This is a rambling post about the repugnant conclusion, mass-manufacturing, metis and woo, and the fragility of expert discernment — through the lens of my experiences playing, repairing, and selling violins. (And eating discount sushi.)

Epistemic status: Discussing utilitarianism-related issues that I'm poorly educated on. (Through the lens of violins, on which I fare much better.) Come for the interesting violin stuff, (don't stay for the philosophy unless you want to watch me repeatedly hitting myself on the head.)

If you work in a violin shop, answering the question "how much should I spend on a violin for my child" is hard to do without revealing that you're a huge nerd.

Playing violin is great. It's the most important instrument.[1] 

Teaching it is a challenge. How do you help someone progress from playing like 'oh no' girl to, like, 'wow, she's only three?!' to a really, really good college graduate to being literally Jascha Heifetz?

And more fundamentally: what makes Jascha Heifetz sound so damn good, and how did he get there?[2]

I think if you zoom out far enough, there are three interlinked factors at play in a violinist's ✨ sound ✨:

"How did it feel when they handed you
your first violin? Interlinked."
  1. What does their technical ability facilitate them doing, restrict them from doing, and what does it lead them towards doing? 
    1. This comprises all of their movement-based competencies, the 'muscle-memory' they develop, the actual physical mechanics of how, through decades of intensive practice, their body has perfectly exapted the violin as the physical part of their aural proprioception.
  2. What are the bounds of their audiation? This is their musical creativity and imagination, the sound they hear in their head when they imagine playing. It's the mental and emotional component of their aural proprioception.
    1. Even though classical violinists are playing music written by someone else, there's creativity and emotion in their interpretation. Compare this, this, this, this, and this.
    2. Just like developing your own writing style, some of this you get from listening to other violinists play. Some of it you generate yourself through your own practice.
  3. Do they have a good instrument? Some violins sound better than others. The best violins in the world are prized (partly) for their unique, beautiful voices.[3]
    1. Violins are usually made of wood (normally spruce and maple), and even now are almost all handmade to some extent (with more and more machine assistance for mass-produced ones). Very small differences between instruments make a big difference in sound quality.[4]
    2. The craft of making really great violins is shrouded in centuries of metis and woo. There'll be a whole post on this, at some point, but suffice it to say that the people who make amazing violins, today, don't even themselves know precisely how they do it, and they contradict each other and themselves constantly. They sure do make them, though.

Just take my word for it that a good violin matters, a lot.

The above implies six one-way interactions between the factors. For this post, I just want you to take my word on three of them (keeping in mind they're part of this ever-pushing-pulling triangle):

  • Having a good violin helps you to develop your audiation.
  • Having a bad violin makes it hard to develop good technique.
  • (And the obvious) Better violins just produce better sound for any given input.[5]

A good player can make a bad violin sound good, up to a point. At a certain point, a good player needs a good violin in order to improve their technique and audiation. Like how your skill as a race-car driver is sorta independent of the car you drive, BUT at a certain point you're going to need a Formula-1 car to compete at the top level, AND you won't even develop the skillset to drive a car like that if you've never driven a car close to being like that.[6]

What's crazy is that your technique and audiation are where your discernment comes from. So finding a good violin, (being able to put one through its paces and see what it can really do at the extremes of its performance), requires skill + discernment (to even have an opinion on what constitutes a good sound.) As a beginner, you should take your teacher along, let them try the instruments, and probably choose they one they recommend. If you're looking for a pro-level violin... well... as a pro for help, if you can. 

  • A good violin rewards you by 'sounding nice when you play right', giving you tightly-coupled feedback to develop good technique. "Whoa, that sounded good. How did I do that?" 
  • Its larger dynamic range, with more available sounds and timbres, encourages you to explore musically and develop your audiation. 
  • Its tendency to strongly resonate helps your technique and audiation by making it more obvious when you're not perfectly in tune, and by helping you notice when your technique is able to make an instrument really 'sing', even on extremely high notes.

And really, ultimately, there's something about the throat and vocal chords of, say, Elvis, or Pavarotti, or Dido (or Dodi) that just makes people stop and say 'whoa.' Their technique and audiation are great, sure, and if you suddenly woke up in their body you wouldn't 'know how to drive it', but still, some people just have 'a voice.'

Some violins just have 'a voice' too. 

For any given level of technique and audiation, you'll hit a ceiling on your instrument and need to get a better one to improve your sound. That can cost a lot of money.

No, you can't engineer this problem away with a CNC machine and fancy lasers, you swine.

Or at least, you shouldn't.[7]

Or at least, that's my instinct, but I'm probably straight-up wrong about it, which I find upsetting and confusing, and this post is all about why.

