TMS Home Page Presenting a Web-Enhanced
Feature Article from JOM

View Current Issue




Feature Vol. 59, No.8, p. 13-17

The Science of Sound: Examining the Role
of Materials in Musical Instruments

Kelly Roncone Zappas

About this Issue



JOM in Print
The print and/or PDF versions of the article can be acquired.



Figure 1
Ted Brewer’s Vivo2 electric violins, constructed in strong monocoque frames from advanced polymer materials, deviate from traditional violins, in both material and shape. Photo courtesy of Ted Brewer Violins.[AUDIO SAMPLE]



Figure 2
At the Institute für Wiener Klangstil (IWK) in Austria, researchers tested seven identical fl utes made out of silver, various degrees of gold, and platinum, as well as coated instruments, to determine the sound quality from the different flutes. Photo courtesy of the IWK. [AUDIO SAMPLE]



Figure 3
Standing in front of the rowing shells he designs for his day job, Douglas Martin shows one of his experimental balsa violins.



Figure 4
This image shows holographic measurements of vibrations in trombone bells of various thicknesses. Though there is a measurable difference in vibration, instrument players were able to detect little difference in sound quality among the three. These diagrams come from Richard Smith’s studies of trombone bells.



Figure 6
The Impact Hammer Rig, a piece of equipment designed by Joseph Curtin for measuring the frequency response of violins and violas in a workshop setting. A tiny hammer taps the side of the bridge, while a sensor in the hammer records the changing forces exerted on the bridge. A microphone picks up the sound. A spectrum analysis program compares the signals from hammer and microphone in order to calculate the sound pressure per-unit-force at the bridge.



Figure 6
Crafted from wood more than 250 years ago, Stradivarius instruments are considered by many to be the ideal model for violins. These are from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.



Figure 5
The serpent, part of the National Music Museum collection, is the only known work by English brazier William Lander. (Serpent by William Lander, Mere, Wiltshire, c. 1825. Joe and Joella Utley Collection, National Music Museum, The University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota, no. 7129. Photo by Mark Olencki.)












Questions? Contact
2007 The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society


Wood may never be replaced as the material of choice for violins, and there may never be a more appropriate material than brass for constructing trumpets and horns. Still, instrument makers use materials as a way to differentiate their products from others, and even traditional craftspeople have been known to tinker with advanced materials for better sound quality—if only in the details of an instrument.

While materials selection plays a role in all instrument production, the extent of a material’s effect on the sound varies from one instrument to the next.

“In some instances, the material is directly involved in sound generation, while in other instruments, this is not the case,” said Gregor Widholm of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. “For the violin, the material is extremely important, because the body generates the sound that we hear. The other extreme is the clarinet, where the air column inside generates the sound and the material is only needed to form the shape of the air column. In this case, you can take any material.”

From wind instruments to violins, scientists and musical instrument makers continue to test the use of traditional materials, while looking for ways to integrate new ones.


Materials are a hot topic in brass musical instruments: not so much because of scientific advances and innovations, but for quite the opposite reason. The debate is over whether the metal used plays any role in the sound of the instrument at all. The role of metals in brass instruments and flutes is a subject of considerable debate among instrument makers and players.


Sabine Klaus has a unique goal: she hopes to shed light on some of the forgotten instrument makers of history to give a more complete view of the field as a whole. In contrast to Stradivari and del Gesù, whose work is still revered and imitated today, many smaller or less famous instrument makers have faded away. Klaus, who is the Joe and Joella Utley Curator of Brass Instruments at the U.S. National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, has made it a point to try to track down the origins of many items in the museum’s collection and to shed some light on their creators.

Klaus has written a series of articles on lesser known figures in the history of musical instrument making, among them William Lander, a brazier living in Mere, Wiltshire from 1763–1843. Although Lander was not particularly influential or innovative in his designs, he left behind two key artifacts that provide a look into the work of an average instrument maker of the time: a serpentine horn housed in the National Music Museum’s collection (Figure A) and two handwritten notebooks that provide drawings, measurements, and notes from the brazier on his instrument designs.

“What I wanted to show is that normal brass makers who make pots and pans were also involved in instrument making,” said Klaus. “I am rather concerned about trying to pay attention to minor people who show the whole picture of history. We have a tendency to pick out the famous people, and I think that this presents a slightly distorted picture of the world and of history. My work originated almost in every single case from instruments that we have in our collection. There are some instruments by makers who are either totally unknown or hardly known at all.” Lander then is important, in that he represents many small brass makers whose works and notes did not survive. “It was rather special that all of his thoughts are preserved in these notebooks,” said Klaus. “It gave us a glimpse into how a fairly rural instrument maker would get his sources and his inspiration.”

