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Science vs Common Sense
Saxophones are mostly made from brass, which is an alloy mostly of copper and zinc. There are and have been slightly different combinations, and various other metals (e.g. lead) also included. Saxophones are also made from other materials, e.g. copper, bronze, silver and plastic. Various finishes are available: different types of lacquer and metal plating, e.g. silver, gold and nickel. Whether any of these factors makes a difference to the sound is sometimes a hotly debated topic, so here are my thoughts after listening to some arguments and reading some of the acoustics, albeit with a limited scientific understanding. First a video of Slinky from Midnight in the Naked City. Two saxophones alternate each made from a different material:
- Brass (Buescher 400 TH & C)
- Acrylic (Grafton)
Science re: Saxophone Material
I’m not sure there is any actual science that looks specifically at saxophones, rather we have academic works by Arthur Benade on woodwind instruments in general and various flute experiments, especially those by Coltman and Linortner. These all seem to conclude that there is no (significant) difference due to materials. So to take those seriously in this context we need to assume that, as the saxophone is a woodwind instrument, the principles still apply. If you disagree with this, then of course those papers would not be at all convincing. I have read a lot of articles saying that material,or finish does affect the sound, but none of them have cited any scientific evidence.
Regarding material, Benade only seems to be interested in the inside wall, therefore to him it is the finish of the material that is relevant, not the thickness, mass, resonance etc. This is because he knows that the sound comes from a vibrating air column inside the tube of a woodwind, unlike with string or percussion instrument where the sound comes very much from the vibrating material, soundboard etc.
The way the material might affect the energy of the soundwave is from porousity and thermal conduction, both of which go towards dissipating the energy. So things that will affect the sound are porous inside walls and/or rough inside walls, e.g.unpolished wood vs smooth wood or metal.
He concludes that the difference is just about detectable (by the player but not the listener) and deems this not really significant. He also says that polished wood is very much closer to metal in the way it affects the sound, so what makes the (insignificant difference) is not the material, but the shinyness or reflectiveness which has an impact on the sound wave in the air column and the way it bounces and dissipates.
Given this, I think it’s safe to assume that any differences internally, due to bare brass, lacquer, or plating are way less than “just about detectable” as none of those finishes is significantly more or less porous or smooth. It is of course fair to say that roughness or smoothness inside the bore could make significant differences, but that is not due to the material per se.
Although not based on woodwinds, we can learn something about players’ perceptions when we to take into account an experiment by Richard Smith regarding trombone bells, where there was a measurable difference (due to material) of 2dB. That is quite significant, yet none of the players in that experiment actually detected the difference.
So even scientifically significant differences become insignificant when looked at in the real world of music making.
Interestingly Benade says that with the sharp (or blunt) corners of a tonehole, microscopic changes are readily detected by the player (e.g. 10 seconds of thumb wear on a new grenadilla wood tone hole !). He found such differences to be really significant and this in part explains why there may never be two identical instruments: the manufacturing process of pulling tone holes, soldering them on etc. is not done accurately enough to ensure exact same dimensions, down to such fractions of a millimetre.
So it’s very possible that material can make a difference, but not due to the “resonance” but due to the way the properties of a material may mean a slightly different dimension due manufacturing processes, e.g. when the tone holes are extruded, the corners are bent round a form, and if say one alloy is softer than another, then the tonehole corners may be more or less rounded.
My tenor saxophone has a bronze body and a silver bell. The manufacturer (R & C) claims that the instrument sounds different to the same one made from brass, and I agree this is entirely possible due to this very fact, that the tonehole corners may be slightly different.
That’s about as far as I’m prepared to go without making a fool of myself in front of those more knowledgeable, due to possibly oversimplification of “the science”.
By this I mean what the “layperson” (such as myself) thinks is obvious.
It seems there are two camps:
- Some people are convinced that it’s common sense that material would make a difference. Usually these people say something like “it’s obvious, different material would resonate differently.” However they are thinking of guitars, pianos, drums, bells etc. and in those cases they are probably 100% correct. Indeed a saxophone made from aluminium, plastic, wood, or with a thick coat of lacquer would sound significantly different, if you hit it with a hammer.
- Other people have listened to the Charlie Parker Jazz at Massey Hall concert, only to discover he was playing a plastic saxophone and then thought “well, material can’t make a real difference, if it did there would be a big difference between the sound of Bird on a metal saxophone and the sound of Bird on a plastic one, so if that is hardly detectable, then any differences due to metal with or without lacquer would be infinitesimally small”.
Manufacturers: They Ought to Know the Truth about material
If we look at it rather cynically, it could be argued that manufacturers have a vested interest in selling us the more expensive models, and there are only two arguments that can be used: they look better and they play or sound better. As we saw above there are some grey areas, because a material can affect the sound if it means that due to the material the dimensions are different, e.g. the shape of the tone hole corners. However the fact that nobody in the flute experiments referenced above could tell the difference between the materials points to this theoretical difference still being quite insignificant.
Still, there is much promotional material we see that tries to convince us to buy the silver finish, although strangely there seems to be little consistency in the claims for the sound properties. As mentioned in Stephen Howard’s article Myths and materials , one manufacture seems to claim that silver has a broader and edgier sound, yet another claims a darker sound due to the density.
However there is (or rather there was, many years ago) a refreshing piece of marketing from Buescher, based on the existing acoustic evidence:
Can’t we tell by Playing and Listening?
In spite of my belief in the acoustical theory I have read, I like to keep an open mind and as soon as somebody can prove, or at least put up a convincing argument, that saxophone material or finish does affect the sound then I would be happy to admit my current thoughts could be wrong. What I have discovered is how difficult it would be to make any kind of decisions based on playing. I would be the first to admit that the look of an instrument can have a psychological effect. If I pick up a beautiful looking horn, or a rare collectable piece of saxophone history, it’s very tempting to feel biased towards it having a great sound: the mind can easily play such tricks on you.
The only real way to tell, would be to get two saxophones, identical in all respects apart from the material, Then play each one blindfold in front of a panel of listeners, also blindfolded. (ie “double blind” test). However as the Coltman flute test showed, even among apparently identical instruments of the same material, differences in sound were reported. Is this because it’s actually not possible to make two identical instruments or because the listeners hear things differently from one moment to the next? Either way, it shows how difficult it is to conduct such experiments.
Based on my gut feeling, common sense, experience and reading, there is no significant difference though I remain open to persuasion. However we may never know the conclusive answer.