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How Do You Determine the Quality of a Violin

This is a controversial and passionate subject in the string instrument world. To give you an idea of just how contentious it is, we'll present multiple sides of the discussion, starting with a quote from the well-known and reputable Jay Ifshin, of Ifshin Violins shop located in El Cerrito, California.

Ifshin has nearly 50 years of experience designing, making, repairing, and restoring violins. His shop is recognized world-wide for the sale and restoration of fine string instruments and bows. He has an extensive, personal collection of rare Italian violins and French bows. Even so, his violin shop only provides appraisals for instruments and bows that are purchased from their shop. As his website states:

Any sort of written appraisal is a legal document and if necessary, must be defended in court. In recent years, a number of our colleagues in the violin world, all well known experts, have had to face expensive litigation simply because someone, in some cases not even a real expert, disagreed with their judgment...We also know of experts who have been sued simply for making an offhand and unwritten comment about an instrument or bow that was showed to them, later disagreed with by another ‘expert.’”

That sums up the primary issue when determining the quality of a violin. It is completely subjective, and that subjectivity is the cause for controversy and drama, potentially in the form of expensive litigation.

Determining violin quality from a technical angle

There are certain features that help determine the quality of a violin when you first purchase or upgrade your instrument. These include:

  • Being built by a reputable string instrument luthier or manufacturer
  • Structural integrity
  • Visible craftsmanship (no gaps in seams, even varnish, a straight neck, no creaking when it’s handled or when gentle pressure is added to the top or sides, a deep, detailed scroll, etc.)
  • The production of rich, resonant, and warm sounds when played by an experienced violinist

This is why StringOvation’s team believes that playing a high-quality, mid-range contemporary violin with fantastic sound (such as the Revelle Model 600), makes it difficult to imagine paying 10-times or more for a collector instrument, especially for a beginning or intermediate violinist.

That said, violin collectors of the world may beg to differ. Among them, there is simply no comparison between the best-made modern violin and an historic, Italian, or Viennese classic — regardless of what the science says.

Old instruments sound better than new instruments. Or do they?

Perhaps one of the largest discussions within the “higher- versus lower-quality violin” debate is whether or not older violins sound better than contemporary violins. Many violin experts insist older violins, especially those made by iconic luthiers such as Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppet Guarneri “del Gesu,” are higher-quality (i.e. play and sound notably better) than contemporary violins. Yet, scientists have repeatedly proved them wrong using blind tests.

Scientists, intrigued at the idea that perhaps the combination of sentiment and historic instrument lore “enhanced” an expert’s idea of whether an instrument played and sounded better than a contemporary instrument, set out to find the truth. You can read a full, published research article, Expert Violinists Can’t Tell Old From New on the PNAS website.

The scientists wanted to put the theory that antique, artisan violins were obviously and assuredly better than today’s violins to the test. The scientists concluded:

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.”

Ready for the most interesting tidbit? Even when presented with the scientists’ findings that, “These highly trained and highly discerning musicians utterly failed at detecting old vs. new and showed no consistent preferences,” the participating violin experts refused to acknowledge it and still held their belief that older violins sound better. Researchers reported the violin experts, “...remained unconvinced, even after having seen the results with their own eyes (or heard them with their own ears).”

The experts speak

Look no further than theviolinchannel.com, the New York Times, or The Strad and you’ll find examples of violin experts with completely divergent opinions about older versus newer violins.

Barton Samual Rotberg (violinchannel.com)

“A common complement for a fine new violin is ’It has that ‘old violin’ sound.’ To be fair, a violinist may certainly find a quality in a new instrument to be reminiscent of an old violin previously experienced. However, if the new violin has that quality as well, why not instead confirm that we can no longer attribute that quality to the violin’s age? To flip the argument, what do old violin enthusiasts find lacking in new instruments? I have heard them described as less mature, less responsive, raw, brash, tinny, or harsh. Yet, I have never seen a violinist pick up an antique violin, find these characteristics, and comment that it sounds new.”

Isaac Stern (New York Times)

“The fiddle's real value is the way it sounds to the performer, the way it becomes a part of his total approach towards music, how it lends itself to the individual's musical and expressive needs….” Stern was known for stating that he had never heard a modern instrument that could match an older instrument for “power, quality, and nuance.” Stern favored violins made by Stradivari, and believed that in addition to Stradivari’s genius, wood-quality and Stradivari’s nearly mythically varnish properties are essential factors in his instruments' notable sound.

Stéphane Tran Ngoc (nature.com)

Danish violinist Stéphane Tran Ngoc (who, by the way, plays a Francesco Gobetti violin of 1709) was a participant in the aforementioned research comparing old and new violins. He prefers the sound of old violins saying, “It’s frequently necessary to spend much more time on old instruments in order to know how to make them sound good.... A great old Italian violin will develop and will sound better and better as it is played, unlike many of the modern instruments.”

Musicians — It’s up to you to determine the quality of any violin for yourself

The more experts you ask, the more contradictory and divergent responses you will find. It seems that, as the scientists in the old vs. new violin studies agreed, a musician’s individual feelings and beliefs around the old vs. new instrument debate are still valid, regardless of what scientists determined via blind testing.

The researchers acknowledged, “...it would be a mistake to say that scientists' way of knowing is superior. Scientists haven't written ‘The Messiah’ or ‘The Rites of Spring.’ Artists' intuitions and the meandering, nonlinear path of inspiration yield results that could not have been gotten any other way.”

For another discussion, read our post, High-End vs. Low-End Violins, What's the Big Deal?

What do you think?

Have you had the opportunity to play a collector-quality violin? What did you feel while playing it? Did it sound better than your current, modern violin? The StringOvation team would love to read your opinions and comments on our Facebook page. Let the rich, healthy, and respectful debate continue…!