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"Things that people think are 'special' are not so special after all when knowledge of the origin...

post #1 of 47
Thread Starter 

The title of this thread is a quote by Professor Dale Purves that appeared in an NPR story.

 

This came up in another thread regarding "tube sound" as an off-topic aside where I shared this story that appeared on NPR regarding a blind study that was conducted comparing 2 Stradavarius, 1 Guarneri, and 3  modern violins. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a very well regarded, high-impact scientific journal.

 

In this study, trained musicians were given the opportunity to identify the highly regard (and insanely expensive) old Italian violins from modern made violins.

Quote:
 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.

 

The results indicate that, despite the incredible reputation of the antique violins for their reputed superior sonics, trained musicians were unable to differentiate between these violins and modern violins under blind conditions.

 

Quote

The old Italians certainly sound great, but not necessarily better or even that different from the best new ones, he says. It's more in the mind, or ear, of the listener.

Dale Purves, a professor of neuroscience at Duke University, says the research "makes the point that things that people think are 'special' are not so special after all when knowledge of the origin is taken away."

 

 

This reminds me of the current state of the hi-fi world where using old vacuum tube technology in very expensive high-fidelity very often desired. Even more so, it is often claimed that very rare, old  tubes have superior sound to tubes manufactured in modern facilities. There appears to be a common nostalgia for these old technologies (or old violins) despite the lack of demonstrable sonic superiority over competently constructed modern versions.

 

I thought maybe there are some more examples (in audio or outside audio) where "Things that people think are 'special' are not so special after all when knowledge of the origin is taken away" applies. Anyone have examples?

 

Cheers

post #2 of 47

Well, there is wine.  Google blind wine test and get numerous examples of wine.

 

Premium vs lesser priced Vodka.

 

There is bottled water vs tap water.

 

There are all the aforementioned liquids in foam vs glass containers.

 

Numerous examples of similar sorts for various foods.  

 

Though there are positive results between major brands of ketchup, and peanut butter.  Of course there isn't the status with these there is with wine, vodka and pricy water.

 

The idea blind people's other senses are more acute doesn't pan out.

 

There is literature where famous successful books are submitted with different names and rejected by those considering whether or not to publish.  Or a few studies where famous works are compared with similar works and Charles Dickens for one example is judged inferior. 

 

Bicycle frames though not a ton of rigorous research there is some.

 

Seeing a pattern here.  When things are pure enough or close enough, price, rep, status tricks humans.  When there are large enough differences they are perceived, yet perversely those things that turn out not to be real seem to have a higher propensity to escalate on false perception with ever odder explanations and prices shoot for the stratosphere.  When constrained by real perceptible differences prices vary, but not to ridiculous levels like $200 bottles of wine, $10,000 DACs, $100 bottles of vodka, old violins worth a fortune, and of course audio cable worth thousands per meter.

 

Oh, and I forgot add in high quality forgeries of paintings by famous artists.  Advancing technology has uncovered more than a few which were forgeries that museums and experts judged worth millions.

post #3 of 47

the stradivarius thing made the news at the time, same with wine. it seems those things have to be sensational to interest people, truth isn't enough to make the news. still it's good to see a DBT that wasn't some advertisement or medical trial. and idd it shows how our other senses and knowledge always interact with what we try to evaluate.

I'm always a laughing stock because I need to close my eyes to critically listen to music. else it's "ok now the bass will come in, let's see how controlled and extended it sounds, wait for it... oh my! look at those boobs!" and I miss half the sounds.

post #4 of 47
Quote:
Originally Posted by castleofargh View Post
 

the stradivarius thing made the news at the time, same with wine. it seems those things have to be sensational to interest people, truth isn't enough to make the news. still it's good to see a DBT that wasn't some advertisement or medical trial. and idd it shows how our other senses and knowledge always interact with what we try to evaluate.

I'm always a laughing stock because I need to close my eyes to critically listen to music. else it's "ok now the bass will come in, let's see how controlled and extended it sounds, wait for it... oh my! look at those boobs!" and I miss half the sounds.


Seems to me if some boobs are getting in the way of your ears things could be worse. :wink_face:

post #5 of 47

Wine, same as instruments, is a matter of expertise. "Trained musicians" doesn't say much. Show me a DBT of a world class violonist who can't tell apart a modern violin from a Stradivarius, then we can argue about this. My 2c.

