has spent much of his life studying Old World violins, takes exception to a recent study that suggests new, less-expensive violins achieve a better sound than those created by masters such as Stradivarius.

“As it is, the work cannot be considered in any way scientific and conclusive,” he says.

The study was conducted by Claudia Fritz and colleagues at the Jean Le Rond d’Alembert Institute in Paris and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fritz’s team gave six new and six old violins to 10 musicians; five of the violins were Stradivari. The musicians stood in dim light, wearing dark glasses, and were asked to play each violin in a rehearsal room and in a concert hall.

“Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better-than-chance levels,” according to the study.

Nagyvary, a professor emeritus in biochemistry, concludes that the old violins used in the test must have been in poor condition.

“The serious weakness of this work lies in the old violins not being identified,” he says. “Experts, including myself, know well that the 600 or so extant Stradivari violins vary vastly in their tone quality due to their playing and preservation history.”