A musical lesson in our ability to delude ourselves

What’s in a brand? The difference in how you hear something, at least where a violin is concerned.

Antonio Stradivari made over 1,000 violins and violas and some of them still survive, like the one the family of NPR reporter Nina Totenberg had restored recently.

They fetch millions at auction. Players love them.

If we think someone is playing one of Stradivari’s creations, we’re also likely to think it sounds better than it really does.

The Atlantic reports on blind tests, the results of which are published today, that when it comes to sound, listeners and players most often pick a new one over the Stradivari model.

The third and latest study took place immediately after the second, in the same Parisian hall. This time, having considered the violinists’ perspective, the team focused on the listeners. Seven of the same soloists played excerpts of Tchaikosky, Brahms, and Sibelius on the various violins, always pairing an old instrument with a new one.

Concertmaster Frank Almond once said that “a peculiar (and sublime) aspect of great old Italian instruments is that the sound somehow expands and gains more complexity from a distance, especially in a concert hall.” But the audience in Paris almost always felt that the new violins projected better than the new ones, whether played alone or with an orchestral accompaniment. And when asked to guess whether each violin was old or new, the audience did no better than random chance.

Journalist Peter Somerford, who was one of the listeners, wrote, “When deciding between new and old, it was a challenge to banish some assumptions: why shouldn’t that dark, powerful, Guarneri-sounding violin with a lovely rich mid-range be a new instrument?” In fact, it often was. “The day was quite a revelation,” says Swan. “It seemed that we could all relax about the issue of projection, content in the knowledge that a good soloist and a good violin will succeed in being heard by a concert audience.”

A year later, the team repeated their experiment. They used a larger hall in New York, recruited more listeners—and got the same results. This time, they asked the listeners to judge every pair of violins and explicitly say which they preferred. The new ones won again.

What’s the takeaway for the rest of us?

We have the ability to delude ourselves, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong says. When we are not blindfolded, our anticipations influence our perceptions.

  • RBHolb

    I think it was John Steinbeck who said “Our capacity for self-delusion is endless.”

    You can see some parallel between this test and advertising. The listeners were conditioned to think–to know–that a Stradivarius sounds better. Therefore, if they prefer the sound, it must be a Stradivarius. Advertising and marketing work in a similar way. A lot of it involves telling the public what they want, or what they like. It is successful because people are willing to accept that judgment.

    • MikeB

      Diet Coke – just for the taste of it. Ugh.

      Miller Lite – tastes great, less filling. Perhaps half true.

      Advertising works.

  • Postal Customer

    How about that wine study several years ago? Here’s a glass of $5 wine, here’s a glass of $50 wine. Which is better? Everyone picked the $50 wine. Turns out they were the same wine.

    • wjc

      I did a similar test in my house several years ago. I had a group of people sample cabernets priced from $5 to $40. I asked them to rank their favorites. There was absolutely no correlation between price and ranking and very little agreement between the various tasters. That too was eye-opening.

      How many people’s palates can distinguish between various wines? How many people’s ears can distinguish between various violins. If you can’t tell the difference, the difference doesn’t matter.

  • Rob

    That’s why the Voice is such a fun show – the blind auditions totally eliminate the ability of anticipation or a singer’s physical appearance to influence the perceptions of the judges.

  • Angry Jonny

    Not gonna lie. I nailed it on the first listen. The high end tone from the non-Strad popped out. It’s like trying to show people how to distinguish between a tube amp and a solid state knock-off. Either you hear it or you don’t.

  • BJ

    Reminds me of the audio guy I used to sell parts to when I managed a Radio Shack several life times ago. He was so proud of this thing he built he played it for me and told me to then listen on a standard setup ($50 dollar setup vs his $5000) – I couldn’t tell the difference. I could tell the difference in my pay check when he came in so I told him how much better his setup was.