People asked to rate a wine will judge it more pleasant when told it costs more. To avoid any such effect, the violinists had to wear goggles so that they could not identify the violins. In one test they were allowed to play all six violins and asked to choose which they would most like to take home. In another, they were required to compare a pair of violins, without being told that one was a classic and the other a new instrument.

Despite a general belief among violinists that Stradivari and Guarneri violins are tonally superior, the participants in Dr. Fritz’s test could not reliably distinguish such instruments from modern violins. Only 8 of the 21 subjects chose an old violin as the one they’d like to take home. In the old-to-new comparison, a Stradivarius came in last and a new violin as the most preferred.

“These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom,” Dr. Fritz and her colleagues reported online Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.