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Does material affect tone quality in


woodwind instruments?: Why scientists and
musicians just cant seem to agree
Most woodwind players would be surprised if you asked them whether the
material from which their instrument is made affects its sound. Certainly!
most would reply. An inexpensive nickel-plated flute has a tone lacking in
character and brilliance, but a fine silver flute sounds, well, silvery! It has a tone
that sparkles, that sings, that carries to the back of the concert hall. The most
discriminating flutists might opt for the more luxuriant timbres of white, yellow,
or rose gold, or even the rare and weighty quality of platinum.
And any self-respecting oboist or clarinetist would refuse to even consider an
instrument made of lifeless black plastic. Only the finest aged African
blackwood can provide the dark, rich, woody tone that a true artist requires.
Bassoonists likewise insist upon bassoons made from the best maple, and
preferably treated with a secret-formula varnish, which, like that of the famous
Stradivarius violins, is rumored to impart a special vividness and resonance to
the instruments sound.
And fine saxophones, though most often made from brass and lacquered in a
gold color, can be special-ordered in silver or even gold plate, which,
saxophonists just know, bestow a unique sonic personality. Some saxophonists
are willing to pay a premium for certain hard-to-find French instruments made
in the decade following World War II, which are reported to be made from
melted-down artillery shell casings, and to have a correspondingly powerful
quality of tone.
It seems to many musicians a self-evident truth that premium materials
produce a premium sound. But scientists have believed for years that a
woodwind instruments material has virtually no effect on the kind of sound the
instrument produces.
Unsurprisingly, the scientific view has not been popular with the woodwindplaying crowd. Most have invested thousands of dollars in their personal
instruments made from the rarest woods and shiniest jewelry metals. Most have

been taught the subtleties of instrument selection by wise and respected


teachers, and have dutifully passed the knowledge on to their own generations
of students. But most of all, they have heard with their own ears the difference
between a silver flute and a gold flute, or a plastic oboe and a wood one. They
have held the instruments in their own hands and felt, deep in their gut, that
different materials just sound different.
Theobald Boehm, the 19th-century flutist and metalsmith who virtually
invented the modern flute, held to this idea. He wrote in 1871,
The greater or less hardness and brittleness of the material has a very great
effect upon the quality of tone. Upon this point much experience is at hand.
Tubes of pewter give the softest, and at the same time the weakest, tones; those
made of very hard and brittle German silver have, on the contrary, the most
brilliant, but also the shrillest, tones; the silver flute is preferable because of its.
. . unsurpassed brilliancy and sonorousness; compared with these the tones of
flutes made of wood, sound literally wooden.1
Clarinetist Geoffrey Rendall, writing in 1954, said that clarinets made of ebonite
(a hard rubber compound) somehow seem to lack the carrying power and
expressiveness of wood.
The tone can be taken just so far and no further. It lacks life and is no longer
popular with professional musicians. . . . What has been said of ebonite may be
said of metal. . . . it has the slight deadness of ebonite. . . 2
The woodwind player and historian Anthony Bates said in 1967 of the clarinet,
. . . [It] has a cylindrical tube . . . of African blackwood, which has replaced
cocus; though possibly none of this jungle wood can rival the old Turkish
boxwood, which for some reason gave especially fine results in clarinets. . .
Many fine players have played on ebonite, which gives a sweeter though
rather smaller tone than wood. Metal, on the other hand, does not seem to
offer the right resistance, giving a tone that feels to most players rather vapid
and uninteresting, and it is not used for high-class work.3
So why do scientists insist that material is effectively irrelevant?
Many woodwind players assume that, say, a clarinet vibrates like a violin
soundboard or a drumhead, transmitting sound waves into the surrounding air.