A simplified three-point history of 'modern' violin-making goes much like it has for any luxury consumer product: 

  1. We've made stringed instruments for ages. But in the 1500s in Cremona, master craftsman Andrea Amati established the dimensions and properties of the modern violin, coming up with a clever method that allowed for [your eyes glaze over] thus setting the basic paradigm followed by every violin maker since[8], (because it sounds so good). For a long time, if you wanted a nice violin built in that style, you had to be an aristocrat, or Charles IX of France, or something. I'm simplifying, but the point is that if you were poor, you probably couldn't ever hope to afford a violin equivalent in quality to something that today sells for <$1000.
  2. Mass-production of violins ramped up in Germany (Saxony) in the late 1800s, then later France and Czechoslovakia mainly in the early to mid 1900s. They made literally millions of inexpensive violins and shipped them all over the world. Every time someone finds an ancient-looking violin in a tattered 'coffin' case in their grandad's attic with 'Antonius Stradiuarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 17__' written in it, it's one of these. They're a real mixed bag. Some of them are great, some are awful.[9] Asia got in on this market too in the late 20th century.) (The artisans kept on making fine violins, too.)
  3. Today, they don't mass-produce very cheap violins in Europe, they do it in China. You can buy a starter Chinese violin kit from discount supermarkets for under $100. There's also still an industry making violins in Europe that sell for $1000-$10,000. (Artisans around the world are still making fine violins that are almost always $10,000 or much more.)

So today, you have different levels on different price orders of magnitude. 
Roughly speaking:

$10^1 — A broken violin in a box of stuff at a charity shop.
$10^2 — Very cheap, new Chinese instruments for beginners.
$10^3 — Nicer new Chinese beginner instrument.
$10^4  — High-level student, to pro orchestral musician's instrument. New or antique.
$10^5  — Soloist's or concert-master's instrument. Almost always antique.
$10^6 — Stunning antiques loaned to top soloists by foundations and individuals.
$10^7 — Only a handful of antiques (price actually unpins from sound quality here.)[10]

It's good to have choices. You can still get high-quality instruments, and now you can also get cheap instruments. The cheap ones might not be as good, but there are more of them. Shut up and multiply. Right?

So where do you set the bar?

In my opinion, you should NOT buy the $100 instrument for your kid, because below a certain level of quality, the violin will hold your kid back.

  1. The 'setup' of the instrument is almost always bad. This means the strings are set at the wrong heights, and set on the wrong curve, which makes it frustratingly difficult to actually play and progress on the instrument. It makes it hard to bow one string at a time, it makes it hard and painful to put fingers down correctly, it leads to a strangled raspy sound or a weird buzz. 
    1. "Why can't I play one note at a time when I do exactly as the teacher says?"
  2. The sound of the instrument is bad. Raspy and shrill, some of the notes don't ring out properly or make weird warbling noises. There's none of that tightly-coupled feedback where the right technique suddenly makes the violin sing out in a clear, rich voice.
    1. "I don't want to practise, I hate the sound and it hurts my ears too much :("

I think an instrument like that actively discourages children from learning, teaches them bad habits, doesn't teach them good ones, and holds them back from progressing.

Spend a bit more, get a good one. Common sense.

If you can't afford $1000 and your kid wants to play violin... um... you don't have many good options.

Where's the bar? 1700s edition. (collab feat. ChatGPT)

In all humility, I counsel you, Solenoid Entity, against the procurement of ANY instrument lacking the touch of a renowned individual artisan maker and absent the esteemed royal seal. While the strings may seem precisely situated and levelled to your poorly-trained eye, my vast experience reveals their substandard nature.

Having invested 80,000 hours in honing my art, including 20,000 under a master's tutelage, I am well-qualified to discern such deficiencies. To your inexperienced ear, the instrument's sound may appear adequate; yet, to one of my expertise, it proves unbearable. Pursuing mastery on such an inferior instrument results in a woeful lack of musical development, unbeknownst to the unfortunate young musician.

Thy progeny may express distress and dismay over the instrument's inadequacy, questioning their inability to produce a single note as instructed. Despite the apparent resonance and lack of noticeable 'wolf tones,' the instrument remains unsatisfactory. With my discernment, the true wretchedness of the sound is evident.

I beseech thee to reconsider the well-being of thy customer's beloved child, who shall suffer greatly from the shortcomings of such an inferior musical instrument, finding themselves reluctant to practice amidst the dissonant cacophony.

