How good are experts at discriminating?

Jonah Lehrer, the writer for the New Yorker who lost his job when it was discovered that he was recycling content and manufacturing quotes, had an interesting article before his disgrace where he discussed how hard it was for people, when subjected to double-blind tests, to discriminate between wines, not being able to tell the difference between high-priced reputedly quality wines with much cheaper varieties. There have been studies that show that when subjected to blindfold testing, even people who are considered expert wine tasters cannot even tell the difference between red and white wine, let alone the fine distinctions such as year, vineyard, grape type, etc. between different grades of wine

I am not a wine drinker. I suspect that taste discrimination is closely related to one’s sense of smell and we know that there are a few people with the ability to discriminate among an enormous number of smells and detect very fine differences. So what I suspect is that when it comes to wine and food and other things that involve smell, there are a very few people who are truly discerning. But there are a vast number of people who may talk a good game but would be stymied by a double-blind test.

It seems to be the same with sound because along comes another study that suggests that the reputedly high sound quality of the highly-prized Stradivarius violins, that have long been studied to try and determine what it is that gives them their superior sound, may also be a myth.

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. The study was, however, relatively small in terms of the number of violins tested (six), the time allotted to each player (an hour), and the size of the test space (a hotel room). In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.

Once again, it may well be that like with smell, there are a few rare people with highly developed discrimination powers while the rest of us are just fooling ourselves that we can tell the difference.


  1. corwyn says

    there are a few rare people with highly developed discrimination powers while the rest of us are just fooling ourselves that we can tell the difference.

    Or not. One would hope that those rare individuals would include the renowned soloists on their instrument of choice. If not, who would? It seems more likely that there just isn’t a difference (that is, that the difference between individual instruments is greater than the difference between old and new).

    As usual, the naysayers are providing excuses, not countering with a study of their own. That pretty much says it all.

  2. 5Up Mushroom says

    Unfortunately, the results from the Violin ‘study’ aren’t all they are claimed to be. Players invited were asked which instruments they liked best, not to discern which instrument was old vs new. Furthermore, the Stradivarius and other older violins that were on loan came with the stipulation that they could not be tuned, nor touched up, where the newer violins could be. More here:

  3. corwyn says

    Players invited were asked which instruments they liked best, not to discern which instrument was old vs new.

    So, it isn’t that people aren’t discerning enough to tell old vs new, it’s just that Stradivari suck?

  4. Who Cares says

    If you got for wine tests to see what people think there is one (very small) study out there that had the same white wine for all the taste tests, just with red food dye when they were presenting red wine. Was interesting to see people being able to tell different wines apart while it was all the same.

  5. 5Up Mushroom says

    @corwyn. Liking a new properly tuned instrument over an old untuned instrument doesn’t really suggest that the old instrument sucks. Being that I really don’t have a horse in this race, I’m certainly not suggesting that a well trained violinist can tell the difference between a strat and a newer violin either. It’s just that this particular study was rather flawed in it’s process, and came to a conclusion that they weren’t really even testing for (according to the writer at the

  6. astrosmash says

    pretty easily solved. Have one violinist play the same passage on a number of different violins with the listener’s back turned to the performer.

  7. corwyn says

    Liking a new properly tuned instrument over an old untuned instrument

    What makes you think the instrument was untuned? I understand that the instrument tuning was not allowed to be changed, but that says to me that it was tuned and the owner did not want that messed with. But even so, I don’t see much difference between an instrument that sounds bad tuned vs one that sounds bad untuned, and can’t *be* tuned.

    Perhaps it is time to admit that these aren’t musical instruments anymore, but just bearer bonds.

  8. machintelligence says

    If the older instruments were not in tune (or perhaps, not reliably in tune) how is it that there was no ability to distinguish between the old and the new? Were they all out of tune? Perhaps we are reading too much into what was reported in the abstract. Viewing the actual paper requires a subscription.

  9. 5Up Mushroom says

    But again, machintelligence, regardless of how they sounded (which I still maintain is extremely important in a study like this), it’s stated in the article that she wasn’t tasked with figuring out which was the old and which was the new, just which one she liked the best. Even in the wine test, the experts were asked to discern which was red and which was white. If you put a bunch of BS’ing “Wine Experts” in a room and ask them to pick their favorite, it’s disingenuous to conclude that any result suggests they can’t tell a 500 dollar bottle from a 5 dollar bottle. Furthermore, if the only 500 dollar bottles you could get a hold of were maderized or corked, then the results really don’t mean anything anyway. I agree, though, actually reading the study would probably help illuminate the argument.

  10. DsylexicHippo says

    Even people who are considered expert wine tasters cannot even tell the difference between red and white wine, let alone the fine distinctions such as year, vineyard, grape type, etc. between different grades of wine.