And, in fact, a clarinetist can feel the instrument vibrating in her hands when
she plays.
The mistake here, according to scientists, is thinking that the vibrating
instrument is what is producing the sound. Basic acoustics tells us that the
woodwind instrument is merely a container for the real sound-producing body
a vibrating column of air.4
A number of scientists have undertaken to prove empirically that characteristics
of a woodwind instruments sound are affected only by the characteristics of the
air column. But there are several factors which make this a difficult proposition.
First, as every woodwind player knows, no two instruments play alike. Fine
woodwind instruments vary from specimen to specimen. These variations range
from the easily visible to the virtually undetectable, and interact in complex
ways to affect the sound of the instrument. In order to accurately test the effect
of wall material, these instrument-to-instrument variables must be eliminated.
A particular difficulty with eliminating these variables in woodwind instruments
is the question of the instruments pads. Woodwind instruments have toneholes
that are opened and closed by pads made of cork or animal skin. These pads are
installed by hand by specialized craftsmen, and the process is widely regarded
as more of an art than an exact science. Small variations in the organic materials
involved, and in the pads installation, can cause very noticeable differences in
the way each instrument plays.
A second consideration is the human physiological factor. A woodwind players
embouchurethe way he uses the complex system of facial muscles to form an
interface with the mouthpieceis, as he will ruefully tell you, highly variable.
Even the finest and most consistent players change their embouchures, at least
imperceptibly, from moment to moment. Many of these subtle changes are
made intuitively and without the players awareness of which muscles are being
used, or maybe even that they are being used at all. The complex human
respiratory system adds another comparable layer of problems. The human
anatomy presents a highly complicated and hard-to-measure set of variables
that must be dealt with in order to construct a scientifically acceptable
experiment.
A third and even more mysterious factor is the influence of human psychology.
Any bias on the part of woodwind players or listeners can affect their perception

of an instruments sound. A bassoonist, for example, might consciously or


unconsciously expect that, say, a bassoon with richly grained wood might have a
fuller sound, or that a plastic bassoon will just sound more plasticky. The
simple expectation of hearing a certain sound may influence the bassoonist (or a
listener) to project that expectation onto the actual sound heard.
In a 1964 experiment, University of Southern California physicist Dr. John
Backus attempted to determine the role of a clarinets body vibrations in sound
production.5 Backuss experiment centered on a clever and slightly comical
gadget, with an artificial embouchure powered by a household vacuum cleaner.
The clarinets tone holes were all closed (simulating a clarinetist playing the
instruments lowest note), and the bell of the instrument was fitted with a
muting device. When the clarinet was played via vacuum cleaner in this way,
no sound waves could pass from the air column inside the clarinet directly into
the air surrounding the instrument. Backus found that in this situation the
instrument was virtually silent; the vibrating wood of the clarinet emitted such
weak sound waves as to be inaudible to a human ear at a distance of one inch
from the instruments body. Backus concluded that the wall vibrations of a
clarinet are too small to produce a perceptible sound. Further, he speculated
that if it were possible to make the instrument vibrate sufficiently to be heard,
the consequence would not likely be a pleasant one; he pointed out that a
similar phenomenon occurs when one of the instruments keys works loose and
causes an annoying buzz. Backuss further research reveals that the instruments
body vibrations are due to the reed vibrating against the mouthpiece, not due to
the vibrations of the enclosed air column.6
In 1971, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America published a study by
Dr. John Coltman, a physicist and researcher for the Westinghouse Electric
Corporation.7 Coltman, an amateur flutist, attempted to test the sound
properties of different woodwind wall materials while minimizing the effects of
instrument variation, physiology, and psychology. Coltmans experimental
apparatus matched Backuss for both ingenuity and hilarity, consisting of three
cylindrical tubes: one of silver, one of copper, and one of blackwood, all
identical in inner diameter. Each tube was fitted with an ostensibly identical
flute headjoint made of Delrin plastic. The three flutes were arranged so that
their headjoints passed through a shield, blocking the tubes from the flutists
view, and the entire contraption was mounted on a central rod, which the player
held onto (so as not to touch any of the tubes) and rotated to bring each of the
headjoints into playing position.