I entreat thee, exercise prudence and allocate a more generous sum for the procurement of a superior instrument. Verily, common sense dictates that there exists a threshold of quality below which the very purpose of the purchase is grievously compromised, and that threshold is, specifically, artisanal masterpieces affordable only by our society's most extravagantly wealthy luminaries.

Alas, should's't thou not be affiliated with the esteemed royal court, thereby unable to commission a fine instrument crafted by my hand, it appears that... thou art excrement that emanates from Tyche herself.

Mass-productions is good, actually.

1700s violin snob is wrong, and if we listened to him, most of the greatest violinists of all time would probably never have touched an instrument. It's good to make decent-quality violins at a cheaper price so that more people can have them.

But where exactly does my definition of 'decent quality' come from? Is it a coincidence I set the bar where I do, or is that the principled, logical place to put it? If I had the snob's discernment, would I perhaps be able to convincingly list the ways that giving your child anything other than a priceless Amati is going to hold them back from achieving true excellence, as the snob would define it?

To be honest, as funny as 1700s violin-snob is, I'm terrified at the prospect that he might be right in some way. He's more qualified than I am to have an opinion. What if he actually possesses a level of discernment that no longer exists today – a level of sensory experience that we'll never even know we're missing. We don't know our art is bad because we don't know how to spot good art. The verifier is broken. Nightmare fuel.

Maybe royal-seal-of-approval guy is too qualified, has too much vested interest. Sometimes I guess you have to... kick the nerds out of the room and let the sensible people take charge?

But once again, how do you make a principled decision about where that point (being too much of an expert to have a sensible opinion) is?


If you ate the best sushi ever made, would you even know?

"You fucking heathens. This [elite sushi chef] is an artist. He had to spend ten years learning how to make the Tamago. (The egg.) The EGG!" - Wags 

I've never tried the food from the restaurant featured in Jiro Dreams of Sushi — (a glimpse into the multi-generational, fanatical pursuit of excellence that one Japanese family aimed at making good sushi.)

I think if I did, I'd probably like it more than the sushi I buy (from the supermarket at 4pm when it's half price.) Would I like it more than sushi from another good sushi restaurant, though? I don't know shit about sushi, and I think that beyond a certain point, I simply lack the discernment to know the difference.

At that point, it's all just great sushi, to me. Maybe beyond a certain level, it's all woo, and reputation, and politics, and the effect of food just tasting better when you paid hundreds of dollars for it. 

But I've had experiences in my own areas of expertise, where I've noticed I provably possess levels of discernment that others lack, and I've also noticed people superior to me in expertise point out to me things that I hadn't noticed, explaining them to me in terms that would make no sense to someone outside the field. And so my discernment increased.

I'm haunted by the discernment I might lack because of all the fields I never became an expert in.

High discernment experience might be 'high definition' experience, but is it better?

Damn, I'd love to look at sushi in Jiro-mode and notice things about it I'd never even thought to think about. I'd love to switch on 'hunter mode' and be able to notice an animal's footprint among all the visual mess of the forest floor. It might even be useful for survival sometimes to switch on 'Bourne mode' and notice someone's got a gun under their jacket. Surely if you have the choice, you press the button that increases your discernment?

That said, I was once friends with a veterinary surgeon, and she told me that she needed to take about a week off work before the sight of a pet dog in the street brought her even a shred of joy. Where I saw a cute dog, all she could see was bad gait, overheating, too fat, jaundiced, and the like. It was work mode all the time.

Expert craftspeople are all obsessives. Maybe Jiro Ono walks around the mall, sees the bad sushi in the shop window, and feels the same way that my vet friend feels about the packs of broken, visibly sick dogs running around everywhere. Maybe it makes him feel sick, and he goes back to his restaurant to stim over his nigiri. Maybe giving someone discernment is like that old joke about Christian missionaries telling uncontacted peoples about Jesus, even though it now means that their 'didn't-know-about-Jesus' exemption from damnation doesn't work anymore and now they have to actually worry about going to hell.

Speaking for myself, as an audio editor, I find it hard to watch TV, (especially reality shows or anything produced quickly), because I can hear the edits, it wrecks the immersion and ruins the fun.

Maybe we want to turn the definition down a little on our senses sometimes, amirite? They even make pills for that!

Tricky questions for people who know more about philosophy than me.

I'm extremely aurally discerning.[11] I have the aural equivalent of better-than-20/20 vision, and I've developed mental tools that makes it even more powerful. I can hear differences when I listen to violins and to audio in general that others simply cannot. 

Are my aural experiences better than other people's? If you could replace the layperson's auditory processing ability with mine, would that be a net utility gain for them? 