    I find the first part of the sentence hard to believe. Red and white wine are not even remotely similar in taste. What’s next? People who can’t distinguish between coffee and tea?

  11. jonP says

    5Up Mushroom,
    Did you read the original articles? Regarding the violin studies, there were two papers published from this group. The first is referenced in that post you mentioned, but the other is referenced in this post. The second study addresses many of the criticisms of the first, including the selection of instruments, and the measure of discriminating old vs. new.

    The first study describes the old violins as follows:

    “These violins were loaned with the stipulation that they remain in the condition in which we received them (precluding any tonal adjustments or even changing the strings) and that their identities remain confidential…”

    To me, this sounds like they were not untuned, but that the tuning could not be adjusted by the violinists or the study investigators. The second study selected violins from a larger initial pool, and all the instruments were kept in the same condition as they were received.

    “It was assumed that the parties who loaned instruments had an interest in them sounding their best and so had them set up and adjusted accordingly. All violins were therefore kept in the exact condition in which they were received. This condition was monitored throughout the study by separate “guardians”— J.C. for new violins and T.G. for old.”

    I don’t think tuning is the most important criticisms for these studies. The second study had the players guess if the violins were old or new, and they were unable to correctly guess:

    “These guesses were rather evenly divided between old and new violins (36 and 33 respectively) (Table 2) so the data rather clearly demonstrate the inability of the players to reliably guess an instrument’s age, whether the instrument was in fact new or old.”

    It is still not clear what exactly to conclude from this. In the second study (the one Prof. Singham was discussing), the new violins were selected for high quality and characteristics of old violins. To be fair to the authors of the study, they were very tepid in their conclusions (emphasis mine):

    “However, no matter how results are tallied, it is clear that, among these players (seven of whom regularly play Old Italian violins), and these instruments (five of which were made by Stradivari), there is an overall preference for the new.”

    “There is no way of knowing the extent to which our test instruments (old or new) are representative of their kind so results cannot be projected to the larger population of fine violins. However, given the stature and experience of our soloists, continuing claims for the existence of playing qualities unique to Old Italian violins are strongly in need of empirical support.”

  12. jonP says

    My apologies,
    I did not realize PNAS requires a subscription. I have one through my institution. I really hate our current model of disseminating scientific findings via paid subscriptions to publishers.

  13. richardrobinson says

    Given that the claim being investigated is, “Old violins sound better than newer violins,” the questions, “which do you prefer?” and “which is the old one?” are effectively equivalent.

    This is similar to discussions of sound quality in audio file compression. It’s easy to tell a low bit-rate encoding from a higher rate one, but only to a point. Once the encoding gets “good enough” I can still distinguish the two from each other, but I couldn’t tell you which is higher rate. And I wouldn’t expect to reliably express a preference for one over the other over time.

  14. hoary puccoon says

    Jonah Lehrer either invented that “can’t tell red and white wines apart” meme, or he just repeated an urban legend.

    We heard it from somebody once, and tested it at a family party. Some of us were regular wine drinkers, but nobody had any claim to being a wine expert. All the wines were at room temperature. All the “contestants” were blindfolded. We had red crayons and white origami cranes (objects we could easily differentiate by feel) in front of us. We tasted a wine and then pushed the red or white object forward to indicate our guess. Then we all took the blindfolds off at once. A couple of people who rarely drink wine were stumped, but all the regular wine drinkers scored 6 out of 6 correct. Two of the regular wine drinkers correctly identified the grape variety in one of the wines.

    As one of the regular wine drinkers, I soon found that I could tell red wines from white without seeing them *or* tasting them, simply by their “nose” (i.e., aroma.) White wines smell more like citrus fruit.

    If you’re going to use Jonah Lehrer as your source, you can pretty much expect to wind up looking like a fool.

  15. Holms says

    I suspect the main reason the Stradivarius in particular are renowned is that he simply made instruments good enough to garner a solid reputation for himself. Since then, the legendary status simply endured over time to the point where it is now simply assumed that they are the best of the best, rather than simply being quite good.

    It would certainly not be the first time a reputation has become apocryphal in this way; just ask a cricket fan about Don Bradman and you’ll see something similar – although at least we have documented statistics and footage to back that reputation up.

  16. doublereed says

    There’s some of this with Bassoons, as Pre-War Heckel bassoons (and Pre-War bocals) are considered incredibly warm in tone, while newer Heckels are cold (and more powerful). But I’m pretty sure Heckel could make them in the old fashion if they wanted, but they choose to make them this way because of specific desires of current musicians.

    I would imagine Stradivarius is probably pretty similar. It’s matter of taste of the times. And Stradivarius probably ARE the best at achieving the sounds of that old era. Nowadays, violinists probably want a different sound, unless they’re specifically playing that period of music.

    I don’t buy that “can’t tell white from red.”

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