In a previous post, I mentioned that there are differences in quality and frequency when you compare synthesized instruments to acoustic instruments. Many musicians can distinguish between sounds that stem from these different sources; furthermore, they can often tell the difference between different specimens of the same instrument. If you walk into any Guitar Center, you’ll see hundreds of guitars and other instruments, and you’ll see musicians of all ages trying them out to see which they like best. The sound will vary based on the type of wood used, the condition of the wood (which depends on considerations such as humidity, climate and age), the size and the strings, just to name a few factors.
But are these perceived differences in sound and quality always real? For example, Steinway is one of the most trusted names in piano-making, and is therefore, one of the most expensive. And the antique violins I alluded to above – many of which were built by Stradivari centuries ago – are lent out for use only to the best violinists in the world, and are worth millions of dollars. If you ask any violinist if these instruments are actually of high quality, they’ll say “yes”, and many past studies have shown that people playing these violins sound better. The recent study by Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin, however, sheds doubt on the worth of Stradivaris. In their experiment, they didn’t tell either the violinists or the audience which violins were antique and which were new. They found that the antique violins were not significantly better-sounding than the new ones! Sometimes, the newer ones were preferred, and the oldest, most expensive instrument was shunned. What’s going on?
A now-classic study that looked at a blind taste test of expensive wine and cheap swill found that people couldn’t really tell the difference between them. Furthermore, a neuroscience study (done at Caltech, and described in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely) found that people’s reward regions experienced more of a “rush” when they drank expensive wine than when they drank cheap wine, but only if they knew that it was the expensive wine. Knowing that a violin is expensive, therefore, may actually change the way that you perceive the sound of it; you may actually enjoy it more. But that probably has more to do with your contextual information (the knowledge that this thing is supposed to sound great) than with the instrument itself.
This study isn’t perfect (which study is?), and scientists are still investigating whether there actually is a reason why antique instruments might sound better, but regardless, the expensive wine effect is definitely at play here.