Jan 03 2012

Testing Violins

There is an historical pattern with which skeptics and scientists should be very familiar – the dubious phenomenon that vanishes under double-blind testing. We saw this with N-rays, which now stands as a famous cautionary tale. The ephemeral rays could only be seen by those who knew what to look for, mostly French scientists. The introduction of a blinded test, however, quickly proved N-rays to be all illusion and wishful thinking. We have seen this with mesmerization, homeopathy, and a long list of other useless medical interventions, with electromagnetic sensitivity, and recently with the Power Bands. In countless cases over hundreds of years many people were utterly convinced of the reality of a phenomenon, and they could even apparently demonstrate or detect it (when they knew what they were supposed to see), but under blinded conditions the phenomenon evaporated.

It is for this reason that scientists do not (and should not) accept the reality of a new phenomenon until it has been demonstrated in such a way that bias and illusion have been ruled out. There is a general tendency to underestimate the degree to which bias and suggestibility can influence perception, no matter how many times it is experienced.

Perception is especially vulnerable to suggestion, and the influence of other senses. For example, Morrot, Brochet, and Dubourdieu performed a study in which they colored white wine red, and then had 54 tasters describe the wine. They used red metaphors to describe the wine, as would typically be used to describe a red, rather than white, wine.

In another study researchers exposed wine tasters to positive and negative statements about the wine; they did this both before and after they tasted the wine, but before they reported their impression of the wine. The comments affected the tasters’ evaluations of the wine when they occurred before, but not after, tasting the wine. This suggests that the tasters were not just following what they were told about the wine despite their experience, but rather than the positive and negative statements actually affected their experience of the taste of the wine.

In yet another study the price tag associated with wine affected the experience of “pleasantness” of the wine. There seems to be a consistent pattern in the research – subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

With wine the question that many people have is this – can even experts discern the quality difference alleged to be present in really expensive wines? This is actually a more generic question that can be applied to many areas.

One such question that I confronted recently was the quality of instruments. My older daughter has been playing the flute for several years and is dedicated enough that we thought it was time to get her a finer quality flute than the old student version she was using.

There is no question that there is a significant difference in quality of construction and the materials used between the low end “student” flutes and the professional flutes. Flutes start at about $200 at the low end, and student models go to the upper hundreds. Professional flutes start at 1-2 thousand and go up from there.

This much is what I expected, about an order of magnitude difference between low end an high end flutes. But when investigating what was available we found that professional flutes had a wide range of prices, from 2 thousand to 40 thousand dollars (leaving out rare or historical instruments).

This made me seriously wonder if there was a real difference in quality between a $2000 flute and $40,000 flute. I have still not answered that question to my satisfaction, but I suspect that for about 4-5k you can get a solid silver gold-plated flute that has as good construction as any flute out there. Beyond that I suspect you are paying for prestige, not craftsmanship. (I wonder what professional flutists think of this, if any read this blog.)

I was reminded of this again with a recent article in which a researcher had 17 professional violinists try to tell the difference among six violins – two Stradivarius, one Guarneri, and three modern violins. They were literally blinded to which violin they were playing (they were blind-folded). Seven stated they could not tell which one(s) were a Stradivarius, seven guessed incorrectly, and three guessed correctly. This is consistent with random guessing.

This was a small study, but appears to have been properly blinded. The subjects were all professional violinists. If these results are reliable, that implies that a well-constructed modern violin can be just as good as the iconic Stradivarius. I am more interested, however, in the fact that this supports a larger body of research showing that people will often perceive what they expect, and so any evidence based upon unblinded perception is dubious.

Blinding is one of the most basic aspects of scientific methodology. It is well established that without blinding results can be entirely fictitious, and it is likely that people will observe exactly what they expect to. And yet it is still common practice to rely upon unblinded observation in everyday life, even for controversial conclusions.

That is one skeptical lesson I would truly like the public in general to learn – don’t trust unblinded subjective experience. It is best to assume that there is no practical limit to the extent to which we can deceive ourselves.

42 responses so far

42 thoughts on “Testing Violins”

  1. gfb1 says:

    I too, read the original ‘violin’ article and found it fascinating.
    But, here’s a funny story.

