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:

But still, I really do believe that my wooden clarinet sounds better than any plastic I’ve ever played. So why? If the math says it shouldn’t, why does it? I’ve never been sure, but my suspicion is that it’s a matter of craftsmanship … you’ve got a very complex shape, and every contour of that shape has an effect. That distinction, the math supports very clearly: change the shape of the body, and you are affecting the waveform of the sound.

This sounds like a wood flute. It really does. It sounds better than any of the beaten-up real wooden flutes that I’ve acquired … I think that that’s more a matter of workmanship than material.

MarkCC reviews the new flute (one of these) in some detail, and his review is very positive in terms of sound and playability. For more information:

1 thought on “More on the science/fiction of woodwind materials”

  1. Thus is why, when we conduct studies, all care must be taken to exclude the perceptions of those who may have bias. Not just double, but triple blind studies are needed. There once was a very well respected scientist who believed that water had memory because he conducted studies that apparently showed that water had memory. But after other scientists examined his methods they found that he had not conducted a triple blind study that would clearly take him out of the equation. So the reason why it sounds better is not because of craftsmanship – although that can be a reason why any flute sounds better – but rather what ideas, both conscious and subconscious, the instrumentalist brings to the process. I say whatever makes you play better, then that’s what matters. If you think you play better on a wood flute then, hey, play on a wood flute – but don’t fool yourself. If we continue to fool ourselves in the face of scientifically fic fact simply because WE don’t believe it or it’s not OUR experience, we end up in the situation where we have a culture susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theories. It’s a slippery road when we pick and choose what facts of science we want and don’t want to believe. I take full responsibility for my words because I believe in the importance of being a rational thinking human being who can question my own beliefs. And when science tells me what I feel is wrong? I will make changes accordingly instead of being hard-headed about it.


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