What is the relevance of the material of a wind instrument? Honestly, you will get more opinions on this topic than you could care to imagine. The differing sides are very passionate about their opinions as well.
So what difference does a material make?
First, let me preface that the following information is my personal opinion based on many years of experience in the retail side of things and especially being on the listening end when customers try various instruments out in my store.
Second, I believe that how material effect tonal performance and the degree of which will be different for woodwind instruments than it is for brass instruments. This is because of the physics of what is going on. With woodwind instruments, the sound is emanating from open toneholes. With brasswind instruments, the sound is always coming from the bell. Brass instruments also have a much longer air column. So if a material is to make a difference, logic would dictate that the longer air column is in contact with the material for a longer period of time and therefore have a higher chance of making an impact.
Third, I am no scientist or acoustical engineer. I have had conversations with those who are and even in that community, there is not consensus on the subject.
So… without further adieu, my opinion/experience/whatever you want to call it!
When thinking about how to approach this blog post, I wanted to focus on the most extreme case scenario to either support or refute the concept. I will tell you right now that I personally do feel that the material of a wind instrument does actually affect the sound & performance, but not by anywhere near as much as many believe. In fact, I have read numerous scientific papers that present themselves as proof that material in fact does not have an effect. However, even when reading through their data, they do show that there is an effect on the data, but they figure it too small to make an actual difference in performance.
The other problem is that the general nature of manufacturing of musical instruments does not yield perfect consistency in which to do a true side by side test of the same design made in multiple materials. However, modern manufacturing is close enough in my opinion for the majority of the manufacturing, but the issue of consistency is problematic when dealing with hand-made or hand modified components. So to me, to really test a side by side aspect, the lower quality of instrument, the better to test. This is because low-end instruments have less hand work on them than better level instruments.
Sadly, there is not a great true side by side that can be done that would meet all of the criteria needed in my opinion to really do the test properly. So, we will move on to the next best thing and test the extreme material differences. The perfect instrument for this opinion piece is the…
Yeah, you are reading that correctly. A plastic trombone… or at least most of it. The slide tubes (inner and outer) are made from fiberglass with the only metal on the trombone being the stockings at the end of the inner slide tubes being made out of brass. As for the specifications of the instrument, they are pretty standard with any student style trombone. .500″ bore, straight tenor, standard mouthpiece style, standard bell taper and size. Granted, we can’t do a side by side comparison with a brass version of the same horn, but this should at least give weight to the argument.
Since the sound we hear out of any wind instrument is the vibration of the air column, then the fact that this “instrument” made from plastic and fiberglass should sound just like any other trombone. The reality is…
It does. It plays like any other trombone for the most part. So far every trombone player that we have had test it (2 local professionals who each bought one and 2 middle school band directors that are trombone players and they both are buying one as well) have been really impressed.
Hear it for yourself:
You will note the term “for the most part” in my statement above. This is because in the end, these horns are not quite as resonant and as big in sound as student model brass trombones that feature a similar specification set to them. Is the difference huge? Absolutely not.
This instrument is a great proof of concept that while yes the material CAN affect the sound, it is by no means as big of a difference as many people would want to believe.
I know that I will get emails on this one wanting to further discuss and/or argue against my statements here but let me further state that this is by no means a true scientific side by side blind test. However, I have been around enough trombones to know that there is a difference in tone and overall performance between brass models and this first of its kind plastic instrument. If you think I am wrong, that’s OK. Its happened before (ask my wife) and I am sure it will happen again!
The point is this: don’t always believe what you are told or taught. Be willing to simply test and see for yourself. In the end, the instrument (regardless of what its made out of) is simply an amplifier for you. YOU make the sound.