The horn, known as the serpent, stands out as an unusual-looking instrument today, but, in Lander’s time, it was a fairly common brass instrument used in church music and usually accompanied simple hymn singing. Around the bell of the instrument, the signature “WM. LANDER MAKER, MERE, WILTS.” is inscribed, ensuring that this simple brassmaker’s work will be remembered. Lander is one of many instrument makers represented in the National Music Museum’s collection, which can be viewed on-line at

There is, obviously, a significant price difference between instruments made of valuable metals and those made of less expensive materials. But is there a difference in the sound? That’s what some researchers have set out to determine.

In Austria, Widholm conducted a study to learn the effect of different metals on the sound of flutes, while in the United Kingdom, Richard Smith has conducted tests to determine if different materials yield different sounds in trombones.

Testing Precious-Metal Flutes
Widholm, who established the Institut für Wiener Klangstil (IWK) at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna in 1980, conducts applied research in the field of musical acoustics, with a focus on the particular sound characteristics of the Viennese playing tradition. The institute credits Widholm with founding the scientific research field of musical acoustics in Austria by adapting scientific physical measuring methods to the investigation of the functionality of musical instruments. In recent years, Widholm and his colleagues set out to provide a final answer to the question of whether materials make a difference in sound quality—and to determine if it is worth spending $150,000 on a 24 kt gold flute or if a $3,500 silver-coated model will do the job just as well.

In the study, Widholm and his colleagues chose seven identical flutes made by a single manufacturer, Muramatsu, in seven different materials: silver coated, full silver, 9 kt gold, 14 kt gold, 24 kt gold, platinum coated, and all-platinum. Seven professional flute players from Viennese orchestras were recruited to test the flutes by playing short solo pieces and individual notes on each of the seven flutes. These results were recorded and analyzed by IWK researchers, and the professionals listened to the results. What they found was that the instrument being played had little effect on the sound.

“Silver, 24 kt gold, and platinum all have different vibrating properties, of course, but the musician can mask all these properties by generating the sound,” said Widholm. “That’s the reason why there’s really no difference between the $3,500 flute and the $150,000 flute. We conducted these tests with professional flute players, and when they heard the samples recorded, they heard no difference. There are some notes where you can hear slight variations, but in general, there was no difference.” These tests measured the dynamic range of the instrument—that is, how loud or soft the musician can play. The platinum flute provided a slightly higher dynamic range, but, while measurable, it was not significant. The difference between musicians varied more than between instruments.

“The musician can create their own personal sound with any flute,” said Widholm.

An Experiment in Brass
Unlike many instrument makers, who start out as musicians, Richard Smith began as a scientist, receiving masters and Ph.D. degrees in acoustics. His doctoral research dealt with the application of quantum physics to musical instruments.

Now, Smith uses his scientific background to manufacture brass instruments with high sound quality at his own company, SmithWatkins, where he designs instruments with trumpet player Derek Watkins. Recently, SmithWatkins cornets were selected over ten other top manufacturers as the instrument of choice for the U.K. Royal Air Force.

“Opinions on the matter of the contribution to musical quality made by the walls of wind instruments are diverse and certainly not lacking,” Smith wrote in “The Effect of Material in Brass Instruments,” an article that appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of Acoustics in 1986. “They range from those of the staid scientist who refuses to consider that the walls could have any effect at all, to those of the misguided musician who proposes pseudo-scientific theories of sound production.”

Like Widholm, Smith has also put instruments to scientific tests to determine if varying the material of an instrument will change its sound. Smith conducted an experiment using several trombone bells of various materials and thicknesses. Although holographic measurements show differences in the vibration for the various thicknesses of material, Smith found that not one of the professional trombone players in his study was able to tell the difference either between different types of material or different thicknesses of material in the bell of the trombone.

Internal shape is important to the sound, bell shape is important, and the lead pipes are important, according to Smith. “Materials are really just the icing on top,” he said. “I don’t worry too much about materials.” For trombones, trumpets, and horns, the materials issues really have not changed in years. For Smith, brass is still best.

“It’s all about what material is easiest to work with,” said Smith. “Brass is ideal because it’s malleable.” While the body material will likely stay the same, there is room for materials innovations in some of the instrument’s smaller pieces. For example, Smith would like to see a materials redesign of trumpet valves to make them faster. Using lighter weight materials in the valves, such as magnesium or titanium, could be the solution, he suggested.