    About 10 years ago, I finally started taking electric guitar lessons and bought a used, beat-up, travel guitar. After a year or so, I decided I was in it for the long haul and wanted to purchase a ‘good’ guitar.

    My teacher dutifully hauled me around the state visiting music stores and handed me guitars to play.
    Now here’s the funny part; all guitars were plugged into his amplifier (which I, of course, had to carry) and I was blindfolded before being handed a guitar!!

    He said that too many of his students chose guitars because of how they were painted, as opposed to how comfortable to play, or even better, regardless of how the guitar sounded.
    I promised not to peak — and he promised not to hand me a pink guitar.

  2. BobbyG says:

    “Blinding is one of the most basic aspects of scientific methodology. It is well established that without blinding results can be entirely fictitious, and it is likely that people will observe exactly what they expect to. An yet it is still common practice to rely upon unblinded observation in everyday life, even for controversial conclusions.”

    See Kahneman on “priming” effects in his new book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

  3. juga says:

    I read an article about the violin test (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/01/02/violinists-can%E2%80%99t-tell-the-difference-between-stradivarius-violins-and-new-ones/). It does point out that the new violins compared to the Stradivarius still cost $30k+. Therefore, this probably does not support the view that there’s no difference between a $2k and $40k flute.

    I’m an engineer and it used to be very difficult for me not to see an instrument as purely a mechanical device. However, I now have the view that there are subtleties and interactions within the physical laws that govern the instrument’s behaviour that are not well understood from an engineering or mathematical point of view, although they are understood by people who’ve spent a lifetime making instruments. To give an example, my daughter recently tried out some violin bows. Even I could hear the difference between a cheap one and an expensive one. How can this be possible when it’s just a piece of wood holding some stretched horse hair? The dealer explained that the speed of sound in the wood of the bow is crucial as it forms a single resonant system with the vibrating string. This is still an engineering explanation but taught me not to view these things too simplistically.

    This is about more than quality of construction.

  4. PScott says:

    Awesome post. Juga, can’t the resonance of a particular bow be measured? I’m confused by what you define as qualities that are impossible measure. Resonance can be measured and, though I’m no acoustic engineer or whatever– so I would can a variety of other variables that go into how we perceive sound.

  5. powerhair says:

    Although there are differences engineering-wise between a cheap violin and a $10,000+ one, the point is that once you pass the $10,000 mark (and we are talking multi millions here), there really is no difference in the quality, only the perception of it.

    I read an interview with a violin seller where he commented that players would be demonstrating to him how terrible these new ($10,000) violins sound, but he would be watching their bowing arm – the reason they sounded terrible was because they’d drop their elbow and bow terribly! Hence the importance of blinding in these experiments.

  6. starskeptic says:

    # juga
    ” Even I could hear the difference between a cheap one and an expensive one”
    —the post isn’t about that difference…

    “It does point out that the new violins compared to the Stradivarius still cost $30k+. Therefore, this probably does not support the view that there’s no difference between a $2k and $40k flute.”
    —there’s a lot more variation in the construction of a violin as opposed to a flute…

  7. BobbyG says:

    Wine? One it gets up above ten bucks, I have a difficult time correlating price and taste.

    “The deep resistance to the demystification of expertise is illustrated by the reaction of the European wine community to Ashenfelter’s formula for predicting the price of Bordeaux wines. Ashenfelter’s formula answered a prayer: one might thus have expected that wine lovers everywhere would be grateful to him for demonstrably improving their ability to identify the wines that later would be good. Not so. The response in French wine circles, wrote The New York Times, ranged “somewhere between violent and hysterical.” Ashenfelter reports that one oenophile called his findings “ludicrous and absurd.” Another scoffed, “It is like judging movies without actually seeing them.”

    Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 228-229).

  8. SARA says:

    # powerhair – that is exactly what I was wondering as I read the article. It would interesting to see if a musician would play “better” because he thought he held a Stradivarius. Extrapolating from these studies, it seems possible.

    And since that is key to musicians – playing at their best, I wonder how many musicians let the mental block of having an “inferior” instrument stop them from achieving their best performance. (unconsciously of course.) Or perhaps its just the illusion of the “excellent” instrument that allows them to step up a level that they didn’t know they had.

