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What are the timbral (sound quality) differences between nickel, silver and gold flutes, and what is it in these materials that produce the different sound qualities? I'm a string player, so I only know that these different materials exist, but I'm unclear about what they do. Also, are there other notable western flute materials?

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    Does this answer your question? How does the use of silver influence the quality of a flute? It seems like a near duplicate even though it doesn't narrow the field to just three materials (aaaand now I now about the "carrot clarinet") Sep 7, 2023 at 14:04
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    Thanks for the link! I did come across it before I asked this question, and it did give me an idea on how a flute's material affects its sound quality (although the article within was slightly convoluted). However, it wasn't very specific on the differences, and how the materials achieve this. The answer below has provided me with everything I need to know, but thanks for the suggestion! Sep 8, 2023 at 2:18

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The general opinion (highly subjective) among flute players is that denser precious metals produce an better sound. Gold is claimed to produce a warmer, darker, more complex sound, silver is claimed to be brighter and have more projection. Professional players nearly always play at least a full silver flute if not a gold one, although there are some exceptions.
One factor that must be considered is that much more care is taken in the construction of flutes using expensive materials so they will be better instruments. You'll never find a gold flute made in a factory.

Nickel, silver and gold or alloys/combinations of these are the most popular materials. Often a silver flute is upgraded by using a gold head joint. A silver head joint might have a gold 'riser' (the piece between the body of the head joint and the lip plate) or a gold lip plate. A nickel-silver flute can be upgraded by using a full silver head joint.

Sometimes other material are used:

  • Platinum is extremely expensive but flutes made from it are said to be even better than gold flutes.
  • Wood, most commonly African blackwood (grenadilla or Dalbergia melanoxylon) is still preferred by a few players.
  • Carbon fiber
  • Plastic. There are cheap, almost unplayable plastic flutes available
  • Brass (silver-plated)
  • Glass

The reason why noble metal produce better flutes is unclear, the density of the material and its heat conductivity might be the reasons. There are scientific studies with inconclusive results

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  • A flutist friend of mine claims the biggest sonic difference is achieved by changing the lip plate material as well as the material of the spacer between the head joint and the lip plate. Just one person’s take on it. Sep 7, 2023 at 15:10
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    There is probably quite a bit of placebo effect -- ie the player believes one material is better than another. There is also a difference between how the player experiences the instrument as compared to how an audience would experience it. A "better" ( ? ) comparison would be for the player to be blindfolded and playing different instruments of the exact same design behind a screen and letting the audience describe the difference (the audience should probably be flute players).
    – ghellquist
    Sep 7, 2023 at 20:16
  • Aside from the acoustical effects (if any), a gold lip plate would have one possible benefit: gold, at least anecdotally, seems to "wet" better, allowing a layer of water/saliva to spread evenly over the surface, which gives it a "softer" feel that some players prefer. Brass instrument mouthpieces often have gold-plated rims for the same reason.
    – Dalbergia
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:34
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    My experience is that people that spend silly amounts of money on something often believe that the thing they spend silly amounts of money on is very, very, very good. Sep 7, 2023 at 21:46
  • @Dalbergia The same effect can be achieved by gold-plating the lip plate.
    – PiedPiper
    Sep 8, 2023 at 17:07

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