• Ariane Todes

Stradivarius violin blind tests – do they matter?


A really interesting article about wine in the New Yorker suggests striking parallels between how we choose wine and our attitudes to instruments, demonstrating the subjectivity and inconsistency with which we demonstrate preferences.

The author, Maria Konnikova, recounts taking part in Daniel Salzman's experiment. Salzman offers participants two different wines. One he says is more expensive than the other, and he explains its artisanal production techniques. The author admits that at this stage, her task 'transitions from a simple "which wine do I like more" to a "which is the artisanal"'. Having taken part in blind tests, I can relate to this. However objective one is trying to be, there's always a part of one trying to work out which is the Strad, not simply which instrument one prefers. I have no doubt that players' preferences when buying instruments are heavily influenced by the 'story' behind them.

In other tests she describes, experts were able to be convinced that white wine was red by the simple addition of dye, again showing the fallibility of even well-informed senses, and how much comes down to our expectations.

Ultimately in the Salzman test, the average ratings for the two wines were the same, showing that people couldn't really tell the difference, and although Konnikova did get the more expensive one right, she doesn't seem to have actually preferred it.

Konnikova also asks an interesting question – do blind tests really matter? Isn't it important to know the context when we make a decision? 'A critic needs to provide guidance and color, the full story of a product and its evolution, not just a snapshot. And a product, in turn, isn’t just the object itself: it’s everything we know about it.'

I think it's a fair point, but in the violin business, where so much money rides on creating a certain hierarchy of instruments, and the playing field between classic and modern instruments isn't yet even, blind tests serve to challenge some of the mythology.

What do you think?

Read the New Yorker article here.

Read my article on wine blind tests here.

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