Violins made by the 18th-century Italian maker Antonio Stradivari are some of the most sought-after in the world, regularly fetching millions of pounds at auction. But according to a new study, most professional violinists cannot tell if they are playing a new instrument or a 300-year-old Stradivarius, judging on sound alone.

Claudia Fritz, a researcher at the University of Paris, conducted the double-blind experiment at the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. She asked 21 professional violinists to play six violins, three old and three new, and rank them according to playability, projection, response and tone colours.

The old violins were two 300-year-old instruments made by Antonio Stradivari around the year 1700 and one 250-year-old violin made around 1740 by Guarneri del Gesù. The three old instruments had a combined value of $10m – one hundred times more than the new violins.

The violinists wore welders’ goggles and were given the violins in a random order; the chinrests of the instruments were perfumed so the musicians would not be able to smell the wood and so guess the age. The results showed most could not tell if they were playing an old or new instrument on sound alone and two thirds chose one of the modern instruments when asked which they would like to take home. One of the Stradivari instruments was the least favourite choice.

In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy if Sciences Fritz wrote the results were ‘a striking challenge to conventional wisdom’ and dispelled the myth that old instruments have better sound quality than new ones.

Darren Wee