If you’ve ever played a musical instrument for more than a few years, you’ve probably found yourself thinking about an upgrade. ‘Imagine how good I would be,’ you think to yourself, ‘if only I had that platinum flute instead of this silver coated one.’ You scrimp and you save, maybe for years, and you finally get the flute, you play it, and you know you sound better than you ever have. Or do you?
Widholm, a researcher in Austria, set out to determine just this fact. He assembled seven flutes of varying materials in the same model, and asked professional Viennese flautists to play on each of them. Analyzing the sound waves, Widholm found that the material of the flute’s body made little to no difference on the practical sound of the instrument. So, what we would normally perceive as a vast improvement in playing is really just a placebo effect as a result of having a new instrument that we perceive will make us better.
Sometimes, though, material does matter. Consider the violin, one of the most famous instruments ever invented, championed by creators like Stradivari and Guarneri, revered as the heart of the orchestra. Its full bodied sound and extensive range are in part because of the properties of the wood it is made of. Similar to the study done with flutes, the type of wood isn’t as influential as one might think. The real catch is with the wood itself. Wood is an elastic anisotropic material, which means that along the grain, the vibrations can go for three times as long as across the grain. This basic principle is what gives violins their characteristic shape, and of course their sound. Violin artisans trying to make new violins from new materials face the issue of replicating this elastic anisotropy, and so are confined to certain materials, such as composites which can be chemically altered to contain such a microstructure.
With recent developments in 3-D printing technologies, even plastic can be used to make musical instruments, allowing anyone with a 3-D printer to construct their own musical instrument. These instruments are still able to sound good often because of which part of the instrument is vibrating. If it is a string or the player’s mouth that is vibrating rather than the instrument, nearly any material could be used. For example, a metal trumpet and a wooden trumpet would sound nearly the same. Some examples of this technology in use include a 3-D printable ukulele, as well as ocarinas, recorders, and even a full-sized guitar.
Music is around us all the time; stuck in our head, playing in the halls we walk, setting the scene in the movies we love. It has been an integral part of the human experience for centuries, and it doesn’t show any sign of stopping now. Whether or not materials make a difference in the instrument, the instruments make a difference in our lives.
Thanks for reading,