Are Strads overrated?

In classical music, there is a mystique surrounding Seventeenth Century violins made in Cremona, Italy and especially the Stradivarius.  These violins can cost millions of dollars and are supposed to be unmatched in sound quality by any violin made since.  People have speculated that it is the wood, the glue, the varnish or some mysterious unknown quantity that makes them so much better although nothing has ever been pinpointed.  Now, a study recently published in PNAS (see here) finds  that the superiority of the Stradivarius may be more myth than substance.  The study found that top-level violinists preferred modern violins to the classic Cremonese ones.  It was the first every study that was double blinded so that neither the violinist nor tester knew which violin was being played.  It is well-known in psychology that people’s preferences are strongly influenced by context.  An example, is that wines perform better in taste tests when they are believed to be more expensive.  The study has been criticized in that it was done in a hotel room and not on a concert stage.  I’m sure a followup is in the works.

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