A Pine Prattens?



Many years back, I became aware of an article in the Scientific American that appeared to challenge my own experience.  The article stated that the materials a flute is made of make no difference to the sound.  So I decided to test the theory, by the time-honoured approach "reductio ad absurdum".....


The article

John Coltman, Baltimore flute researcher published the result of an experiment in Scientific American which is often touted as being the last word on this topic.  Unfortunately it isn't, and for easily understandable reasons.

John's experiment involved (from memory) three flutes made of three different materials, the most outlandish being concrete.  I seem to remember that only the bodies differed, but I can't be sure, and it doesn't really impact on our findings.  Essentially, an assembled audience was unable to tell the difference between the sound of the three flutes.  The conclusion reached is that materials a flute is made of makes no difference.

There is good scientific basis for John's findings - the performance of a flute is going to be principally determined by its shape - the shape of the bore, the shape of the embouchure hole, the shape of the finger holes.  The moving parts of a flute are air molecules, and the flute itself is simply the container for the vibrating air column.  Providing it's a satisfactory container - it's smooth, it doesn't leak and it's strong enough not to vibrate and rob energy from the vibrating air column.  John's three materials adequately met those criteria.  

But supposing your container wasn't so perfect.  To test the difference timber can make, I made a flute from our local plantation timber - pinus radiata - a coarse, soft, porous timber used for building framing.  It leaked so badly at first I couldn't play a note below A, and even those notes were weak and noisy.  So there's a major difference immediately!  With the typical 4mm walls of a wooden flute, I could suck air right through the walls!  Once heavily oiled (ie we plugged the leakage), it would play down to the bottom notes, but not with great enthusiasm.  I could feel the body of the instrument vibrating, and that energy has to come from somewhere.

So who's right, John or me?  Answer, both of us, because we're looking at slightly different questions.  John was probably aiming his experiment at the metal flute market, particularly those who spend vast amounts of money on flutes of exotic metals.  It probably didn't occur to him to consider using materials that were inadequate containers.  Why would you do that?

But inadequate containers is wooden flute business.  No wood is perfectly smooth, perfectly airtight and infinitely strong, although most of our flute timbers are adequately smooth, airtight and strong for our purposes.  That's why they are called flute timbers!  But my experiment shows that it is a spectrum, and that a timber not at the far end can be expected to give slightly different results to a timber at the far end.  Boxwood would be such a timber - about 80% of the density of timbers in the african blackwood category.  Coming back a little more, the "fine furniture timbers" - rosewoods, walnut, etc are half the density or less, and a good deal coarser in the grain - we should certainly expect less of them.  And that's why they are not normally used for flute-making.

Should we expect listeners to be able to tell the difference between rosewood, boxwood and blackwood?  Probably not.  In my experience listeners listen to the music and the musician, not the instrument, unless it is very bad indeed.  Was it the violinist Yehudi Menuen who, more than a bit cheezed off with the public attention given to his Stradivarius, came on stage, played to rapturous applause and then shocked his audience by smashing the fiddle, which turned out to be a cheap student model.

I would expect an experienced (and blindfolded) player to notice some differences in the performance of similar flutes made from radically different timbers, and to be capable of consistent and meaningful discernment. 

The Pine Prattens. 

As you can see, I didn't go to too much trouble - no rings, cap, corked tenons, etc.  But it is faithful to the dimensions I normally use for my Pratten's model.


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