Friday, July 25, 2014

What Can Violins Teach Us?

Back in 2010 researchers conducted an experiment at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.  They asked 21 violinists to play three old Italian violins and three new ones to judge which sounded better.  When the experimenters found that the violinists couldn’t tell the old from the new, and in fact showed a slight preference for the new, they searched for reasons to explain it.  After all, there were many theories about the superior craftsmanship and wood quality arguing in favor of the opposite outcome.  Perhaps they tested too few instruments, the acoustics where substandard, or the violinists had too little time to make a valid judgment, less than 30 minutes.

In response to these objections, they asked the same question again this year with a redesigned experiment.  “The researchers asked 10 world-renowned soloists to choose a violin to hypothetically replace their own from a batch of six new and six old Italian violins, five of which were Stradivarius models. In the blind study, the violinist wore dark goggles and tested the instruments in 75-minute sessions, one in a rehearsal room and a 300-seat concert hall outside of Paris. Six of the 10 soloists chose new violins as their preference, and when comparing playing qualities of their favorite new violin and favorite old violin, they rated the new violin higher on average.”  Oops!

This reminds me of my story from New Year’s Eve 2012 about experts’ inability to distinguish fine wines from ordinary, red wine from white wine with red food coloring added, or expensive champagne from the grocery store variety.

Why do we continue to be sucked in by the opinion of these “experts” on subjects that are clearly a matter of taste and personal preference?  Violins can teach us that it wouldn’t hurt to exercise a little more skepticism in all areas.

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