New Grove on flute materials

June 26, 2008

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. This from my own summary of the topic:

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.

Read the whole thing here.

It seems odd that such a scholarly tome as New Grove would fail even to acknowledge the controversy.

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