Terry Borman violin maker, violinmaker
Photo of 1743 Guarneri del Gesu

Blind Listening Tests - Classical Instruments vs Moderns

Over the years, many blind listening test have been conducted comparing classical instruments to the instruments of today's best modern violin makers. While the circumstances of these test may vary and some may argue that one method or another has flaws that affect the outcome, the fact remains that time and time again, modern makers are able to hold their own against the best of the classical instruments.

Strad Magazine said "Although similar blind listening tests of violins and cellos are carried out with some regularity, their progress invariably follows a well-trodden and predictable course. The trial compares new against old, ideally including some famous and highly priced classical instruments (the inclusion of a Strad will usually mean mainstream media coverage). The results show that new instruments stand up very well and often outscore their older, more expensive counterparts. The test is then discredited and dismissed as meaningless by the experts." - August 2010

The experts consulted are most often dealers who specialize in selling classical instruments. They just might have a little conflict of interest in saying that the older instruments are superior and therefore worth the premium price as it is a big part of their market and profits.

We invite you to judge for yourself. Here are some examples of the numerous studies that have been done over the past 35+ years. Regardless of the expert's opinions, every study seems to conclude that the best modern makers are producing instruments virtually indistinguishable from classicals.

BBC Study 1975
One of the most famous blind-tests was carried out by the BBC in 1975. In a recording studio, a Stradivarius, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill (a modern violin at the time) were played for Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, and Charles Beare. At the end, none of these three could tell which violin was which. Two of them couldn't even tell which was their own instrument. - source - Strings.uk - Jan 2012

Cello Test 1990
A trial took place at the Fourth American Cello Congress in 1990. An audience of about 140 musicians judged the sound of 12 cellos: six new and six old (a Gagliano, two Gofrillers, a Montagnana, a Stradivari and a Tecchler). The player was blindfolded and a linen screen used to hide the cellos from the audience. Instruments were only identified as new or old and the top-scoring cello was found to be old with the second, third, fourth and fifth places going to new cellos. As a group, the modern cellos earned higher scores than the older ones. source - The Strad.com - Aug 2010

Texas A&M Study 2003
In 2003 a modern violin was tested in a duel with the Leonardo da Vinci Strad of 1725 Both violins were played in each of four selections of music by violinist Dalibor Karvay behind a screen to an audience attended by trained musicians and regular concert goers. 57 picked the Strad, 129 were not sure, and 290 picked the modern instrument over the Strad. source - Wikipedia & Strings.uk - Jan 2012

Swedish Trial 2006
Another example is the 2006 trial in Sweden. In this case, violins made by three modern Swedish violin makers were compared to a Stradivari, a Gagliano and a Guadagnini. All six instruments were played by two professional players and the sound judged and scored by an audience mostly comprising members of the European String Teacher's Association. A modern violin obtained the highest score. source - The Strad.com - August 2012

Schwarze 2009 Study
Trying to prove that fungus allowed work on the wood could produce violins with virtually identical sound to a Strad, Professor Swarze together with the modern violin makers Martin Schleske and Michael Rhonheimer, developed violins made of mycowood (wood treated with wood decay fungi). In 2009 the violins were played in a blind, behind-the-curtain test versus a genuine Stradivarius from 1711. All the violins were played by the British violinist Matthew Trusler. The result was surprising for all participants: Both the jury of experts and the majority of the audience thought that the mycowood violin that Schwarze had treated with fungi for nine months was the actual Strad. - source - Science Daily - Sept 2012

Indianapolis 2010 Study
Many people have read about the most recent blind violin study that was conducted at the International Violin Competition in 2010, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and in The Strad Jan 2012 In that study, 3 modern instruments - chosen from among the top modern makers in the world today; and 3 classical instruments, including two Strads and one Guarneri del Gesù were played by numerous accomplished musicians and the results of their preferences were recorded.  They found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument's age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old. source -PNAS- Dec 2011

Kai-Thomas Roth, secretary of the British Violin Making Association, said that double blind tests, where neither experimenter nor musician knows which violin is played, had already shown people cannot distinguish a modern violin from a priceless work of art.

"There's some myth-making that helps old instruments," Thomas Roth said. "If you give someone a Stradivari and it doesn't work for them, they'll blame themselves and work hard at it until it works.

"Give them a modern violin, and they'll dismiss the instrument straight away if it doesn't work for them. That's the psychology at work." - source - Guardian.uk - Jan 2012

With skyrocketing costs putting classical instruments out of the reach of most musicians, it is beneficial to know that some modern makers are making instruments that are virtually indistinguishable from classicals in a price range affordable to a modern symphony player.

Click here to see an acoustic spectrum analysis of a Borman vs a Strad to see more evidence that a skilled modern violin maker can produce instruments virtually identical to the best classical instruments out there.

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