A new challenge has been offered for materials science.

Instruments are Like Golf Clubs . . .
If specific metals have not proven to make much difference in the sound of metallic instruments, why select one material over another? Some manufacturers use materials as a marketing device to differentiate themselves from competitors. For others, it is simply a way to offer musicians more choice.

“There is, of course, a psychological effect,” said Widholm. “If you have a perfect instrument made out of silver that cost $10,000 and then you got a 24 kt gold flute for $120,000, maybe you would play the gold instrument in a slightly different way.”

Elizabeth Holm, a materials scientist and amateur musician, compares it to the golf club industry, where new clubs made of better materials are introduced every year, claiming to improve your game.

“There’s a strong placebo effect. If you have more confidence in your clubs, doesn’t it make you play a little better, at least for a while?” she said. “I don’t know; I’ve never measured it. But it’s the same with music.”


In the 1700s, violins enjoyed a golden age that modern-day violin-makers, or luthiers, are still trying to recapture. The works of Italian makers like Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri (“del Gesù”) are largely still considered to be the ideal forms of the instrument, and many of the most popular instruments today are based on these designs.

“They have historic status. They have the glamour associated with some of the famous players who have used them over the last few hundred years. They tend to be passed down from player to player and collect stories,” said Joseph Curtin, a luthier in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Also, they’re beautiful objects; the way time has changed their look can be very, very beautiful.”

Curtin has created replicas of both del Gesù and Stradivari violins, but he also spends a considerable amount of time experimenting with new ways of making violins and violas, particularly to reduce their weight. His experimental work earned him a $500,000 MacArthur fellowship in 2005, which recognizes exceptional creativity and promise for important future advances.

“In a sense, the standard of a violin, at least in the popular mind, was the Stradivarius,” said Curtin. “But it’s not logically possible to have innovation if you already have a model.”

So Curtin began by considering how to make small changes to the violin, for example, by using the same basic form, but making the instrument just a little bit louder. If he could do that, then what else could be changed? “You quickly start to see that the violin is rife with unresolved design issues,” he said.

Curtin is not alone in questioning the instrument’s design. The Catgut Acoustical Society, a branch of the Violin Society of America, provides a forum for instrument makers like Curtin to discuss the application of scientific principles to the construction of instruments in the violin family. A fellow member of the Catgut group is Douglas Martin, a builder of rowing shells by trade who also experiments with new designs for the violin in his spare time. Though they have very different professional backgrounds, both Curtin and Martin have experimented with carbon fiber and light weight woods.

Artisans and Boat-Builders Experiment with Materials
A co-founder of the Maine-based company Echo Rowing, Martin has gained experience working with carbon fiber to create both rowing shells and oars. The high stiffness of carbon fiber composite and greater density in comparison to wood allowed him to produce an oar shaft of greatly reduced cross section for lower wind resistance.

“To me, the big issue is that new materials allow us to push design and performance,” said Martin. “I made several fairly traditionally shaped violins with layers of carbon fiber laid into a mold with epoxy. I didn’t find that to be terribly promising since such simple laminates are very stiff and dense. If it’s going to be graphite, I’d rather see a really wild design that fully exploits the material.”

Curtin also spent some time experimenting with carbon fiber for violins but found the material inconvenient to work with for a number of reasons. It is expensive, it has to be stored in the freezer, and the luthier has to determine the exact shape of the instrument from the beginning. With wood, once the basic shape is carved, the violin maker can shave off a bit of wood here and trim a bit there to achieve the desired sound. But with carbon fiber, the material is molded. Once shaped, nothing can be done to change it.

“I realized I could do everything I was trying to do with carbon fiber more easily, less expensively, and arguably with a better appearance by laminating spruce over very light cores, such as balsa,” said Curtin, who adds that once he sees how far he can go with wood, he may give carbon fiber another look. Some luthiers do continue to work with carbon fiber, and composite violins are currently on the market from a few companies.

Like Curtin, Martin has also returned to wood and lately has constructed violins made almost entirely of balsa wood. Unlike the composite molds, the balsa violins allow him to learn a lot about instrument-making very quickly—just as engineering students often use balsa wood to build experimental models. It’s also easier to work with balsa at your kitchen table than with composites, Martin points out. But his interest in experimenting with new materials has not yet ended.

“One thing I want to try is something like the space shuttle tile. It’s a ceramic foam with very low density and it wouldn’t be sensitive to small temperature changes. It should be very stable,” he said. “I’d love to get my hands on those.”

