The secret of good tone

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The secret of good tone
The secret of good tone

The secret of good tone

Many woodwind instruments - clarinet, bassoon, oboe, saxophone and some of their relatives - have single or double reeds as a device for producing sound and are therefore classified as reed instruments. Even today, the reeds come from natural sources. Synthetic material is rare and is said to have poor sound quality. But reeds from natural sources also show significant differences in quality. The causes of these have now been investigated. Reeds are traditionally made from the cane of Arundo donax (mullet cane, giant reed, Gramineae), native to the Mediterranean. With instruments, a distinction is made between a single reed (the reed hits a frame, as in the clarinet and saxophone) and a double reed (the reeds hit against each other, as in the oboe and bassoon).

The anatomical structure of the reed, and consequently the mechanical properties that affect the musical quality, vary according to where the reed grows and the nutrients present at the site.

Peter Kolesik and his colleagues from the Horticulture and Music departments at the University of Adelaide in Australia have now formed a team to investigate how the anatomical structure of the reed affects the musical quality of clarinet reeds. Their findings are featured in the January issue of Annals of Botany.

Researchers compared the structure and musical qualities of clarinet reeds. A lot of cane was grown, fertilized and irrigated in special commercial plantations l. The other had been planted as a natural windbreak, which is what this cane is traditionally used for. Each reed made from the reed has been inspected by two experienced clarinet players and graded according to quality. Some of the reeds, which both players rated as "good", "fair" and "poor", were analyzed to see if any physical characteristics or the place of origin of the reed had anything to do with the musical quality.

The trunk of the reed is cylindrical and has a large hollow pith. The outer layer consists of a hard waxy epidermis, and underneath is a thick fibrous band. The bulk of the tissue, called the inner bark, contains the vascular bundles that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. The musical quality of a reed seems to be primarily determined by the structure of the vascular bundles.

Each vascular bundle contains three tissue types: xylem (carries water), phloem (carries nutrients), and fiber in a support ring around the rim. "Good" reeds have a higher proportion of fibrous tissue in a continuous ring around a lower proportion of xylem and phloem.

The tonal quality of bassoon and oboe reeds seems to be the same. Apparently, the higher mechanical stiffness of the fibrous reeds is responsible for the higher quality.

Giant reeds growing on a plantation are likely to have a more continuous ring of fibers and a higher proportion of fibers in the vascular bundles. The extra effort involved in rearing seems to increase the proportion of good reeds. But naturally grown cane still seems to have an inexplicable advantage. Of two tubes of equal fiber content, musicians generally gave the windshield tube a better rating.

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