September is classical music month! In honor of this excellent music and the often outlandish composers who created some of the most iconic pieces in history, we wanted to look and see what metals are used for musical instruments.
Materials in Musical Instruments?
Nowadays, the most common materials used are woods and metals. Historically, wood, bone, animal hides, and reeds have been popular choices for musical instruments.
The oldest device ever found that historians agree is a musical instrument is a flute that’s about 67,000 years old. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that we probably were making music for longer than that. Most likely the instruments just didn’t survive because of what they were made from.
After the Industrial Revolution, metals became increasingly popular in musical instruments. Now, we’re also seeing a rise in plastics and other synthetic composites. But despite this, wood and metal are still the most popular, especially in the types of musical instruments used in classical music.
Broadly speaking, most instruments used in classical music can be broken into four groups, Brasses, Woodwinds, Percussion, and Strings.
Interestingly, brass instruments aren’t necessarily always made from brass. They certainly are named for brass because they were and are usually made from that. However, what really makes a brass instrument is how they work. Musical instruments that fall under the brass category are tubas, trumpets, trombones, and horns.
Most brass instruments are made with yellow brass, gold brass, or red brass. Yellow brass is the most common, with a mix of 70% copper and 30% zinc. For the gold brasses, 85% copper, 15% zinc is preferred. Red brasses are the least common, with 90% copper and 10% zinc.
There are multiple reasons brass is the most popular material. Firstly, there’s just something about brass that produces a good timbre. Those rich sounds that you hear are made possible by brass. Interestingly, the sound of the instrument is impacted by how much zinc is in the brass. The sound is produced by vibrations in the metal, and the chemical makeup changes how the metal vibrates. This in turn, changes how it sounds. Yellow brasses are known for having a bright and tighter timbre. Whereas gold brass has broader, richer and deeper timbre. Red brasses have softer sounds, but they don’t resist corrosion as well so they are less common.
Secondly, brass is malleable and easy to work with. Given all of the round, complex, and curving surfaces in brass instruments, this matters. Third, brass is durable, and holds up well to friction contact. Most brass instruments utilize sliding parts, so this is important.
Fourth, brass, especially when polished and maintained, is beautiful. Looking at an orchestra full of gleaming brass instruments is visually striking. Lastly, musical instruments made from brass are easier to clean. Brass is corrosion resistant, and copper has inherent antimicrobial properties. Instruments made from brass will look nicer for longer, and have lower risks of mold, fungus, or other bacteria growing inside them.
Nickel-Silver is a less common material, but also common enough to mention. As a reminder, nickel-silver is neither nickel nor silver, it’s another copper alloy related to brass. Typically the alloy used is 60% copper, 40% nickel/zinc blend. It is more corrosion resistant than brass. Also, it produces an especially deep and sonorous sound.
These instruments can also be lacquered or plated, and this slightly impacts their sound. Typically, musical instruments are lacquered or plated to provide even more corrosion resistance. Clear lacquers, gold lacquers, gold plating, and silver plating are the most common.
Much like brasses, woodwinds are not necessarily made from wood. Again, it’s how the instrument works that determines the name. Instruments that fall under this category include oboes, clarinets, saxophones (yes, those are technically woodwinds), bassoons, flutes, and recorders.
For example, specific clarinets are often made from metal. People started making metal clarinets in the early 1900s. Originally, this popularity was due to the more dramatic high and low notes. However, this wound up being a bit of a flash in the pan. Modern metal clarinets are mostly appreciated because they are easier to work than wooden ones. However, the contrabass clarinet carries on the tradition from a century ago with flamboyant high and sonorous low notes.
Of the metals used in woodwinds, brasses are the most popular. The aforementioned metal clarinets and also saxophones use brass. They use them for the same reasons as brass instruments. The timbre, corrosion resistance, and antimicrobial properties all are useful.
Woodwinds are also interesting in that they make use of precious metals in a way that other instruments don’t. In particular, flutes are often plated in silver, gold, or nickel. Some flutes are even made from solid gold or solid silver! These metals give the flute a visually stunning aesthetic, but also provide bright, clear, and sharp notes.
Whether cymbals, drums, bells, or marimbas, these musical instruments all make sound from banging something into another. This type of instrument heavily relies on metals. In particular, cymbals and bells are all metal. Drums often use metal for the bodies or fasteners, but the drum skin itself is usually animal hide or plastic.
Cymbals and bells use another copper alloy, bronze. Bronze, like brass, is a mixture of copper and other metals. Unlike brass, which is a mixture of copper and zinc, bronze is a mix of copper and tin. The bronzes used in cymbals and bells range from 80% copper, 20% tin, to about 92% copper and 8% tin. Generally speaking, the more tin there is, the richer, fuller, and more sustaining the sound of the musical instrument is.
Brass is also used in bells and cymbals, but is generally considered of inferior quality. For percussive music, brass just doesn’t work as well and tends to sound more muffled. But, it is cheaper, often significantly so. Consequently, many entry-level cymbals and bells are made from brass.
Strings use the least metal by far. Violins, violas, cellos, harps, and guitars are all examples of string instruments. Overwhelmingly, they are still made from wood, including the screws and pegs. Modern guitars, especially electric guitars, are an exception to this. They typically use stainless steel or aluminum plates and screws for adjustment.
Two other instruments that are less common in classical music but are worth mentioning are the pipe organ and harmonica. Given that both of these instruments generate sound in manners similar to brasses or woodwinds, it’s not surprising both use brass as the main metal. The pipes in pipe organs are typically made from brass. Similarly, with harmonicas, the body can be plastic, tin, aluminum, wood, or other things, the guts are consistently brass.
While not common in classical music, DIY instruments are worth mentioning. These instruments tend to be made from steel and aluminum because of their price and availability. They are also much more often used for percussive instruments. Even though the metal gives off less impressive sound than bronze or brass, you can still shape the material to create interesting, unique, and striking sounds.
Check out this cool video about DIY metal musical instruments and the science behind how that works.