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With clarinet, recorders, and I presume oboe's also - it's common for beginner instruments to be made out of plastic/hard rubber, and more high quality instruments to be made from wood. This seems to give the instruments better tone.

Practically - wood is much worse than plastic - it can crack in cold, and is more susceptible to warping with moisture than plastic. Given the sound must be almost entirely produced by the shape of the bore, how does the material the bore is constructed from have such an effect on the tone?

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    The material HAS an effect, or do you really think professional flutists invest in massive silver flutes instead of the silver plated ones (not to mention the golden ones) just for improved appearance? – guidot Nov 7 '17 at 8:13
  • I visited the Bate Collection of musical instruments in Oxford UK, and looked at all the ancient instruments there. When asked about the difference between plastic and wooden recorders, they told us there's a recorder ensemble named "The Pink Panthers" who make a point of performing on plastic instruments - you don't need to spend a fortune to get a good instrument. It was also suggested that at least some of the benefits of an expensive (i.e. wooden) instrument are psychological. – Brian THOMAS Jun 12 at 12:38
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The basic answer (which applies to carbon fiber stringed instruments too) is that our current understanding of materials science is insufficient to produce a material which exhibits as "flat", i.e. uniform frequency resonance curve as wood. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of skill to select proper wood -- there's a reason reed instruments are made primarily of grenadilla and not any old tree from your backyard :-) .

Consider, OTOH, the fact that I've never even seen a wood mouthpiece. There are many different styles and types of rubber/plastic ones, and some clarinetists swear by the crystal models (and saxophonists looking for giant sound use Otto Link metal mouthpieces). Just pointing out that sometimes there are tradeoffs made in the interest of reliability as well as sound quality.

BTW, I used to play a metal clarinet in marching bands. It sounded crappy but I suspect a properly designed and built model would sound fine, albeit more saxophonish.

For that matter, solid metal 'brass' instruments tend to sound better than their fiberglass brethren. It's just a lot less painful to march with a lightweight Sousaphone, and the delta sound quality doesn't matter a whole lot in a football stadium.

  • Cheers Carl. Could you explain more what a 'resonance curve' is? – Chris Sep 21 '14 at 13:30
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    @Chris -- sorry, lousy terminology. What I meant was the relative responsivity of the instrument to each frequency. This is similar to the curves of output vs. input you see for loudspeaker response. Typically you'd like the overtone series to be emphasized up to a point so as not to yield high-pitched squeakiness, while also keeping the overall output of every pitch at about the same level. – Carl Witthoft Sep 21 '14 at 16:46
  • And the material an instrument is made of can affect that?! (And a natural material is better than a uniformly produced, man-made one?!?) Very cool - thanks! – Chris Sep 21 '14 at 17:18
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    @Chris, a particular natural material, wood, may be better than a uniformly produced, man-made one -- plastic and metal. But note, I've tried plenty of abysmal student recorders made of wood. It is perhaps more accurate to say wood can result in a superior instrument than our (current state-of-the-art) plastic can, but that doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the comparative merits of any two instruments. Also, note there are other natural materials – ivory, bone, and horn are all used for woodwinds, historically – and I don't know how they rate. – Codeswitcher Sep 22 '14 at 0:04
  • @Codeswitcher - oh absolutely. The question was a generalisation - wood is used for high quality instruments. Poor craftsmanship can of course happen with any material. – Chris Sep 22 '14 at 20:28
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A wooden instrument echoes the sound better than a plastic instrument, which basically absorbs the sound so much you can barely hear it. Now, if you have played a plastic instrument before, and then switched to a wooden instrument, you will know what I mean. The wooden instrument sound more resonant and louder than any plastic instrument. This is because they are ‘synthetic’ instruments. The plastic instruments actually may let air blow out easier, potentially causing fatigue over time. This is NOT good. I hope you understand what I mean!!

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    I find the premise dubious – plastic instruments certainly tend to sound quite shrill, I'm not convinced that wood ones are really louder – and the “reason” given is just a complete non-sequitur. Why would synthetic material be generally and inherently be less capable? – leftaroundabout Jun 11 at 22:27
  • @leftaroundabout Smacks of pseudoscience. `@Anonymous: References or it didn't happen. – user45266 Jun 12 at 4:10

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