Woodwinds made of modern materials

When I was young we had two clarinets that my dad could play, and I briefly tried. One was silver metal (nickel plated brass?) and the other was a dark material and came apart into several sections with cork joints. I had assumed it was ebony, but after reading on Wiki, it was probably ebonite or something. The clarinets would have been from the 1940s or earlier.

I see a few mentions of composite clarinets made of wood powder and a filler. Has there been experimenting with things like fiberglass or carbon fiber for woodwinds?


Materials matter very little for a wind instrument. It’s the air inside that’s doing the vibrating, and that’s going to be the same no matter what the container it’s in is made of. The only relevant properties of the material I can think of are prestige (from a precious material like silver) and weight, and a plastic clarinet is probably light enough already.

I always heard that the best clarinets are made of grenadilla wood. But I DO love the look of those old nickel-plated ones. I don’t think those have been made for years.

That is absolutely not true. There is a substantial sonic difference between the sound of plastic (ebonite or ABS) and wood (usually grenadilla) reed instruments, or between flutes made of silver and nickel (or varying combinations thereof). Composite (wood dust combined with resin) instruments do split the difference between the wood and plastic sounds, but lean more towards the plastic end of the spectrum. (I own an oboe and a piccolo made from composite.)

My brother was a clarinet prodigy and he insists wood clarinets make a big difference. Perhaps in an orchestra full of instruments the difference in sound quality is not significant but I’m not surprised that musicians can detect the subtle difference. Even in a sousaphone a fiberglass model lacks something in the tone that the brass instruments have. I have no great ear, had no business playing musical instruments to start with, but if I can detect the difference it’s not insignificant.

ETA: Maybe Chronos knows what I’m talking about with sousas. But anyone who had to carry one knows that a fiberglass horn is much preferred.

Understatement of the year. Fiberglass sousaphones are worth SHIT. For about two games in the Yale Precision Marching Band I was honored to carry one of their massive 19th century 300 pound (not quite) brass sousaphones, before I quit when I realized it wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.

Anyone who isn’t up for carrying the full brass weight has no right to play sousaphone.

Have any of you ever done blind tests? Because others have.

Ridiculous. In particular, the experiment with the flutes using different body materials attached to a fucking *plastic headjoint *was simply idiotic. Any flutist knows that the quality of the headjoint is the most important factor in the tone of the instrument! That’s why “step up” instruments for students commonly have a solid silver headjoint attached to a body that is only silver-plated.

Nobody that I’m aware of contends that the sound of the instrument comes from the body itself vibrating; the argument against that was a straw man. But the density and hardness of the instrument’s body clearly have an affect on the air column that is vibrating against that body. Imagine that your flute had the same interior dimensions as a standard flute, but instead of metal the body was made of wool. Do you think you’d get a normal flute tone out of that instrument?

Sorry, but I’ll take my long personal experience as a player over the word of some silly pop-science article.

I pretty much got picked for the job because I could carry one of those massive beasts. They don’t weigh 300 pounds, at least not when you first hoist one onto your shoulder, but they gain weight over time and 300 pounds is about right by the end of the game.

As a former bari sax player, I’d just note that the experience is similar, except that the weight is NOT resting on a relatively solid platform like one’s shoulders…

If the wool were somehow rigid enough to hold its shape and airtight, yes.

And criticize the experiments all you like, but do you have any better experiments to cite?

Any experiment that shows wool has different harmonics than metal? Why doesn’t middle C on a clarinet sound the same as middle C on a trumpet?

Yes, and I mentioned it: personal experience. Which currently involves the possession of four concert flutes, all of different composition, each of which just happens to display precisely the sound characteristics that are to be expected from their respective metals. If you don’t want to believe that, then don’t. But you’d have to be deaf to think they all sound the same.

In other words, no experiment at all. Experience is not the same thing as experiments, because experiments are controlled.

And obviously wool has different harmonics than metal, but that’s only relevant if we’re looking to make the wool itself vibrate.

Because the trumpet (cornet) is keyed to B-flat. Ha! Thought you had me, didn’t’cha! I empty my spitvalve over your neighbor’s prize crocuses!

(Okay, though, serious question: why do they sound different? Is it a matter of sound-absorption? Like, if you could make a magical force-field that was absolutely elastic, reflecting ALL energy that impinges, would it make a good trumpet/flute/tuba?)

They sound different because the shape is different. If you made a clarinet out of brass, it still wouldn’t sound like a trumpet.

Your long personal experience as a player was highly subjective. The silly pop-science article was describing an objective test. Basically, anecdotes over evidence. Still wanna defend your position?

The clarinet is also keyed to B-flat.

But I am interested in your magical force field wind instruments and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. I’ll take one each in flute, trumpet, and tuba.

The humor writer Jean Shepherd (best known for the filmed version of his story “A Christmas Story”) was a high-school sousaphonist, and commented on “the familiar achy ghost twinge in the left shoulder every former sousaphone player feels in the early autumn.” I now play a CC four-piston-valve concert tuba which is played sitting down, thank god.

I also play tenor saxophone but am horribly envious of those who can afford to own a baritone. I would gladly endure the neck pain if anyone here wants to buy me one.

Of course. The so-called objective tests were laughable. Actually putting the instruments into practice in the real world and hearing them with my own ears vs. some bullshit you read on the internet? I’ll go with the former, thanks. If you want to believe differently, you just go right ahead. <Pats Musicat on the head.>