 

Another thing to consider is the placebo effect. People have gotten better on placebo drugs simply because their brain believed it was a real, effective drug. Can a musician not instinctively play the instrument better if he/she believes it is "better"? Can our brain not interpret the music to sound "better" if it believes the old tubes we use are superior? And regardless of whether the gear is in fact better or not, if the music does actually sound better even if due to our brain "maximizing our hearing potential", is it not worth it?

 

Don't be too quick to roll your eyes.


Edited by elmoe - 6/16/14 at 4:35am
post #6 of 47
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by elmoe View Post

Wine, same as instruments, is a matter of expertise. "Trained musicians" doesn't say much. Show me a DBT of a world class violonist who can't tell apart a modern violin from a Stradivarius, then we can argue about this. My 2c.

I did, that's what the study was. Here's the papers so you can read for yourself:
http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/03/1323367111

http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2012/01/02/1114999109?tab=author-info

Cheers
Edited by ab initio - 6/16/14 at 5:46am
post #7 of 47
Quote:
Originally Posted by ab initio View Post


I did, that's what the study was. Here's the papers so you can read for yourself:
http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/03/1323367111

http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2012/01/02/1114999109?tab=author-info

Cheers

 

Nothing in those links mentions anything about a "world class" violinist. Only "expert violinists", which doesn't say much of anything. Give me names, give me credentials, then we can argue. Any kid that's been playing the violin for more than 5 years can be considered an "expert".

post #8 of 47
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by elmoe View Post
 

 

Nothing in those links mentions anything about a "world class" violinist. Only "expert violinists", which doesn't say much of anything. Give me names, give me credentials, then we can argue. Any kid that's been playing the violin for more than 5 years can be considered an "expert".

This is the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not some hack online blog. When they write "expert violinist", they mean a proper expert violinist, not some high school kid that once won a talent show.

 

Quote: From the materials and methods section of http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2012/01/02/1114999109?tab=author-info
The experiment took advantage of the fine violinists, violin-makers, and violins
gathered in September 2010 for the Eighth International Violin Competition of
Indianapolis (IVCI), one of the most important international violin-playing
competitions.... Many of the 21
subjects were involved with the IVCI as contestants (four), jury members (two),
or members of the Indianapolis Symphony. Nineteen subjects described
themselves as professionals, 10 had advanced degrees in music, and 2 were
later chosen as competition laureates.


 

Quote: From PNAS commentary on http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/03/1323367111
In PNAS, Fritz et al. (1) follow up their groundbreaking
2012 paper with what will probably
be the final nail in the coffin for those who
would believe that old musical instruments
sound demonstrably better than new instruments.
Their study used six prized instruments,
Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesu” violins, and
six modern violins. World class violinists who
were literally blind to provenance (the violinists
wore goggles thatdramatically reduced their ability
to see) were given two opportunities to play
them: in a small salon and in a concert hall. They
were allowed to bring a friend to act as a second
judge. Their task was to rank order the violins
in terms of desirability and to label them as old
vs. new. These highly trained and highly discerning
musicians utterly failed at detecting old vs.
new and showed no consistent preferences.

 

Quote: The Abstract from http://m.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/03/1323367111
 Many researchers have sought explanations for the purported
tonal superiority of Old Italian violins by investigating varnish and
wood properties, plate tuning systems, and the spectral balance of
the radiated sound. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of
tonal superiority has been investigated scientifically only once
very recently, and results showed a general preference for new
violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new
violins from old. The study was, however, relatively small in terms
of the number of violins tested (six), the time allotted to each
player (an hour), and the size of the test space (a hotel room). In
this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian
violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min
sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat
concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own
for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new
instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of
the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more
highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection,
and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed
to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These
results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present
a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.

 

 

In both the papers, they make it clear in no uncertain terms that worlds class violinists could not differentiate between a Stradavarius and a modern violin. PNAS, in case you aren't familiar with scientific journals, is an extremely highly regarded, high impact scientific journal. Here is an excerpt from the editor of the most recent published article:

Quote:
 Significance
Some studies open new fields for investigation; this study
attempts to close a perennially fruitless one—the search for the
“secrets of Stradivari.” Great efforts have been made to explain
why instruments by Stradivari and other Old Italian
makers sound better than high-quality new violins, but without
providing scientific evidence that this is in fact the case.
Doing so requires that experienced violinists demonstrate
(under double-blind conditions) both a general preference for
Old Italian violins and the ability to reliably distinguish them
from new ones. The current study, the second of its kind, again
shows that first-rate soloists tend to prefer new instruments
and are unable to distinguish old from new at better than
chance levels.

