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In the world of violins, the names Stradivari and Guarneri are sacred. For three centuries, violin makers and scientists have studied the instruments made by these Italian craftsmen. So far, no one has figured out what makes their sound different. But a new study suggests maybe they aren't so different after all. NPR's Christopher Joyce explains.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: OK, here's a test. We're going to hear a musical phrase from Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto in D Major," played twice by the same musician. One is played on a Stradivarius, the other on a violin made in 1980. See if you can tell the difference. Ready?


JOYCE: Pretty sweet. Now try this one.


JOYCE: Tough choice. But a pro could pick the Stradivarius, right? Well, a research team recently tried to find out. They gathered professional violinists in a hotel room in Indianapolis. They had six violins - two Strads, a Guarneri and three modern instruments. Everybody wore dark goggles so they couldn't see which violin was which. Then the researchers told the musicians: These are all fine violins, and at least one is a Stradivarius. Play, then judge the instruments. Joseph Curtin, a violin maker from Michigan, was one of the researchers.

JOSEPH CURTIN: And there was no evidence that people had any idea what they were playing. That really surprised me.

JOYCE: Curtin says of the 17 players who were asked to choose which were the old Italians...

CURTIN: Seven said they couldn't. Seven got it wrong, and only three got it right.

JOYCE: Claudia Fritz designed the experiment. She's an acoustics physicist from France's National Center for Scientific Research and a flute player, by the way. She says this test was more rigorous than previous ones because it was double-blind - no one knew which instrument was which until after the test. And this one asked players, not listeners, to choose. Fritz says some of the players told her they were certain which were the new violins and which were the old Italians.

CLAUDIA FRITZ: One said, oh, I love the sound of this one. It has really the sound of an old Italian, oh, just so warm.

JOYCE: Warm maybe but it wasn't old. It was new. When Fritz asked the players which violins they'd like to take home, almost two-thirds chose a violin that turned out to be new. She's found the same in tests with other musical instruments.

FRITZ: I haven't found any consistency whatsoever. Never. People don't agree. They just like different things.

JOYCE: In fact, the only statistically obvious trend in the choices was that one of the Stradivarius violins was the least favorite, and one of the modern instruments was slightly favored. Well, when you say this now, I'm thinking back to all the efforts in the research that's gone on for years and years about the varnish, could it be the wood? But if there's no consistency, all of that is useless.

FRITZ: Yes. It is.


JOYCE: But on second thought, Fritz says, studying the old Italians can help determine what sounds people like and how they make that choice. Preferences are as much about people, she says, as old wood, and everybody is different. Violin maker Curtin has spent years trying to capture the quality of these Old World instruments. Still, he's not discouraged by the results.

CURTIN: If new violins get better, it doesn't mean old ones get worse. The question is, can the sound be gotten from a new instrument as well as an old one?

JOYCE: Apparently, it can. The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.


JOYCE: Oh, wait, the test. Which one of the two phrases we played came from a Stradivarius? Well, it was the second one.



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