In the first phase of the experiment, a panel of listeners (including


nonmusicians and musicians, some of the musicians being flutists), was asked
to listen to sets of three sample notes or groups of notes. Two of each three
samples were played on one flute, and one sample was played on another, and
the listeners were asked to identify which sample was played on a different flute
than the other two. The results? The listeners were correct about one third of
the time, the same result that would be expected from random guessing.
In the second phase of Coltmans experiment, trained flutists were asked to
blindly play each of the three flutes, and select one which they thought they
could identify again. Then the flutists were instructed to spin the rod quickly so
as to lose track of the selected flute, and then find it by playing each of the flutes
again. Again, the results were essentially on par with random selection. Coltman
interpreted these results to mean that neither flutists nor listeners could
accurately identify a difference in sound between the three materials.
Decades of similar studies, especially the continued work of Backus at the
University of Southern California, confirm and refine these results. But though
the scientific evidence seems overwhelming, musicians still insist they can hear
a difference. It is possibleeven likelythat wall material does influence an
instruments sound, but only in a number of indirect ways.
Materials may affect they way an instrument sounds before anyone ever plays
itby affecting the way the instrument is made. For example, some woods may
respond better to instrument makers drills and reamers, and thus more
faithfully reproduce the desired bore shape; certain metals may likewise
cooperate better in taking the desired form. Or perhaps more expensive
materials make better-sounding instruments because makers handle them with
an extra measure of care. In the case of plated flutes or saxophones, instruments
that seem to play especially well may be selected by the maker for a special
finish of some precious metal.
It is also possible that the vibration of the instruments body is, in fact, audible
to the player through the phenomenon of bone conduction, in which sound
waves are transmitted through the bones of the head to the inner ear. If this is
the case, it is possible that the instruments vibrations are minutely audible to
the player. As Backus points out, there is no reason to believe that audible
instrument body vibrations would be an improvement, but in any case the
vibrations could conceivably affect the players perception of tone, and thus

even affect his approach to playing the instrument, indirectly affecting what the
audience hears.
But the most convincing theory of why musicians are so sure about gold flutes
and maple bassoons is that the materials do, in many ways, affect the way the
player feels. And, as any musician will tell you, nothing affects the music more
than the way the musician feels. The smooth, polished wood of a fine oboe, the
patina of the silver keys, even the gold of the makers emblem, lend the oboist
confidence, comfort, perhaps a sense of luxury?that come through in the way
he or she plays.
While it seems clear from scientific investigation that, all else being equal,
materials make no difference to a woodwind instruments sound, it seems
equally clear from musical experience that all else is never equal. Factors as
small as the precise brass alloy of a saxophones body can make all the
difference in the worldnot because of any acoustical effect, but because of the
undeniable human element. So if you feel, deep in your heart, that a platinum
flute or a rosewood oboe or a silver-plated saxophone will make you sound
better, then it probably will make you sound better.
Woodwind players will continue to play the instruments that feel and sound
right to them, no matter what the scientists have to say. And so they should! A
musicians instrument is the tool of his or her trade, a treasured possession, and
a nearly constant companion. But perhaps a levelheaded understanding of the
role of materials in a woodwind instruments sound can lead to better
instrumentsand better musiciansin the future.

Notes
1. Theobald Boehm, The Flute and Flute Playing in Acoustical, Technical, and
Artistic Aspects (New York: Dover Publications, 1964).
2. F. Geoffrey Rendall, The Clarinet: Some Notes Upon its History and
Construction (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), 14-15.
3. Anthony Bates, Woodwind Instruments and Their History (New York:
Dover, 1967), 117.
4. See, for example, William J. Strong and George R. Plitnik, Music Speech
Audio (Provo, UT: Soundprint, 1992), 307-315.

5. John Backus, Effect of Wall Material on the Steady-State Tone Quality of


Woodwind Instruments, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 36,
no. 10 (1964 ): 1881-1887.
6. Ibid., 1883-84.
7. John W. Coltman, Effect of Material on Flute Tone Quality, The Journal of
the Acoustical Society of America 49, no. 2 (1971): 520-523.