Are the sight experiences of people with 20/20 vision higher-utility than the sight experiences of nearly-blind people? Of blind people? If giving sight to everyone in the world is a net utility gain, how can you dispute that giving my ears to everyone (except the people better than me!) would be too? Is it incorrect to treat physical sense impairments and intensively-trained mental sensory enhancements on the same spectrum?

Is a person with severe OCD just... very discerning about how deeply artistically improper it is to only switch the lights off once, rather than three times? Is high-level artistic discernment ultimately just selective neurosis, and a world of high-level discernment would resemble a world where everyone had literal OCD about everything, all the time?[12] 

Wasn't this whole thing supposed to be about violins?

Say there's a continuum from 'a world where we craft the highest-quality violin possible, at whatever price, and only the ultra-rich can afford them (but they're all masterpieces)' through to 'a world where everyone who wants one has a violin, but they're all repugnant'.

Then why is it that, (as much as it makes logical, utilitarian sense to descend and create worlds where there are more violins for the poor violinless children), I feel so inexplicably sad moving away from the worlds above? There's some artisanal violin craftsman back up there somewhere who makes sublime instruments and who 'won't allow power tools in his workshop because the vibrations they produce are non-harmonic and so they damage the tonewoods within a 15m radius by putting the microcracks out of alignment', and instead of making fun of him, I want to protect him like I'd protect an endangered animal.

It's hard to explain this intuition. I know others share it — just look at the view counts on YouTube videos like "hand-carving a carbon-steel katana using only my teeth – 600 hours full build time lapse". 

When I think about it, it doesn't seem like the fine art or craft just disappears when the mass-produced art or craft comes around. The art pie just grows. I can't think of any examples of a craft going extinct. There are still artisans, they make great stuff. Probably they have a bigger market than ever, even.

Technology keeps improving. Cars are better than ever. Computers are better than ever. 

Arguably, violins are better than ever. (Don't tell micro-cracks guy I said that.)

So why can't I shake the feeling that every day, the world loses some kind of collective metis. As a society, it's not that we can't produce beauty anymore, but for some reason we just don't. Functionally, as a collective, we can't. If you want to buy a gorgeous, intricate, handmade baroque-style dining table, you can just go and do that, if you can afford it. Some do. And for those that can't, they get cheap tables too so they don't have to eat on the floor. This should be great, I should love this. But we're all rich now. So why does everyone have such ugly tables, then? Where's your artisanal masterpiece?

Maybe when efficiency dictates its own aesthetic for long enough, widely enough, the space left for beauty in our culture shrinks. Maybe the societal capacity for the pursuit of excellence is a common resource we spend down when we 80/20 things.

But still the whole pie keeps growing. More pie for everyone! It's good that you don't have to be (super) rich to buy a violin. This should feel great!

There's a scorned virtue murmuring here, somewhere, buried. You've heard of the 'human prejudice', now get ready for the 'this specific human, right here, right now' prejudice. A parochial feeling that one should dig in one's heels in the slice of reality we happen to inhabit (this moment) and blatantly rent-seek by denying those below us on the continuum the right to exist own affordable violins.

At least I'm self-aware, I guess.

  1. ^

    Don't @ me, I have a reference (p.1). Take it up with him. He has a PhD in knowing about the violin.

  2. ^

    The answer, according to this framework:
    1. His technique was flawless and allowed seamless connection with his audiation.
    2. His musical imagination and creativity as an interpreter were incredible.
    3. For the example I linked, he was most likely playing on his remarkable c.1740 'del Gesù' violin, itself with a long history of elite violinist owners.

  3. ^

    There's a whole post needed for this point. There's a lot of woo around the world of fine violins, much like the world of fine wine tasting, and much of it doesn't stand up to double-blind testing. It's important, for the purposes of this post, to point out that tests like that are comparing modern fine violins against antiques. (Some more defensiveness from the industry here.) There's definitely a discernible, audible difference between a Stradivarius and a Skylark, and you don't have to be an expert to notice it.

  4. ^

    This paper, by a guy who did his physics PhD on violin acoustics, is a nice survey of the kinds of things that vary with a violin that impact on the final sound it makes.

  5. ^

    True by definition.

  6. ^

    Apologies to Andrew Haveron, who came up with this analogy but I can't find a link to where.

  7. ^

    Only the devil himself knows what Dr Sirr created, (because of the lack of a sound sample.) It's probably pretty good. I'm mad about it. We'll get to why.

  8. ^

    Violin Making in Scotland 1750-1950, David Rattray, p.12.