Though he hasn’t run across the ideal material yet, Martin believes it would resemble a crispy waffl e cookie, since the spruce wood typically used for violins has a crunchy consistency.

“If someone with infinite knowledge made a synthetic instrument right now, it wouldn’t really be that much stronger than a wood one,” said Martin. But it could be lighter in weight or less susceptible to warping. “It would have to have that delicate crunchiness to get the proper vibrational properties.”

A Place for Material Advances: One Materials Scientist’s Perspective
Though carbon fiber won’t replace wood anytime soon in the body of the violin, it is finding use in violin accessories. While the basic instrument design may be viewed as sacred by some, there is room for innovation in accessories. Elizabeth Holm, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratory, plays violin in her spare time and has come across a number of high-tech materials being integrated, in smaller ways, into parts associated with the violin—most notably in the bow.

Traditionally, Pernambuco wood, a tropical hardwood from Brazil, has been the primary source of violin bows. The tree is now endangered, prompting bow makers to try out new materials. “Much as with any materials problem, it need not be the technical issue that’s important, it can be the supply issue,” said Holm. “And here Pernambuco has become hard to get and very expensive, so we have to find something else. And one of the answers has been carbon fiber composite bows.”

Holm, who primarily plays Irish folk music on her violin, owns several carbon fiber bows and has found that this substitute material can make sturdier, lighter-weight bows that are not prone to warping like wooden bows.

“That is one of the most important things in a bow,” said Holm. “Once it warps, it loses most of its value to the musician. The carbon fiber bows aren’t susceptible to that.”

From a consumer perspective, the bows are often less expensive and more uniform, meaning that if a musician finds a bow that they like, they can go back to that manufacturer and purchase the same model, knowing that it will be the same product.

Holm also found that changing the material used on another very small piece of the instrument led to vast improvements in sound. The tailpiece of a violin—the piece that holds the violin strings at the base of the instrument—is connected to a button on the bottom of the violin by a piece of string. Holm found that the material used for this small loop of connecting string made a noticeable difference in the overall quality of sound from the instrument.

“Being a materials addict, I read about the Harmonie tailpiece, which advertises that it is one of the lightest around,” she said. “It is made of ebony, but it has carbon fiber screws—tuners—to hold the strings. I thought that was cool, and I couldn’t resist ordering.”

Traditionally, the string that connects the tailpiece to the button is a stiff metal wire coated with plastic, but the Harmonie tailpiece came with a Kevlar string. Holm noticed an immediate improvement in sound from the new tailpiece. Even more surprising, she found that, when using the Kevlar string with an old tailpiece, the sound improvement was nearly the same as when she had replaced the whole tailpiece.

“This is Kevlar, the bullet-proof vest material, and it’s a high-tech material being used in a different way,” said Holm. “It has high elastic modulus, but it’s not thick and stiff. It acts like a piece of string in terms of tying the tailpiece on. Interestingly, in the old days, tailpieces were tied on to the button with a piece of gut, which was much more streamlined. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we moved to these stiffer metal wires that are more bulky and less flexible.”

Anything Goes for Electric Violins
For the most part, violins depend on material and structure to create their sound, but there is an exception: the electric violin.

“You’re not relying so much on the shape and resonance of the body of the violin because you are directly amplifying the sound, the vibrations of the strings,” said Holm. “Anything goes with materials: there’s machined aluminum, there’s Lucite, there’s various molded plastic, and so on. You can pretty much abandon, when you go to electric violins, the traditional shape of a violin and the traditional body.”

Ted Brewer Violins, a U.K.-based producer of electric violins, has a line of instruments made from polymers that bear little resemblance to a traditional violin. Here, material is generally unimportant to the sound, but Brewer does note the importance of material in the instrument’s bridge.

“The Vivo2 uses a carbon fiber bridge as this material transmits the true sound,” said Brewer. For the chin rest and fingerboard on the Vivo2, Brewer prefers ebony because these components are readily available and cost effective for that instrument. The Vivo2 also uses an aluminum tailpiece, while other violins in Brewer’s collection use acrylic throughout their construction, including the fingerboard, tailpiece, and chin rest.

“There are no restrictions on materials used in building electric violins, but as weight is a major factor, choice must be made with this in mind,” he said. And, in the end, it’s not always about science. The choice of material in a musical instrument sometimes comes down to one important factor: looks. Brewer’s violins come in a range of colors and are outfitted with light-emitting diodes for illuminated playing.

“For aesthetics, materials play an important role,” said Brewer. “If the violins look great, they will sell well.”

Kelly Roncone Zappas is news editor for JOM.