 

Cheers


Edited by ab initio - 6/16/14 at 6:54am
post #9 of 47

I stand corrected then! That being said, I don't know a thing about violins, but when comparing a 1950s Fender Precision bass and a very high quality Japanese Precision bass copy (Tokai), the difference was day and night to me. Electronics certainly played a role in that though.

post #10 of 47
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by elmoe View Post
 

I stand corrected then! That being said, I don't know a thing about violins, but when comparing a 1950s Fender Precision bass and a very high quality Japanese Precision bass copy (Tokai), the difference was day and night to me. Electronics certainly played a role in that though.

I can certainly see that being the case. 

 

[Begin ancedote] One of the administrators at my old university was an administrator-by-day, musician-by-night and was in/headed several bands. He had a lot of gear. I went to see one of his bands perform once in a little Providence club called AS220... turns out it was a death/doom metal outfit and he had a wall of cabinets and amps in this little club: a pair of 8x10's and 3 4x12's with about 400W of total amplification for the two guitars and the bassist. It also turned out that I was the only one in the audience without a tattoo, black leather, and body piercings. Additionally, I was the only one in the audience in a Rush t-shirt, go figure.... Anyway, he was a bit of a gear head and we used to chat about amps and guitars all the time (when my research adviser was out of his office next door!).

 

This guy gave me one of the best pieces of advice I think I've ever gotten regarding (electric) guitars: Find an inexpensive solid body with the fret layouts and features that you want, with a straight neck, and then replace the pickups with whatever ones you want, since the pickups will be 90% of the sound on an electric guitar anyway.

 

Here's why this was great advice: 1) I was a really poor student at the time, so chasing a Les Paul/etc. was definitely out of question. 2) he was absolutely right, the pickups are such a major component of the actual sound, it doesn't really matter whether the headstock reads Fender, Gibson, PRS, Epiphone, Jackson, Squire, or Ibanez. If the fit is good, the fingerboard fits, the guitar is properly adjusted, then you can go a long way towards a sweet playing and sounding guitar with an inexpensive off-brand body in good condition with your choice of pickups.

 

The pickups and their placement relative to the bridge/neck will determine most of the sound. String choice as well. Same with bridge design. You can have any choice of those without spending a fortune and get pretty good results. 

 

There's something to be said for the craftsmanship in a fine guitar, the superior materials and hardware, the careful construction and tuning, etc. However, a whole lot of the cost of that goes into luxury. Certainly, great sound can be had for much less. If you take the same basic guitar body design and slap in the same electronics, I think one can get a really similar sound. If you throw in different electronics, then there's no reason to expect the same results.

 

Cheers

post #11 of 47
Quote:
Originally Posted by elmoe View Post
 

I stand corrected then! That being said, I don't know a thing about violins, but when comparing a 1950s Fender Precision bass and a very high quality Japanese Precision bass copy (Tokai), the difference was day and night to me. Electronics certainly played a role in that though.


There is also the 2005 or 2006 test where Itzhak Perlman  among others tried several old and new violins against new ones and the old Italian masters didn't stand out either.   The point was made in that publication about how one has to take into account the difference to the musician when he knows what he is playing.  I forget which, but one accomplished violinist used a good modern violin, and said it was regularly asked after a performance when compliments were made to the sound if he was playing a Strad or Guaneri?  In a sense using those gives instant credibility.  It also means the musician may have the opinion he is using the best and not feel worried about having the right thing to play upon.

post #12 of 47

I don't know whether credibility is important, but the assurance and peace of mind of knowing you're playing on something good / that you're used to certainly plays its part.

post #13 of 47
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by elmoe View Post
 

I don't know whether credibility is important, but the assurance and peace of mind of knowing you're playing on something good / that you're used to certainly plays its part.

This is certainly a valid point. However, in some rare examples, such as violins, that peace of mind could set you back $16 million:eek:

 

Cheers 

post #14 of 47
Quote:
Originally Posted by ab initio View Post

This is certainly a valid point. However, in some rare examples, such as violins, that peace of mind could set you back $16 millioneek.gif

Cheers 

Cost is relative, for a professional violinist who makes millions a year its a sound investment.
post #15 of 47
Thread Starter 

In the linked story, the violin was bought by an anonymous buyer who then loaned the instrument to the violinist. How many classically trained soloists make sufficient millions to write off 16 million as a work expense? I suspect there are plenty of equally high quality fine instruments that would make a much better business choice than a one of a kind rare antique. I think in this case the instrument was bought as a collector's item.

 

Cheers

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