  9. eean says:

    “research showing that people will often perceive what they expect”

    doesn’t this actually mean that Stradivarius violins are better under normal concert conditions? In the case of violins and wine (and not like N rays) their whole purpose is to be perceived well. I guess this is getting almost philosophical. 🙂

    I read about this story yesterday, my first thought was that it was something the skeptics guide should talk about. Pleasantly unsurprised to see the story here.

  10. eean says:

    @Juha well I think the point is that if people are capable of deluding themselves about a million dollar violin versus a 30k violin, then they could easily be doing the same regarding a $40k flute versus a $5k flute. Just because something is generally considered to be better by musicians doesn’t mean it is. Dr. Novella doesn’t want to be an easy mark.

  11. DevoutCatalyst says:

    There have been a number of attempts in recent decades to discover and duplicate the secrets of the Stradivarius, wonder if this new inquiry will tend to take the wind out of the sails of that pursuit. Wonder what Stradivari himself would do today, what with new materials and manufacturing techniques. Would he use blinding to improve the violin further? Wouldn’t you?

  12. As I tried to make clear, there is definitely a difference between a cheap instrument and a finely crafted instrument, both in materials and the time, care, and even artistry in construction. For each type of instrument I imagine there is a cost to quality relationship – that that this curve will peak at some level. This level is different for each instrument.

    Stated another way, my point is that the cost to quality curve is not linear throughout the entire price range of the instrument. It probably increased rapidly at the low end, then more slowly at the upper end, and then flattens out entirely. But there may still be an order of magnitude range of price above the peak of discernible quality, and that increase in price depends upon prestige and perception, not the reality of quality.

    The same is true for many things, not just instruments.

    The fact that experts could not tell the difference between a 30k and multi-million dollar violin supports the above view. Although, the other element here in price is historical value, not just perceived superiority.

    Regarding flutes, I admitted that I just don’t know where the peak in quality is. I suspect it is in the several thousand dollar range, but I would welcome an expert perspective.

  13. jaranath says:

    In helping my niece research and select a violin, I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of good skeptical advice and reviews. It boiled down to “watch out for these physical flaws or features, then test a bunch of models in your price range until one ‘wows’ you, and don’t be afraid if that one’s much cheaper than you expected”. Some of them even flatly stated that you might not actually be able to distinguish many of them blind, but that confidence, comfort and pleasure in the instrument counted for a lot (even if it only made you happier playing it). For those who need to feel they have something special, they pointed out that the cheaper mass-produced violins have multiple makers and lots of variation in materials, so every now and then you’ll find a budding master craftsman using a good batch of wood. 🙂

  14. Fred Cunningham says:

    I recall a study made on flutes about 20 years ago. The study compared flutes made from precious metal with other material. The finding was the material was not very important but the workmanship was. I think that the stiffness of the tube was all that counted as far as material was concerned. However, people tended to think that a silver flute would produce a “brighter” sound but blinded listening found that was not true. I wonder what could be done with carbon fiber.

  15. lucicap says:

    Slightly different topic- I think it is interesting how one can identify specific players just by listening. Great examples are John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, and Thelonious Monk. As far as jazz is concerned these musicians have very distinct styles and ways of playing and composing. I came to appreciate jazz later then other musical genres and one of my buddies kind of tutored me. After having heard many staple albums by these and other musicians I found myself w the ability to identify them on new pieces that I had never heard. It became fun before going out to the bars on the weekends, sitting around with good beer or wine listening to pieces and identifying the players and different style characteristics. One can of course be fooled the greater a legacy each player had, as their influence can be heard in many others. Does anyone know of studies looking at this phenomenon? I guess this would be considered an anecdotal account , but I would consider them small blinded trials that we performed those many Friday and Saturday nights listening to great jazz.

  16. Todd W. says:

    This reminds me of another study I heard about at one point (though of course, now, I can’t remember where or when, so, grain of salt, people – might even have been one of the studies referenced by Dr. Novella). Looking at violins, it wasn’t necessarily the cost that affected the quality of the sound, but rather little things like the spacing between the tail piece and bridge, thickness/shape of the body, curve of the neck/fingerboard and so on. In short, things that affected the player’s comfort.

    And I’d venture that player comfort is as important, if not more so, than the materials used to make the instrument.