  9. ^

    Because there are so many of them, and because keeping them repaired and in good condition is expensive, and because highly skilled players have the discernment to notice good violins, and tend to buy them if they're bargains, there's some 'selection pressure' on those violins, where the ones that have survived and been played consistently until today are more likely to be good than any randomly selected violin from those factories.

  10. ^

    At that point it's like hyper-expensive art. There are weird tax incentives at play, they have collectible value and clout attached.

  11. ^

    This is a combination of innate and learned skills. Genuinely not trying to brag, but just to illustrate: this is actually measurable in some ways – for instance, I hit the ceiling on pitch-discrimination tests I've taken. Plus I have 'perfect pitch' (I can tell you what note you're playing without any reference note). Those are innate. I also score very highly on tests where you have to quickly name a chord, or transcribe a melody, etc, and that's because of my innate skills and my study. I can also tell the difference between very good and very very good violin playing, and that's because of my learned discernment.

  12. ^

    Is OCD just badly-aimed expertise? When it comes to artistic pursuits, it's hard to draw a clean line. Sure, light-switch guy's criteria are inscrutable for me, but to him, he has strong intuitive opinions about the merits of particular approaches to using them. Beyond a certain point of quality, my own discernment about violins and violin playing is similarly totally inscrutable to YOU — the difference is my particular discernment aligns (mostly! somewhat!) with other experts, whereas light-switch guy is out standing in his field all alone.


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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:57 AM

Are the sight experiences of people with 20⁄20 vision higher-utility than the sight experiences of nearly-blind people? Of blind people? If giving sight to everyone in the world is a net utility gain, how can you dispute that giving my ears to everyone (except the people better than me!) would be too? Is it incorrect to treat physical sense impairments and intensively-trained mental sensory enhancements on the same spectrum?

Sighted people are able to do things that blind people can't do. Nontrivial things, not just pass a 'has sighted vision' test like you can pass a 'distinguishes violins' test.

I think it’s important to recognize that there are in fact nontrivial things that can be done with increased aural discernment. You might notice subtleties of emotional expression, or small choices in musical interpretation that aren’t perceptible to a novice listener.

If you assume there are only trivial benefits to increased aural discernment, then of course the discussion falls apart. The drawbacks of finding amateur music off-putting aren’t trivial, so aural discernment would just be a simple loss in utility.

Sure, there may be larger obvious benefits to wearing glasses than training your musical ear, but it’s arguably just a matter of degree. To me, this is the point of the parallel here: to consider how both rectifying impaired fidelity of perception and increasing beyond typical fidelity of perception are both examples of a difficult-to-calculate pattern of utility changes.

In the case of classical violin, artisans have been making them for centuries and the best players have generally played on excellent instruments. If we look at instruments in other fields, though, we seem much less of this. Popular music is full of people who learned on relatively cheap instruments, many of them sticking with them as professionals. Looking at old electronic tech is probably the most interesting here, where a lot of sounds come from the limitations of the technologies available then, and people now try very hard to imitate them.

Personally, I'm in favor of starting with cheaper instruments and then getting better ones when you start to run into their limitations (and only if you play them enough to justify that). Among other things, this means you can afford more instruments and developing good audiation can benefit from playing a bunch of different things. For example, my main instrument is keyboard and I play a heavily-used Yamaha P85 that would probably sell for about $200, and for playing drums with my feet I use ~$75 Yamaha KU100s that feed a DTX 500 brain that's ~$100. Bringing this back to violins, my 9yo is learning to play on a Cremona SV-130 1/4 size that was $275.

I'd just explicitly ask the teacher if they're happy with the instrument's setup. It's probably fine, but maybe they'll tell you it needs work. Generally 1/4 instruments aren't going to sound great anyway, but the setup is still very important.

Yes, the teacher is fine with it. When it's time for a larger one that will be a deeper look.

It seems that having a teacher tell you when to move up/onwards is critical. Otherwise, it can be tricky to realize that the hardware is the limitation after months of working on your own abilities/skills.

I've spent most of my time as a musician exploring areas where there aren't teachers, for better or worse.

This perhaps has nothing to do with LessWrong, but I feel like mentioning a book on the craft of violinmaking: Martin Schleske's "The Sound of Life's Unspeakable Beauty".

The writer is a violinmaker, and he describes the various parts of his craft, from finding the perfect tree to provide violinwood, through all the stages of making the violin, and finally the playing that all of his work serves. But he also uses these things as extended metaphors in meditations on his religious beliefs.

I am not religious, but I am glad to have read this book.

Thanks, great recommendation! I'll check it out for sure.

[+][comment deleted]5mo20
[+][comment deleted]5mo10

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