Results 1 to 7 of 7

Thread: Ivory Keys and Gut Strings are superior?!

  1. #1
    Senior Member GrosseFugue's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2011
    Location
    San Francisco, CA
    Posts
    182
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default Ivory Keys and Gut Strings are superior?!

    In an issue of BBC Music mag, I was reading about Paganini's famed "Cannon" violin and the process to restore it. It was said that giving it "original gut strings" produced a "greater range of tonal shadings, but that various hand positions on different strings possessed their own timbral identity -- which explains the distinctive registral shifts in Paganini's music."

    Would something similar apply to ivory keys for the piano? I understand ivory is better to touch, more responsive and less sticky. Could Liszt have played exactly how he did on synthetic keys?

    Organic materials are still the best apparently. So why don't more professional musicians use them? Could it be that most musicians today are playing below their potential by using and training on synthetic materials? Didn't Horowitz and Heifetz prefer ivory and gut?

    No, I'm not advocating the slaughter of elephants! Plenty still pass away naturally, out in the wild or in zoos. And as for gut strings -- aren't they relatively easy to procure?
    "Beethoven is a humanist, and an arsonist."
    -- Jonathan Biss

  2. #2
    Senior Member Enthalpy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2020
    Posts
    357
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default

    How perfect is the comparison between gut strings and ivory keys? I just put as an interrogation as I played the piano very little. But I did play the violin and tennis.

    The strings contribute directly to produce the sound, and their effect is huge. The string player notices the difference immediately, the listener too - it's not like good wall materials for a woodwind, which needs a quarter hour of careful comparisons before one convinces himself of a difference. As opposed, the key material doesn't contribute essentially to the sound, to my understanding.

    ==========

    Gut has physical properties that have not been matched by synthetic materials up to now. For (some) musical strings, on the violin, the harp... the string must be strong and light enough that its tension gives it a sound speed bigger than in air.

    Few materials achieve it: the best steel, stretched nylon, some high-tech rope fibres, that's all more or less.

    Some strings must also stretch much under tension. The piano seems to live without it, but it's all-important to the harp and to bowed strings. It's one reason to use a thinner core and wrap it with heavy wire, when a string must be slow, so the limited tension stretches the thinner core more. End of the game for graphite fibres.

    And then, the core material must give back elastically its deformation, even at the vibration pace of a music sound. Here, all high-tech rope fibres are out. It leaves nylon, not quite good, and gut, which outperforms all present materials. This holds for tennis rackets too. Champions use gut, big difference.

    Gut has obvious drawbacks. It demands a rare know-how to process it to strings and is expensive. It's sensitive to moisture. It creeps. It breaks. But the difference is so huge that professional harpists live with these very real annoyances. On a violin, the drawbacks are more acceptable.

    From time to time, I tell to chemists that I want more diverse polymer properties than just strength and stiffness. Whether one hears me? It would bring much to musicians.

    Whether gut is always better? It depends on the desired sound. About every present violinist uses a steel E string.

    ==========

    More natural materials have properties unmatched by man-made ones. The pads of woodwind instruments use goat or kangaroo leather, for the flute fish leather or intestine again. Some string instruments (Qanun) have a fish skin under the bridge. These too have excellent physical reasons, very close to gut for strings.

    Bone, teeth, ivory, antlers have a stiffness between plastics and metals, offering a big elastic deformation. We have no man-made materials in this range. As a plectrum it could matter.

    As a piano key, is it really important? Maybe designers in the 19th century had no other choice. Today, we have ceramic-loaded epoxies. And what about Vectra for instance, with some cold stretch? Bone? Mother of pearl?

    ==========

    You suggested ivory from dead elephants only. well, a living elephant is easily transformed into a dead one. Since law means little in some countries and to some people, the only realistic measure is to forbid ivory completely.

    Presently, mammoth ivory can be and is traded for such purposes. I don't like that. We have more mammoth remnants than science needs presently, but maybe not in the future. It's also rumoured that much elephant ivory travels to Siberia where a stamped paper sheet transforms it to mammoth ivory.
    You just write French exactly like you spell it. Very simple!
    In the Navy, one must salute everything that moves and paint the rest.
    I wish so dearly Mozart were still alive! And his music already dead.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Location
    New England
    Posts
    3,746
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default

    I gather that big advances have been made with synthetic reeds, but tmk, good old cane (arundo donax) is the best material for making reeds for woodwind instruments....the strength/flexibility have yet to be matched by synthetic, plastic reeds....

