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Perception of Music Instrument Qualities

Participants: Lei Fu, Charalampos Saitis, Pauline Eveno and Gary Scavone

Collaborators: Catherine Guastavino, Bruno Giordano, Claudia Fritz, Jean-François Petiot, Stephen McAdams

Period: 2008 - ongoing


This research focuses on the perceptual evaluation of music instrument qualities. A better understanding of how musicians perceive differences in music instruments is critical to improving their design or finding alternative materials and methods for their manufacture. Most of our studies to date have focused on violins, though experiments with guitars, saxophone reeds, and saxophone “resonators” have also been conducted. One goal of this research is to correlate the perception of instrument quality to measurable acoustical or mechanical properties.

The quality of a musical instrument depends upon a number of different, often subtle factors. Many of them are acoustical, referring to the way the instrument vibrates and radiates sound. However, there are non-acoustical factors that relate to the way the instrument “responds” to the actions of the player. There is an extensive volume of published scientific research on quality evaluation of instrument, but most has traditionally focused on the characterization of the acoustical factors and ignored the player’s perspective. The instrument response is related to the interaction between a driving mechanism (violin bow, reed/mouthpiece, …), a resonating body and a player. How does the player “feel” the instrument? This is a critical aspect that has only recently been considered essential in developing an understanding of what distinguishes “good” and “bad” instruments.

In 2010, Ph.D. student, Charalampos Saitis, began a sequence of violin perception experiments to investigate performers’ evaluation of instrument qualities. This work was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Claudia Fritz of CNRS, Equipe Lutheries-Acoustique-Musique, Universit Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, France, and Dr. Bruno Giordano, who at the time was a postdoctoral student at McGill. There were several novel aspects of this research, including a focus on playing (rather than listening) tests (which allowed the subjects / players to more naturally assess the sounding and vibrational characteristics of instruments), as well as the design of a scientifically-rigorous protocol for playing-based evaluation of music instrument qualities. This research demonstrated very low agreement between players in assessing violin qualities (ex., response, richness, dynamic range, overall preference), with no relationship to price or age of the instrument. These results, as well as subsequent studies by our collaborator Dr. Fritz, have been groundbreaking in showing no basis for the so-called superiority of old and expensive violins (such as those of Stradivarius or Guarneri). This in turn has important financial ramifications for modern luthiers and players looking to purchase a violin.

In 2012, we conducted a perception experiment investigating saxophone reed qualities with Dr. Jean-François Petiot (Ecole Centrale de Nantes, France), his Masters student Pierric Kersaudy, and Dr. Stephen McAdams. The study combined perception ratings on a set of 20 reeds, as evaluated by a group of 10 active saxophonists from the Montreal area, together with in-vivo measurements collected with two players performing on the same reeds. The results showed a general correlation between the perception of reed stiffness and certain objective measures of in-mouth acoustic pressure and the radiated sound.

In 2014, postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Pauline Eveno, conducted an acoustic and perceptual analysis of saxophone pad ’resonators’. This project involved a collaboraton with Yamaha through a loan of four new saxophones for the study. The results demonstrated clearly perceived differences between instruments with and without ’resonators’ but little distinction between ’resonators’ of different material. These results will give manufacturers some flexibility in their future designs.