17 comments on Does material affect tone quality in


woodwind instruments?: Why scientists and
musicians just cant seem to agree
1. Vincent Ellin
August 14th, 2009
Interesting comment about wood !! I know that scientists think the material
doesnt affect the properties, but I remember a conversation between Alan Fox
of Fox Bassoons and Arthur Benade (the acoustician) where Benade remarked
the difference between one material and another is only a 1 or 2 percent change
in sound. Alan remarked back for you Arthur that is very small, but for a
professional musician that is a VERY BIG difference !!
Reply
2. Pete Thomas
December 8th, 2009
Its interesting you say most woodwind players, as most of the woodwind
players I know dont think that different material affects the tone of the
instrument. Ive thought this ever since my first saxophone, which was made
from plastic and sounded very much like a brass saxophone.
But I do believe its true that if you feel good about your instrument it will help
you play better, I feel better playing a horn that I like the look or feel of, whether
that is luxurious satin gold finish or beaten up old brass patina.

The stuff you hear about material is mostly marketing, and very few companies
agree whether silver helps give you a bright sound or a dark sound, so we all
tend to take that with a pinch of salt.
Reply
3. Ricardo Faissal
November 19th, 2010
Maybe some musicians have spent time enough with instruments to be able to
feel the 1 to 2 percent difference that scientists proved does exist, but cant feel,
between instruments of different materials.
Reply
4. John Malmstrom
December 14th, 2010
Recent blog post: A little self promotion (November 18, 2010)
A few years ago, I purchased a vintage metal clarinet to serve as an emergency
back-up for my trusty Buffet R-13. I did some research and found that theres a
range of quality in metal clarinets, like any other instrument and I found one
that might be classified as a low-pro level horn. Ive asked my friends close their
eyes and identify which one I was playing no one could tell. Its a fun
instrument to play and its real shiny!
Reply
5. Nathan Zalman
March 1st, 2011
Recent blog post: I Want to Believe (March 1, 2011)
An former teacher of mine, bassoonist Ted Lapina, played a plastic Polisi
bassoon while I knew him at Shenandoah. He insisted that it played better than
any holy Heckel hed ever played. His bassoon playing colleagues were
scandalized, of course, but he stuck to his guns. I learned a healthy skepticism
from him, back in the day.

Thanks for a well written summary of this debate, which rages on and on and on
and on. . .
Reply
6. Linn
July 22nd, 2011
A great article! Thanks for sharing it.
I have a few observations Id like to add.
The mistake here, according to scientists, is thinking that the vibrating
instrument is what is producing the sound. Basic acoustics tells us that the
woodwind instrument is merely a container for the real sound-producing body
a vibrating column of air.
True enough, but the material that sets the vibration in motion and the material
against which the vibrating air moves does affect the quality of the sound.
Consider a gong. Would it sound the same if made of plastic? No! Its the brass
of the gong that initiates the vibration of the surrounding air, giving it the
quality of the sound that you hear.
The fallacy of Coltmans experiment with flute tubes of different materials was
his use of a plastic headjoint. The headjoint, more specifically the riser, has the
most impact on the sound produced by the instrument. If he had used
headjoints constructed of the same materials as the tubes, there probably would
have been a more noticeable difference. He could easily have blindfolded the
players and hidden the headjoints from view of the listeners to attain as much
anonymity as he needed without using the plastic headjoints.
I agree that It is also possible that the vibration of the instruments body is, in
fact, audible to the player through the phenomenon of bone conduction. I tell
my students this all the time. Just as a singer (or speaker) hears their voice
differently from the listener, so, too does the instrumentalist.
But the most convincing theory of why musicians are so sure about gold flutes
and maple bassoons is that the materials do, in many ways, affect the way the
player feels. And, as any musician will tell you, nothing affects the music more
than the way the musician feels. The smooth, polished wood of a fine oboe, the