  4. Likes Enthalpy liked this post
  5. #4
    Senior Member Enthalpy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2020
    Posts
    357
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default

    Fully agreed, Heck148!

    Sophie Dervaux played on a plastic reed in a recent TV interview, and even she sounded dull.

    Physics explains this too. For bent materials, the thickness matters cubed but Young's modulus linearly. A less dense material like cane can make the reed of same strength just slightly (thanks to the cube) thicker, so it's lighter and resonates at a higher frequency, resulting in a richer sound.

    The corresponding figure-of-merit is E/rho3 where E is the lengthwise Young's modulus and rho the density. If putting figures:
    Arundo Donax, even wet > the best wood > unidirectional graphite fibre composites > usual polymers > metals

    Légère are perfectly aware of this. They patented reeds of polypropylene cold-stretched to stiffen it a lot in the length direction.

    The same reason makes wood superior to graphite fibres for the soundbox of string instruments.
    (Spruce) Picea abies > almost every other wood > graphite fibre composites > usual polymers > metals
    Though, (kiri) Paulownia tomentosa > Picea abies according to the same figure-of-merit.
    It serves for the koto. One guitar luthier is enthusiastic. I suggested to use it to build more string instruments, there
    whether the stability, the transverse properties, the fibre straightness, the exact orientation... suffice for violins remains to see.

    Built as a sandwich, with a balsa or honeycomb core, graphite fibre composites could equal or outperform Picea abies. I suggested it in the same discussion
    You just write French exactly like you spell it. Very simple!
    In the Navy, one must salute everything that moves and paint the rest.
    I wish so dearly Mozart were still alive! And his music already dead.

  6. #5
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Location
    New England
    Posts
    3,746
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default

    There was an interesting study some time back - comparing clarinet mouthpieces of different materials....this study, iirc, measured strength of fundamental, overtones...."richness of tone"...
    Hard rubber was actually the best, but it failed to retain its shape and dimensions under constant use...plastic was almost as good, and it retains its shape and dimension...it is, tmk, most popular.
    Wood and glass were the worst....i find glass to be esp annoying...thin, shrill sound, lacking in midrange and lower partials....Cioffi, in Boston played a glass mouthpiece...i didn't care at all for his sound....

  7. #6
    Senior Member Enthalpy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2020
    Posts
    357
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default

    I tried to estimate how critical vibrations are at a mouthpiece, there
    and the effects I imagined don't seem very critical, especially because the walls are made thick enough - not by chance.

    But the mouthpiece does exert strong side forces on the body that resonates by bending. I suggested there
    silver tenons, as Yamaha does on grenadilla flutes, to dampen these vibrations. Maybe worth a trial.

    The usual mouthpiece material presently is ebonite, also called hard rubber. Very insensitive to water, decisive advantage over wood. Can be machined accurately. I didn't know its dimensions drift over time. I suggested Vectra and similar LCP, there
    insensitive to water, nontoxic, can be injected in a mould, much stronger than ebonite so it resists scratches better, and stiffer so it might produce a more brilliant sound - not always desired.

    As usual, one should wonder in a comparison whether all parts have the same shape. A metal mouthpiece for saxophone would naturally be shaped to sound shriller than ebonite.
    You just write French exactly like you spell it. Very simple!
    In the Navy, one must salute everything that moves and paint the rest.
    I wish so dearly Mozart were still alive! And his music already dead.

  8. #7
    Senior Member mbhaub's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2016
    Location
    Gilbert, AZ
    Posts
    2,390
    Post Thanks / Like

    Default

    Reeds: yes, the centuries old cane is still the best. But there are some professionals that occasionally use synthetics. I've even seen the principal bassoon in the Berlin Phil use a Legere. For me, they're tiring to use and low note pianissimo entrances are scary.

    Piano keys: I have a very old upright grand in my studio that was built long before the ban on ivory keys. The mechanism is no better than my mini-grand which has plastic key covers. But the feel of the ivory is noticeably better. They just feel right. The proper amount of friction, no stickiness. Sorry about the elephant, but that's the way the world was in 1902 when it was made.

    Ivory: can get you in trouble. Several years ago I took a tour with an orchestra to China. String players were warned about taking a bow that might have ivory on it (many older ones do) as it could be confiscated at customs. My bassoon has a traditional white ring - they used to be made of ivory. So there I am at customs and what happens? I'm grilled about that ring. The customs official just knew it was ivory. I wound up in a small office trying to convince them that the bassoon was new and the ring was plastic of some kind. I was getting nervous, but eventually won out.
    "It is surprising how easily one can become used to bad music" - F. Mendelssohn

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •