• The whole of this article is now at https://www.malcolmtattersall.com.au/music/woodwind-materials/ but I have left the summary here for anyone who just wants the bottom line.

The influence of material on woodwind sound is a perennial topic of discussion amongst players and makers.

Usually the scientists say, ‘Dimensions,’ the players say, ‘But materials matter as well,’ and the scientists say, ‘No, just dimensions.’ As a woodwind-playing ex-scientist I had to try, in self defence, to reconcile the two.

What follows is a summary of the conclusions I have reached and the research they are based on. The research I have quoted refers to flutes but I am confident the results apply equally well to recorders, clarinets, oboes, bassoons and saxophones.

I am quite willing to add to it or change it if anyone can show me more evidence for or against my position: I don't claim infallibility. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence alone is unlikely to change my opinions significantly because I have already accumulated plenty of it in my forty-something years playing recorders, flutes (Boehm and pre-Boehm; metal, plastic and wood), clarinets, saxes and miscellaneous 'ethnic' woodwinds.

My Conclusions

Differences between similar woodwind instruments made of different materials come from:

    1. Differences in dimensions - bore and tone hole shape, and surface finish (see Fletcher, Coltman). This one is by FAR the most important.

    2. Mechanical differences between materials (McGee, Fletcher). This is largely number one in disguise, e.g. if one material is easier to work accurately than another, its dimensions will probably be closer to the design; or if ebony is easier to bring to a high polish than cherry, ebony flutes will tend to have smoother bores.

    3. The tendency for makers to put more effort into expensive materials (Fletcher). This is definitely number one in disguise.

    4. Preconceptions and wishful thinking (Coltman and Linortner). Players will tend to get out of an instrument what they expect to get out of it.

    5. Differences in feedback to the player. The player feels the sound vibrations through fingertips, lips and jaw; and he/she hears sound from embouchure hole (flute) or through the mouthpiece and jaw (reeds) and finger holes in different proportions from anyone further away. I have no idea how this feedback could be studied but as a player I am sure that it has an effect, even if it is mostly psychological -- which would mean it shades off into number four.

The evidence