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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000051.txt from 1998/03

From: Jim Harper <>
Subj: Scientific American Article
Date: Mon, 2 Mar 1998 10:33:50 -0500

I got this off the Scientific American web site
thinking it would be of interest to the group. The
article certainly resonates with the newsgroup
discussions over the past few years. How about
a concrete clarinet?



Are wind musicians loving
tropical woods to death?

At a recent conference on music and human adaptation at Virginia Tech,
physicist John W. Coltman demonstrated
what he first described in the early 1970s. After asking the attendees to
divert their eyes, he played the same tune
twice on the flute. He then asked whether anyone heard any difference
between the two performances. No one spoke
up; the two were virtually indistinguishable.

Then Coltman revealed his trick. The first time he performed the tune, he
played it on a simple side-blown flute made
of lightweight cherry wood. The second time he used a flute of identical
design, except for one detail: it was made of

To anyone schooled in the physics of wind instruments, Coltman's point is
old news. Whether the air is set to vibrate
by an edge tone as on the flute, by a reed as with the clarinet or by
buzzing lips as with the French horn, the sound
itself comes from the vibrating air column inside the instrument. This
sound is produced through the end or through
open tone holes, not by vibrations of the instrument's body, as is true of
string instruments. Dozens of published
reports, some dating back 100 years, converge toward the same general
conclusion: so long as the walls are thick
enough to remain rigid--about 0.4 millimeter (0.016 inch) for metals, two
millimeters ) for woods--and the inside walls
are smooth, the kind of material used for a wind instrument is, for the
most part, immaterial.

But to many musicians, even a mountain of research remains unpersuasive.
"We all know that wood flutes are much
more dolce, much sweeter," says flutist Paula Robison. In contrast, "a
gold flute sounds like an instrument made of
gold. The silver flutes are much more perky."

The variation in timbre of wood and metal instruments stems from
differences in acoustic dimensions brought about by
the manufacturing process, not by the materials per se, says Robin
Jakeways, a physicist at the University of Leeds.
For example, holes in wood flutes are simply drilled in, whereas metal
flutes have holes enclosed in a short length of
pipe. Brian Holmes, a physicist at San Jose State University and a
professional horn player, cites a study that found
that plastic and metal clarinets had tone holes with much sharper edges
than their wood counterparts. When these
holes were rounded off, these clarinets sounded much more like wood ones.
Materials also differ in their ability to
conduct heat and vibrations. "While those vibrations may not affect the
sound significantly, they certainly affect how the
instrumentalist interacts with the instrument," Holmes explains. After
spending a premium for an instrument made of
expensive material, it's only human to convince yourself that you must
sound better. And, as flutist James Galway
points out, the workmanship of an instrument made of $70,000 worth of
platinum is likely to be of extraordinarily high
quality. "People pick up my flute and say, 'This is better.' Of course
it's better; it's like getting into a custom-built motor
car," he says.

Whatever the underlying reasons, the devotion of many musicians to rare or
precious materials could help contribute to
their extinction. Dalbergia melanoxylem, known as M'Pingo, grenadilla or
African blackwood, and D. nigra, also
called rosewood or palisander, are considered endangered by those
countries that are developed enough to keep
reliable data, says Richard F. Fisher, a forest scientist at Texas A&M
University. Grenadilla is the wood of choice for
clarinets, oboes and, increasingly, for wood flutes and piccolos; rosewood
is a favorite for recorders.

Although the demand for fine musical instruments might seem too small to
inspire a harvest would have a dramatic
effect on the rain forest, Fisher asserts otherwise. To get to the remote
regions where these trees grow, harvesters
must clear rivers or build roads. "In many of these areas there are so
many landless peasants looking for a piece of
land to farm that after you remove just the few trees you want, they go in
and invade because now they have
access--you've created the access," Fisher says. "They cut down the rest
of the forest... and start to grow crops."

Fisher adds that these tropical species are extremely difficult to raise
on plantations. They take 60 years or more to
reach maturity and tend to grow poorly when raised clustered together in
stands, as their key defense against
predation is being scarce in the forest.

Indeed, an instrument maker in Libertyville, Ill., Boosey and Hawkes, has
been unsuccessful at replenishing M'Pingo
trees, says FranAois Kloc, a master craftsman there. To offer an
alternative material that is also more resistant to
cracking, the company developed a "green" line of oboes and clarinets.
These instruments are made of M'Pingo
sawdust and a patented mixture of fiber carbon and epoxy glue that is
heat-treated and placed in an 80-pound
(36-kilogram) press to give it the density of whole wood. This process
enables the company to use all of the tree
instead of only the prime 20 to 30 percent that was usable before. Old,
damaged clarinets can also be recycled in a
similar way to make new ones.

Whether such innovations will ultimately be widely accepted by music
lovers remains to be seen. "Most musicians and
many listeners believe without question that the material of which a wind
instrument is made has a profound effect on
its tone quality," Coltman remarks. "After 100 years, scientists have
still convinced nobody."

--Karla Harby in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

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