Does music instruments’ material affect the sound?


When buying an instrument, you’ll often get to choose the material of your instrument and besides choosing the coolest looking one, but there’s more to it.

This post is a beginner’s guide to people who want to know which materials exist, how they affect the instrument’s sound and if you should care at all.

Let’s start with the basics, materials affect price, weight, durability, and sometimes sound. To know how much it affects each instrument we’re gonna separate them by categories (learn instrument categories here)  and if you’re curious about durability here’s our article

Brass

This category has instruments like bugle, baritone horn, cimbasso, cornet, euphonium, flugelhorn, french horn, mellophone, tenor / alto horntrombone, trumpet, tuba, and ophicleide.

Materials of brass instruments

You can get the instruments in brass… of course,  which is an alloy of copper and zinc and  there are 3 types of brass:

  • Yellow brass: 70% copper, 30% zinc, the most common
  • Gold brass: 85% copper, 15% zinc
  • Red brass: 90% copper, 10% zinc

Additionally, you can get lacquer or plating which is a very thin extra layer of nickel, silver, or gold added on top of the brass. Accessories like mouthpieces can come in other materials like stainless steel or solid gold, silver, etc.

Does it affect the sound?

The sound of brass instruments comes from the vibration of air on the metal through the tubes of the instruments, so in theory, having a different material should change the sound, but the difference is so small that it is insignificant and some people even say there’s no difference at all.

Buying tips

Since red brass has more percentage of copper it’s more expensive, the same logic applies for the other types of brass. Also despite its name red brass is orange.

The reason lacquer is applied to instruments is to prevent tarnish and corrosion, the more nobility a metal has the more resistant it is to corrosion, so the order of less nobility to more nobility is Brass, Nickel, Silver, and Gold each one more expensive than the last one.

The last thing lacquering will change the color of the instrument to the metal color, nickel white, brass-yellow/orange, silver, and gold, but it will not change the weight of the instrument since the layer of lacquer is really thin.

Woodwind

This is the category of the bagpipes, bansuri, clarinet, harmonica, ocarina, pan pipes, piccolo, recorder flute, saxophone, shakuhachi, tin whistle and transverse flute.

Woodwind instruments are mostly made of different types of wood or timber (including bamboo), but you can find some of them in brass / metals (like the saxophone and western concert flute) and plastic (like the recorder flute or harmonica).

Does it affect sound?

The sound comes by blowing air in a mouthpiece into a tube(resonator) so you will think that the material of the tube would change the sound of the instrument and that it’s true but only in the most extreme cases.

You may come across a lot of videos on how to make a recorder out of bamboo, an ocarina of clay or a flute of paper and those work, but don’t expect them to sound exactly like the professionally made ones.

Is when we talk about different types of woods and even metals that there is no sound difference at all.

Check if you can hear a difference, as a bonus test covers your eyes, make someone jump to random parts of the video, and try guessing.

There is usually a discussion when it comes to sound because some musicians will swear they can tell the difference between instruments, to clarify there have been many studies on it and all indicate there is no difference.

In tests where people need to distinguish between cheap and expensive instruments, there seems to be a pattern. It seems to be that the people feel different to play and people subconsciously want the most expensive instruments to sound better, so their brain convinces them that the instrument “sounds better”.

You can get wind instruments at the material’s color or paint it with no change in sound, so we recommend buying the most resistant instrument that you can afford and paint it if you want.

Buying tips

Metal and plastic will last a lifetime (if you treat them right), but wood is more susceptible to moisture and warping. Plastic is the cheapest, followed by wood and then metal.

Pay attention to the second half of the video

The last thing, for the saxophone, you can think of it as a brass instrument (check the brass section above) and in terms of weight, the order from less heavy to heaviest is plastic, wood, and metal.

Keyboard

This category has instruments like the accordion, digital piano, electric organ, keyboard, keytar, melodica, piano, pump organ, and synthesizer.

These instruments (depending on which one) are made of wood (hard maple, beech, spruce, Cyprus, cedar, walnut), plastic (celluloid, Delrin, styrene, PVS), with some pieces in metal (pipes, electronic devices, strings, wires).

Being from the Keyboard family means they have a row of keys, buttons, or levers that make the sound when you press them.

Does it affect sound?

First, we need to make a distinction, electric keyboards like the digital piano, keyboard, and synthesizer will sound different from physical keyboards like the regular piano, harpsichord, or dulcitone. 

Electric instruments will produce sound through speakers (making the quality of the speakers the difference maker) and sometimes using samples making the sound feel slightly artificial compared to a non-sample instrument.

Another distinction is necessary between the non-electronic instruments, instruments like the melodica or pump organ produce sound both through the keys and air, making them work the same way the woodwinds or brass.

The leaves us with keyboards that use strings like the grand piano, upright piano, etc. Here the quality of the strings and their age will change the sound.

Example of how much material changes sound for a piano.
Piano strings are made of piano wire, so correct tuning is considerably more important than material.

Buying tips

Wood will change the price of the instrument based on how rare it is, there are dozens of types of wood, and each one has different durability, texture, and color, so if possible make sure you get 2-3 pianos you want and compare them based on price and durability. You can also buy a piano from a brand that offers full repair and maintenance.

Strings 

Here you can find instruments like the Cello, Viola, Violin.Banjo, Bass Guitar, Guitar, Harp, Ukulele, etc.

The string family makes its sounds vibrating strings and the subcategory, that can be

bowed meaning it makes sound using a bow to vibrate the strings or plucked meaning it makes sound by plucking(moving, flicking) the strings.

Does it affect the sound?

Yes. Since the sound comes from the strings, the string material matters and not only the material but the thickness and shape of the strings. Different strings can change the sound slightly making it sound a little bit brighter or darker.

This goes to for the rest of string instruments, not just guitar

We need to make a distinction again, electric string instruments take their sound from magnetic fields and produce it on speakers, so the sound is affected more by your speakers and settings on your amplifier (or anything that you use to filter the sound) than by the material of the strings (than change the sound very slightly as we mentioned before).

Lastly, if your instrument has a soundboard like an acoustic guitar, you need to consider it as well, since it will affect the resonance of your instrument.

Buying tips

String instruments are very complex since the sound is influenced by many small factors one can easily fall into the trap of feeling like the sound isn’t right because of things like the pick you’re using, the material of the bridge, the temperature of anything that may make sense in your head. 

All of that can affect the sound, yes, but all of those factors combined don’t affect the sound more than the way you play the strings. The trap is feeling like one of these small factors is changing the sound and subconsciously starting playing worse to confirm your own self-made belief.

To avoid this, get an instrument with your favorite material, your favorite pick, bridge, head, soundboard, amplifier, etc. That way you cannot blame the instrument, only the way you play.

Conclusion

As you can see it depends a little on the category, but to answer the question, does the material matter? We’ll say no or so little that it doesn’t matter, a great player can make a cheap almost broken instrument sound like a top-tier one. In our opinion, the focus should be on durability,  price, and even looks.

Sources

  1. Yamaha
  2. Robb Stewart 
  3. Silverandbrassmusic 
  4. Bret Pimentel
  5. Wikipedia
  6. Gearank

Luis Gerardo

Musician as a hobby for +6 years, documenting every instrument in simple words for this website.

Recent Posts