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Materials That Orchestral Instruments are Made From

Jan 15, 2008
Makers of the instruments of the band and orchestra search the world for their materials. The collecting of these materials furnishes enough romance to fill a volume.

The mellow clarinet note in today's concert reminds us of great labors and sacrifices of native peoples in the tropical wastes of South Africa. The weird sound from the temple block echoes the woodsman's ax in the depth of the redwood forest of China.

The plaintive song from the reedy oboe was made possible by the dry soil and bright sun of the Mediterranean beach in southern France.

Without reeds, we would have no woodwind choir, no clarinets, oboes, English horns, bassoons or saxophones. And if nature had not chosen to throw together in one little spot in southern France a peculiar combination of dry topsoil, a subsoil moistened by the salty seepage from the blue Mediterranean Sea, a unique mixture of organic substances to nourish the roots, and a warm sun from a pleasant sky to bathe the leaves, we would have no reeds.

Cane grows in many spots on the globe, but not as it grows in a small area in France along the Mediterranean Sea known as the Var district, near Marseilles. The finest reed cane in the world comes from here, for the soil and climate seem to have conspired together to produce an ideal material for setting into vibration the column of air in the woodwind instruments.

If the climate were warmer and more moist, the cane would grow too fast and the reed would be too porous. If the climate were not so warm and the soil were drier, the cane would grow more slowly and the reed would be too hard.

Nor has man been able to add anything to this ideal combination, for the best cane grows wild and in its natural state; cultivated cane is inferior.

Elaborate pains are taken in preparing the cane after it is grown. For three years the cane is carefully cured one year in the dry and shade, then six months in the sun, with regular periods later on in the sun as the cutting, trimming and sorting process goes on.

Finally a small piece of cane about the size of a stick of chewing gum is produced, but there is nothing else in the whole world which can equal it for sounding the characteristic tone of the woodwinds.

If you should suddenly decide one day you were going to make the finest violin bow it is possible to produce, you would have to take a ship to the port of Pernambuco in Brazil. Then you would have to make a hard and long journey to the interior of this great country. There, after diligent search, you would find growing in the hard and rocky ground a tree called the Brazilwood tree.

You would then select a small tree, cut away the outside sapwood, and finally come to a small heart, dark red in color. This is the Pernambuco wood known to commerce. It was selected by Tourte, the great French bowmaker of the eighteenth century, as the best material for making violin bows, and nothing finer has ever been discovered.

It has just the right weight for balance, the right grain structure for retaining its shape, and the right resiliency for the utmost in bow technique.

Early in the development of the fine violins of Italy, the Amati and Stradivari craftsmen found there was nothing like the giant Norway spruce or Swiss pine for a violin top. These great trees grew up to heaven for a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet, and their grain was even and straight as parallel beams of light.

This wood fulfilled the needs for a material of great elasticity but light weight. They didn't know then, but scientists have since found out, that sound travels faster through this wood than any other, attaining a velocity through the grain lengthwise of fifteen thousand feet per second, a velocity nearly equal to that found in steel.

They didn't have technical proof of this, but their trained ears told them that this sprucewood gave the best results. They cut the logs through on the quarter and sawed through the center.

Then the center edges were glued together. This gave them identical grain structure from the center to both outside edges, the grain being so uniformly even and regular. After three centuries of violin making, nothing has been found which surpasses this wood for violin tops, and so makers today still fell the giant spruce for this part of the violin.

Several tropical woods have been used for making the bodies of the woodwind instruments. The picturesque cocoanut tree was one of them. The best wood for this purpose comes from the West Indies and Central America, It grows best in the sandy soil along the sea, or not far inland. In contrast to Pernambuco wood, only old trees are used.

The heart is cut out of the lower portion of the tree trunk. This wood is brown in color, heavy in weight, hard to cut, but can be polished to an almost metallic luster. It is known commercially as cocuswood, and many fine woodwind instruments have been made from it.

Some instruments are still made from cocuswood, but it has generally been abandoned, for it contains a resin which causes skin poisoning.

Another wood used for making clarinets, flutes and oboes was boxwood. True boxwood comes from Venezuela, but most of the boxwood used in musical instruments came from the West Indies.

It is very tough and has an extremely fine texture, but it has one serious defect it warps. This defect was not so serious when the key system of musical instruments was limited to a half-dozen single keys, but when several keys were mounted on a single long hinge, slight warping caused the hinge to bind, and boxwood had to be abandoned.

To the rescue came grenadilla wood, known also as Mozambique ebony and as African blackwood. This wood is cut from the arid wastes of Mozambique, South Africa, or the huge island across the channel to the east, known as Madagascar.
About the Author
Malcolm Blake has spent years studying music online and off. He is currently working on projects for people who are learning to play guitar and want to learn guitar chords online.
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