  17. notmygnome says:

    I play flute professionally. Personally, I prefer the sound of of my own playing on silver rather than gold, but I can’t tell the difference when others play.

    In school, a popular story was that Rampal once declared that “this” was how gold sounds and “this” was how silver sounds, playing both examples on his silver flute.

    When I Googled this a few minutes ago to check, I found Jen Cluff’s website, which repeats that story and links to a clip of Galway playing the same passage on silver, gold, and his famous platinum flute to show the “difference” to an audience. http://www.jennifercluff.com/goldsilver.htm

    Check out her whole post: she also links to several flute-specific articles that echo the violin study’s results.

  18. HHC says:

    If you have a trained ear combined with inherited factor for distinction of sound, you can detect the difference in a violin, flute, piano etc. The three musicians in the study who could tell the difference had the better “ears.” Jean- Pierre Rampal is my favorite flutist. He used a gold flute with a darker sound, from 1869 Louis Lot No. 1375. From 1958 on, Rampal used William S. Haynes gold flute from the company in Boston. Haynes modeled his flute after Louis Lot.

  19. Hoc – i have to disagree. That is like saying that in a test of ESP where the overall results are consistent with guessing, the 2 or 3 subjects who did better than average were the real psychics. At the very least the violinists who got it right should be independently tested to see if they just got lucky.

  20. HHC says:

    The three could be tested, I suggest neuropsychological tests. But the three musicians need to be in another study with another set of valuable instruments to see if they can continue their “winning” skills.

  21. JF says:

    I asked my flutist wife, (I’m a professional oboe player), and we think the peak in quality, as you say, would be in the “handmade, silver, professional” range. You can pay more and get a noticable difference, but not necessarily better sound or quality. Instruments with the exact same specs will usually sound surprisingly different, so yes, blind testing is normal, as is spending months searching for the perfect match. About violins: no big surprise that 30k instruments can compare to a stradivarius. The prices of these things have been driven up by the collectors. The differences are probably slight, and wouldn’t pop up in a test just like that.

  22. elmer mccurdy says:

    But what’s of interest to me is how those flautists teachers may have helped them learned to play as they did. The teachers probably used a lot of vague language like “Play through more!” or “Not so strident!” They probably used visualizations and gesticulations and emotions, reacting to subtle changes in timbre, interacting intuitively with the students over a period of many years. Can these sorts of techniques be tested through blinded studies? No. Such is life.

  23. Murmur says:

    @Steven Novella – I had jsut written this post:

    “@HHC The simple fact that the results were consistent with guessing would make the likelihood of those three having some kind of “winning” skill quite low, as if they did in fact have this skill, it would mean that none of the other musicians had guessed correctly, which is highly improbable (if it is simply a guessing game) or would suggest that the cheaper violins sound best to the average professional violinist.”

    when I realised something…

    The study had 17 participants, of which 3 guessed correctly, 7 gave no answer, and the other 7 gave “wrong” answers. Which leads me to think that actually, there might be some significance in the study results. If we are going to exclude the 7 no answers from the results, then we must consider that out of 10 who did give an answer, 30% were in fact correct, which would point towards the Stradivarius sounding distinctive to a trained ear. It would also be interesting to see which violins the 7 who guessed wrong chose. And of the 7 who gave no answer, why did they say this? Why were they given the choice of a null answer? (In this kind of study, I could suggest that the “Don’t know” response would skew the results).

    A larger study would need to be taken, it is too easy to argue either side with the study quoted.

  24. Gallenod says:

    Finally, a topic where I’m actually qualified to comment. 🙂

    I’m a former professional musician on low brass (trombone, euphonium, and tuba). I did a masters degree in performance on all three at Northwestern University (1980) and my research project was on design and acoustical properties of brass instruments. Yeah, it’s not flutes or violins, but some of the same issues apply.

    Student level instruments are made cheaply out of inexpensive materials and through repetitive, cookie-cutter processes with as much automation as they can get away with. The body of the instrument, be it a wooden violin or guitar or a metal flute or trombone, has acoustical properties related to the mass of the material and how it’s shaped and fitted together. Better quality instruments use better materials (i.e. denser metals and woods, better plating or varnish, etc.) and involve more hands on crafting of the final product.

