Internet forum field guide: conflict resolution

Welcome to the second installment of the Internet forum field guide, a look at the inhabitants of the various woodwind-related message boards, forums, and email lists. (Read the first chapter here.) Today we will examine how the indigenous wildlife deal with conflicts.

One of the most common sources of conflict is the introduction of a dangerous threat into the community. It generally starts with an honest question:

Hey guys, just wondering which alloy gives an instrument a darker sound: 93% silver with 7% copper, or 97% silver with 3% copper? Thanks in advance.

Enter the troublemaker

Suddenly the herd’s status quo is endangered, unthinkably, by one of its own:

Well, actually, it turns out there’s over 100 years of well-documented, peer-reviewed scientific research that says the material makes no significant difference to the sound of a wind instrument. I know this because I went to the library and read actual books and journal articles about it.

The herd stampedes

This kind of affront is clearly unacceptable to the community, and they respond swiftly to correct the errant behavior. The alpha male is often the first to weigh in:

I have been playing for 40 years with some groups whose names you think you vaguely recognize, and I say the material does make a difference, so that should pretty much settle it.

He is followed shortly by a rival who will try to discredit the original poster:

Read more

More on the science/fiction of woodwind materials

Photo, ~Bob~West~

There’s an interesting woodwind-related post by blogger “MarkCC” at Good Math, Bad Math, entitled “My Newest Flute, made of… Plastic?!

MarkCC recently acquired a new flute of the type used in Irish traditional music, the kind that are most often made of wood. But MarkCC’s is made of polymer, and it sounds like MarkCC has wrestled a little with the issue of whether a plastic flute can really measure up to a wooden one.

But… Plastic?

I’ve seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn’t that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn’t really having too much influence on the sound.

As it turns out, MarkCC is something of a doubler, and also plays the clarinet.

Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic – so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that’s the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn’t sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it’s good, solid stuff.

And yet, I’ve played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there’s nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn’t sound the same. Of course, that’s subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.

One of the most-linked articles on my blog makes the same point about our expectations about materials coloring our playing experience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a different barrel made from the same material will also affect the instrument’s sound.

I do think it’s a grey area to refer to a mouthpiece or barrel (or flute headjoint) as “sound-producing.” The instrument’s parts don’t produce any audible musical sound (unless you hit them with drumsticks)—it’s the column of air contained within them that vibrates in a musically useful way.

But MarkCC goes on, I believe, to hit the nail on the head: Read more

New Grove on flute materials

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is widely used by college music students and is regarded by most (for better or for worse) as the unimpeachable source of all musical knowledge. In my studies for upcoming doctoral comprehensive exams, I ran across this in the “Flute” article:

Materials used for the tube and mechanism include nickel-silver, sterling silver, gold and platinum, while the springs are usually of tempered steel or phosphor bronze, occasionally of gold or another metal. The choice of material, especially for the head joint, influences the flute’s tone: wooden flutes produce a rich tone with a very full fortissimo in the lower register; metal flutes produce a limpid, flexible tone with great carrying power and also allow the player very sensitive control over the tone-colour; gold produces a mellow sound while silver is more brilliant. To achieve a combination of these qualities a head joint of wood or gold is sometimes fitted to a tube of silver.

The idea of different materials having different sounds is, of course, seen as conventional wisdom by flutists (and indeed by wind players in general), but it flies in the face of 100 years of acoustical science. Read more

Does material affect tone quality in woodwind instruments?: Why scientists and musicians just can’t 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 instrument’s 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. Read more