patina of the silver keys, even the gold of the makers emblem, lend the oboist
confidence, comfort, perhaps a sense of luxury?that come through in the way
he or she plays.
True again. Additionally, one is more apt to take better care of a quality
instrument regular cleanings, keeping it in good adjustment, handling it with
care than one would a student model horn. This adds to the better quality of
sound produced.
Reply
1. Bret Pimentel
July 22nd, 2011
Thanks for your comments. I have to disagree with you on a few points, based
on my reading of Benade and others regarding the physics of woodwinds. Again,
Im not a real scientist, so I welcome any clarifications of concepts I may have
misunderstood.
I agree that in the case of a gong, which is an idiophone, the vibrations of the
material itself are significant. But in the case of a flute (for example), which is an
aerophone, I maintain that the material does not set the vibration in motion
(Dr. Joe Wolfe gives an excellent summary of how this actually works); nor does
the material interact in a significant way with the air column, other than to give
it its shape (see Backuss article, Effect of Wall Material on the Steady-State
Tone Quality of Woodwind Instruments, JASA, October 1964, which specifically
addresses this point. To my knowledge, this article is not freely available online,
but check your local library).
No doubt Coltman would have preferred to use flutes made entirely of the same
material for his experiment. But this would have created an even more fallacious
result, since, as you and I know, every headjoint plays differently. Theres no
verifiable scientific evidence (yet?) that the material of the headjoint have the
most impact on tone. (However, there is a great deal of advertising from
headjoint makers that makes this claim, invariably suggesting that the most
shiny and expensive metals sound the best.)
I do think you make a good point about the care that instruments made from
nicer materials are likely to receive.

Reply
2. Michal Kopecky
August 29th, 2011
True enough, but the material that sets the vibration in motion and the
material against which the vibrating air moves does affect the quality of the
sound. Consider a gong. Would it sound the same if made of plastic? No! Its the
brass of the gong that initiates the vibration of the surrounding air, giving it the
quality of the sound that you hear.
In case of woodwind instruments the material that sets the vibration in motion
is the wooden reed mounted on your mouthpiece. Destpite of the fact that the
saxophone is made of brass which is metal, it is categorised as woodwind
instrument, because the sound vibration is created by a wooden reed. The
material of which a woodwind instrument is made only shapes the sound
column. When the soundwave leaves the instrument it has certain wavelenght
and frequency. And these two properties are not affected by the body material of
the woodwind instrument. But shape of the body and expecially the shape of the
mouthpiece and the quality and material of the reed affect this absolutely. Sorry
for my english.
Reply
7. Daniel McBrearty
July 22nd, 2011
For years I have played a brass SML tenor sax, lacquered, dating from the early
60s. A fine instrument with a big sound.
A few years back I came across another in a market, bought it and had it
serviced so that iit played perfectly. An identical instrument, except it was
chrome (yes chrome not silver) plated.
I could not tell the difference between the sounds of them.
I now own two Selmer 10S clarinets. There *is* a slight sound difference but I
think that may because one has leather pads, the other the more usual white
ones. That one is going to get a repad

Reply
8. John Clemmer
July 23rd, 2011
What? No comment on reeds and mouthpieces??!! And CHOPS??? I was with a
friend one day in a music shop, and he took his mouthpiece, put it on a metal
clarinet that looked like an old beaten up lamp, and proceeded to fill the store
with the most beautiful clarinet voice imaginable. Ill never forget that day, it
was magic!
Reply
9. Dan Kennedy
August 7th, 2011
I was wondering if the way in which breath moisture condenses on the bore of a
clarinet affects the sound.
I coated the inside of my Selmer Series 10 clarinet with a 50/50 mixture of
liquid dish soap and water. I did not like the way it played.
Removing the coating and re-oiling the clarinet returned its fine sound.
Plastic Clarinets are sold with a mirror like bore. I have found that removing
this mirror like finish with very fine (0000) steel wool improves the sound. (I
only do this when I am repadding the clarinet.)
Perhaps clarinet makers hobble plastic clarinets so as not to interfer
with the sales of Professional wooden clarinets.
If I was buying a new clarinet it would be a Buffet Greenline.
Then I could say to players with a traditional clarinet:
That sounds good; too bad its made of wood
Dan Kennedy
Reply