    The results are not alway conclusive, but in general better quality instruments (not just more expensive ones) will sound better for a variety of reasons not always due to their acoustics. This is particularly relevant to brass instruments, where an instrument will work for one player but not another. Sometimes it’s the size, sometimes it’s the air resistance, and sometimes the size of the wrap (how the pipes are wound and bent) either helps or hinders posture. (i.e. “player comfort,” as Todd mentioned.)

    I’m not an expert on flutes. While I did learn to play one at one point, I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice. If she has a flute teacher, enlist them in the search, or try looking for an online forum where they discuss flutes. (Bearing in mind that there are the same variety of objective and subjective posters on those forums as there are anywhere else.) That said, better quality flutes will be made of denser metals, the keys and linkages will be tighter and more solid, and the shape of the instrument will be “truer” in terms of warpage and consitency of the bore. It will feel more solid to hold and play, resonate better, and have better intonation than an assembly line student model. (Providing the player plays well enough to take advantage of it.)

    Call me if your local high school band director convinces your daughter to trombone or euphonium; I can help more with that. 🙂

    I will comment on the violin test, though, by saying that listening to yourself play an instrument and listening to someone else play an instrument are two very different experiences. From my own experience, I don’t really hear myself play the same way I can hear other people play, so it doesn’t surprise me that many of the violinists had trouble distinguising between instruments while they were playing them. The sound is different when you’re holding the instrument.

    I’ve heard peoplle playing Strads next to people playing contemporary violins, and while the folks with the multi-million dollar violins are generally truly superior players, played next to each other the instruments do sound different if you know what to listen for (or if you have a device capable of listening to and displaying the overtones produced). That said, “better” is a very relative term where instrument sound is concerned. Some listeners might prefer the sound of a cheaper instrument just because they’re not used to (or haven’t been conditioned to) listen for a particular tone or timbre. And if the listener has only ever heard electronic reproduction (earbuds, etc.), any live instrument is going to sound strange and different. So, for example, while I can hear differences in musical instruments after many years of performing, most wine tastes pretty much the same to me.

    Your mileage may vary.

  25. notmygnome says:

    @elmer mccurdy:

    It’s both more and less of what you said. My teachers would say “Play more RED” or yellow, or whatever, which is rather less arbitrary than “strident”. On the other hand, I also had a book by Trevor Wye that explained exactly what the “tone colors” were supposed to mean and teachers who’d play me examples.

    I wonder sometimes if this is a sort of learned synthasia?

  26. joesmosax says:

    I’ve no doubt there is a strong effect between perceived value and preference but I think there could have easily been some pretty big problems with this study and a few flawed premises.

    First off Strads are not universally regarded as ‘the best’ violins by top professionals. I think most top professionals would immediately tell you that in terms of sound and quality- any of those six instruments are about as good as it gets and it comes down to the subjective judgement of the player at that point. Many of todays top soloists and chamber musicians prefer modern instruments(or historic instruments worth orders of magnitude less than a strad)- yes even those who could afford a Strad are going for modern instruments in many cases. Hilary Hahn plays a Vuillaume(about 100k) and some members of Emerson String Quartet play modern instruments as well as other major soloists.

    Are Strads great? Yes of course, but the value of these instruments lies mostly in their history and rarity- they are practically art pieces. Thus it is actually not surprising at all that anyone would prefer a modern instrument in a blind test. Was the assumption that the players could tell which was the Strad by picking the one that sounded/felt the best? If so, I think that’s a seriously flawed approach.

    Strads vary wildly from instrument to instrument and are likely to feel and sound subpar if they have not been set up by an expert. I don’t know where these two strads came from- but you can’t just grab a strad out of a museum and play it. My wife was picking out a new violin recently and the shop owner, who was a friend of a friend let her try out a 100k instrument that he had in his collection. It wasn’t set up for real playing yet and thus sounded actually worse than what was in our price range(under 8k).