10. Art Marshall


August 23rd, 2011
This subject is highly interesting; I agree with Dan Kennedy. The smoother the
inside bore of the clarinet is, the better it sounds. Plastic bodies can be
extremely smooth. The drawback of a plastic clarinet is however, that the body
is not so much affected by the surrounding temperature as wooden clarinets. So
when the pitch of the wooden clarinet is going up during playing, the plastic one
does no go up in pitc at teh same rate. i notice that when playing duets with my
students. I play German system Wurlitzers and I alwya wonder how it is that my
good studenst are able to draw a good sound from their plastic Buffets or
Bundys. In temperate climate zones this duet playing needs a fequent intervals
of retuning. Art Marshall
Reply
11. Jim
March 12th, 2012
My daughter and I just finished her science fair project in which we double
blinded sound samples from several cane, Legere, and Fibracell reeds. Four
different professional musicians listened to the reeds and graded them on
darkness, clarity, roundness, resonance, articulation and range. (Argue all you
want about the choices, we went in knowing little about the physics of sound
and came out with a ton of knowledge.)
We found that in all cases accept articulation, the Fibracell was the favorite, and
an overall Favorite in beauty, a totally subjective quality. (Legere was the least
favorite and Vandoren cane was in the middle) Although not ALL grades agreed,
there were only a few that had one judge grade in disagreement with the other
three. It was pretty solid data.
Additionally, spectragraphs and sonograms agreed with the ratings, showing
physical proof of what the judges rated.
Now a few caveats: My daughter liked playing the Legere best, and the Fibracell
least. I was a bit surprised by the data because the Fibracell actually closed up
in the higher octaves when played in an articulated chromatic scale. (I swear to
god I never thought I would be using a sentence like that).
Also, we included a Vandoren 2.5 because we had read the hardness numbers
are not always accurate and the Fibracells are softer than their number suggests.

The 2.5 cane reed BLEW all the other reeds out of the contest in every
catagory!!!
One of the music professionals helping with the project told us the Fibracell has
a softer spine, that is why it failed like it did. Also, different cut mouthpieces
favor different hardness of reed.
We are going to do a small test tonight to see if a Legere 2.5 is rated better but
due to a delivery error we dont have time to include it in the science fair project.
(Nuts)
I hope you all find this interesting, and we would LOVE to hear your comments.
I think this project (which grew out of proportion to a 7th grade science fair)
should be repeated using more parameters such as different mouthpieces and
reed hardnesses.
Reply
12. Jonathan
March 17th, 2012
While very interesting, Im not sure that there is much there in the way of
reliability . Unfortunately, cane reeds change in sound and sometimes quite
drastically. So repeating the same study after playing on the same reeds for 20
minutes and THEN conducting the experiment could result in an entirely
different data set. Also, I can attest that Legere reeds can sound and play better
on some mouthpieces than others.
Reply
13. Jonathan
March 17th, 2012
For a very interesting read about the use of wood and clarinets, see Tom
Ridenours piece called The Grenadilla Myth :
http://www.ridenourclarinetproducts.com/grenadillamyth.htm
Reply
14. rick

March 19th, 2012


Id like to expand on the paragraph that starts with: Materials may affect they
way an instrument sounds before anyone ever plays itby affecting the way the
instrument is made. I have read that wooden flutes sound different than metal
ones because of the extra thickness of the wood and the manner in which the
tone holes are made. Metal flutes have collars either drawn or soldered around
the holes, but the holes on wooden flutes are drilled into the material and the
surrounding material is level with the hole. I dont know how that could
translate into a sound difference, but its an example of the material affecting
the way the instrument is made.
Reply
15. john
May 21st, 2012
I completely disagree however I am sure scientifically that there are materials
that would result in the same quality of tone that is made with less desirable
metals and woods when it comes to certain materials the resonance vibrating
factors and quality of craftsmanship play the most important role