    What is the definition of expert in this case? Many of the finest violinists will never get to play a strad in their life(let alone the other fine instruments in the collection). How could they be expected to know which was which, having no familiarly with these types of instruments? Best is so subjective- the important question is whether or not people can tell a difference in sound and even better consistently identify which is which. A better test might have been to allow them to play the instruments- knowing what they were playing then to randomize them, blind the players and see if they could tell which was which. Can a player and listener consistently identify which instruments are which if they are given multiple listenings? My guess would be yes. My guess is even many lay persons could tell the difference- especially when just two are presented. In fact- that is actually a great way to pick out an instrument. Play a group of two or three fiddles- pick the best and move on to another group of 2 or three.

    Despite agreeing generally with the conclusion- small sample size, the variable nature of the instruments and the experience of these experts makes this study meaningless in my opinion.

  27. Apparently the strads were being actively used – not museum pieces, and they were the instruments of some of the experts in the study – so they had experience with playing at least one strad. But yes, it was a small study, and that caveat applies.

  28. joesmosax says:

    @Steven Novella

    Very interesting…I’d be curious to see if the experts who lent their instruments were able to recognize which were theirs?

  29. Woody says:

    As notmygnome suggested – enlist a synaesthete to listen to the notes produced by the different instruments and describe which notes “look”, “taste” or “feel” better.
    It would be interesting if synaesthetes were better at differentiating the instruments when blinded compared to experts.

  30. elmer mccurdy says:

    notmygnome: That sounds like an interesting book. Do you know the title? The thing about playing more “red” reminds me that I’ve heard that people with perfect pitch often hear notes as colors, but I take it you’re talking about timbre.

  31. notmygnome says:

    “A Trevor Wye Practice Book for the Flute: Volume 1, Tone “

  32. ChrisH says:

    jaranath:For those who need to feel they have something special, they pointed out that the cheaper mass-produced violins have multiple makers and lots of variation in materials, so every now and then you’ll find a budding master craftsman using a good batch of wood.

    We were lucky that when my daughter graduated to a full size 1/1 violin we had her grandmother’s first violin. It was bought used in Victoria, BC sometime in the late 1930s as her first full size violin, and was replaced later with a different one when she performed with her quartet and local orchestras. But then we also learned how important it was to find someone who can fix violins, though fortunately about the only thing it needed was a bridge and some string pegs, and some cleaning. The bow also needed to be haired (not re-haired, as it was not used for so long, the horse hair had been removed).

    In the course of her years using the violin before quitting completely in middle school that violin was worked on a few more times (another new bridge, several strings and the bow was re-haired). The violin maker thinks it was made in Germany sometime late in the 19th and early in the 20th century (though old does not make it good, it just shows how used instruments get passed on).

    Sadly daughter does not play it any more, but she does have very good pitch (out of tune pianos annoy her), and with only a few lessons can competently play her grandfather’s piano (a late 1930s Heintzman, the “Canadian Steinway”). She could sight read well enough to skip some required practicing.

    While I hate people who tell a blogger what to write about, it might be cool for Dr. Novella to do a blog post on the difference between the fictional “Mozart Effect” (having babies or kids listen to music) versus children actually learning how to play an instrument.

    I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. I had two whole months of piano lessons, and went through two piano teachers. I just had the good fortune to marry into a musical family. So anything I know about music I literally learned through my children (I also have saxophone stories, with marching band highlights, and have video evidence of my son getting mixed up with the cheerleaders).

    Which is ironic because when I worked I analyzed vibrations in structures (trying to prevent the wobble you get in shopping carts on much more expensive vehicles), so I know the physics very well (I find it amusing that I used to explain “random vibration” to stress engineers as the frequencies you get by mindlessly banging piano keys, which pretty much describes my piano lessons). This is why I enjoy the Scopes Monkey Choir blog and podcast.

  33. ChrisH says:

    I guess it does look like I am quoting jaranath, but it was supposed to look like this:

    For those who need to feel they have something special, they pointed out that the cheaper mass-produced violins have multiple makers and lots of variation in materials, so every now and then you’ll find a budding master craftsman using a good batch of wood.

    We can has “preview” please?

  34. jaranath says:

    I don’t think I can excuse HTLM tpyos, ChrisH. 😉

  35. ChrisH says:

    :-p … and it is “HTML” 😉

  36. HHC says:

    Playing instruments require skill sets, vision for reading music, fine hearing and musical listening skills, proper technique for arms, hands. legs and feet, modulation of emotion to enhance one’s playing, and years of physical practice. It is not a good analogy to say ESP studies are equivalent to learned skill sets. ESP, like having a hunch about a held picture or what’s happening next door requires no learned or practiced technique. But if you live next to someone with predictable habits or if you know the standard materials that people study ESP with you can make an educated guess. Superior musicianship requires superior skills.

  37. ccrome says:

    Huh, the more I think about it, the less sense it makes that different metals would make and difference in timbre of flutes. With violins, guitars and the like, it’s plausible that the material has a significant effect on timbre because it’s the wood itself that’s vibrating, resonating & projecting the sound. Interestingly enough, it seems that professionals can’t tell the difference with violins (in this case anyway).

    However, a flute produces sound in a *completely* different manner. The point of the flute body is to *not* vibrate and be rigid, and let sound project from the various orifices. It’s the air inside that’s doing all the wiggling, not the instrument itself. I’ve designed and tested quite a few audio products, and when we want something to be rigid, the acoustical results make virtually no difference between metal, plastic or even hard (closed cell) foam. As long as the material is rigid, sound waves have a hard telling the difference between materials — as long as they are rigid enough. (So, if you’re building a speaker chamber from plastic, you need *lots* of ribs in the right places….)

    Okay, a hard foam flute would never sound good, and it might be tough to get a plastic one to be rigid enough. However, I would be amazed if anybody could tell the difference between equivalently constructed metal flutes of different metals. Note the ‘equivalent construction’ requirement is very importnat — even very small variations in hole positions, diameters, lengths, etc. can make huge differences in acoustics, and attention to detail is critical. Which brings us to one of the points brought up above: craftsman will likely not spend the time and effort to make a great flute from pot metal, but they will from silver.

    If anybody’s interested, a *fantastic* resource for Science Based audio engineering information is Sean Olive’s blog: http://seanolive.blogspot.com/. Sean & colleagues are all about bringing science and double blind testing to acoustics.

  38. slancio says:

    I’m a professional musician. I laughed at the very premise and conclusion of this study.

    The whole idea that you can reduce the very special case of a musicians relationship to an instrument to a few minutes of playing in a hotel room is silly. Also the question was, which do you prefer… not which is the oldest. I can guarantee the results would have been different if the violins were played on the stage of a concert hall. Or if you asked, which one would you like to play Mozart on, or Bach? It’s very possible there would have been different answers for each question. The other flaw is the length of time they had with the instruments. While ones impression of an instrument might be good initially, it could take hours, or even weeks of playing, to really discover all of the ins and outs.

    I recently purchased an older Boesendorfer Piano for my home. This piano has a wonderful rich sound, a full bass, and sweet highs. It’s perfect for accompanying or chamber music in a home. However, it would be useless for playing a big Romantic piece on a concert stage.

    This experiment is an example of coming to a conclusion based upon flawed questions and conditions. Just because a test is blind doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems in the execution. Blind doesn’t necessarily mean valid.

    Now to the flute. I agree with an earlier poster that a fine professional level instrument would make your daughter very happy. But the best way to choose, is to let her have access to it so she could play in different circumstances before buying it. Some of the very best dealers will allow professional musicians this courtesy. A friend who was a violinist tried out a bow from a dealer for weeks. She initially loved it, but after a time realized that it wasn’t for her.

    If that’s not possible, let her have a long session with it at the store. I’m talking hours not minutes. Remember the key word here is relationship. An instrument might be wonderful for one player, and not good for someone else.

    It’s a nice problem to have though. Your daughter has progressed to a point in her playing that a professional level flute will make a difference to her, and she will be happier for it.

  39. ChrisH says:

    Woo Hoo! Professional musicians on the case:

    Okay I am still downloading the mp3, and with my backlog I will listen to it sometime tomorrow evening.

    slancio, thank you for your observations as a professional musician. All I know about musicians who play for our city’s symphony is that they can be parents at my kids’ high school, basically casual conversation on how our kids are doing in orchestra (my daughter quit) and marching band (our sons both loved it). Plus how how much work is involved (her son had to skip some marching band functions because of repetitive stress problems due to too much practicing).

    And we know my late father-in-law’s Heintzman piano was never meant for a concert hall. It is an upright grand (whatever that means). It has much better sound than the basement Yamaha upright (which we kept because two of our kids actually play music!), and seems to stay in tune longer. The latter is what pleases child most who played violin from age five to fourteen. That child does play the piano, but only when she needs to think through issues as an emotional release. I know better to disturb her when I hear live piano music in our house.

    I have paid lots of money for music lessons. I knew it was all worthwhile when my two younger kids told me to switch the car radio away from Radio Disney (which I had on to protect them from “Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton” news) because they hated Britney Spears. Then another time they were both bickering in the car and I switched to the local classical station (98.1, KING FM), and they both said “Oh, I like this music!”

    Hooray for music lessons! Even better: hooray for marrying into a musical family.

  40. joesmosax says:

    @Steven Novella

    Huge fan of the show but I take issue with the way it was presented on this week’s SGU. A few of the rouges made a comment along these lines:

    “I’m surprised(or not surprised) that they couldn’t tell the difference when blinded”

    From what I can tell from your post and what was presented on the show- this is NOT what the study tested!

    From what I read online(haven’t been able to take a look at the actually study), the study(and everyone writing/talking about the study) makes the false assumption that Strads sound significantly better than other high end violins or that people assume they do- and therefore asking musicians to identify the Strad is essentially the same as asking them to pick the best sounding violin. This is a flawed approach based on a false assumption.

    This study “proves” what violinists have known for a long time, good modern instruments are in league with Strads and for many people they are better. Only the uninformed lay person would assume that price correlates exactly with quality and this is the problem I have with the study.

    Three important questions:

    Does a Strad sound better than a 30k violin? That question is meaningless because it’s up to the taste of the listener and/or player.

    Can professional players tell the difference between high end violins when blinded? THAT is a much more interesting question which could easily be tested. Were the Strad owners able to pick out their own violins in this study? My guess is yes- but that hasn’t been answered anywhere.

    Does knowing the brand influence perception of sound? This study just doesn’t answer that question despite many people making the assumption that it does. It’s not hard to imagine a study that could show this however. Split people into a test and control group. Tell one group the brands(unblinded) and have them rank in order of preference. Have another group blinded and rank in order of preference. This could be applied to both players and listeners.


  41. Autumn says:

    Once upon a time, before I decided to go into neuroscience, I was also a flute player and I intended to go to school for music. When I was about 12 or so, it also came time for me to upgrade to a professional model flute. I will never forget that experience–the clerk was pretty fantastic. This is what happened:

    There were several different flutes available and, since my family doesn’t have much money, there was a small price range we could afford–between maybe $1000-$1500. The shop had maybe 4 different flutes in that price range all with various combinations of silver bodies, silver-plated bodies, gold springs, etc. Now, the clerk set me up in the practice room to test each flute and she would NOT tell me how much each of them cost–she made me play each of them and pick out the one that I liked best based on how it felt/sounded. That way I would not pick one based on the assumption that more expensive flutes are inherently better and would get one I preferred to play. I ended up picking out the middle-quality flute which suited my needs just fine. I ended up hating the most expensive one because the way the keys were cut actually hurt my fingers (I can’t remember why exactly, it’s been a good 10 years).

    If you haven’t gotten her a new flute yet I would have two pieces of advice: 1) Open hole flute (I’m sure that goes without saying though) and 2) She should get one with a gold lip plate because the silver ones will leave a gray mark on her chin every time she plays it for more than, say, 10 minutes.

  42. dfcwordpress says:

    Dr Novella,

    Very late with this comment – but just came to this post via the SGU podcast of November 26, 2011 and the segment on “Food Color and Taste”. In this segment and this post you mention the Morrot, Brochet, and Dubourdieu study regarding white wine coloured red. My out-take (and I think the out-take of other SGU panelists judging by their reactions) was that the wine tasting experts “tasted” and described red wine – when, in fact it was white wine coloured red. This really did seem extraordinary.

    However, I’m wondering if you could clarify – did the wine tasters actually “taste” the wine – or were they just “sniffing” the wine? Either way it’s interesting the way the brain tweaks and tries to make sense of the various sensory inputs. But I can accept confusing the the small of red and white wine much, much more than confusing the taste. Are you able to confirm – was it sniffing or tasting?


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