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  • Patrick Olwell

Flute Sound: Vibration and the Bones of the Face

I have long been intrigued by my own experience and other flute players’ reports that different types of wood have different sound qualities or feel different to play—an idea that seems to contradict things I have read about the physics of flute acoustics. Some acousticians have claimed that the type of wood the flute is made of is irrelevant to the sound that is created and that only the empty space inside the bore is actually creating sound. Why then do flutes made of different woods feel so different to play, even when the difference is less pronounced or indiscernible to someone listening?

I had the beginning of an idea while staring at a diagram of the inner ear on the wall at the doctor’s office, and thought that the place where the flute rests against the chin of the player is only a few inches from the components of the middle and inner ear. Sometime later, I read an article in National Geographic about the evolution of whales ears and the way that their hearing organs support their use of echolocation. The article included the following diagram. I was struck by the line “Sounds were transmitted to the middle ears of the Basilosurus as vibrations from the lower jaw (71).

The idea need not be confined to whales alone. Steven Connor writes, “Teeth seem to be involved in the transition from the touched sound of a pre-recording era and the untouched sound of a post-recording era. This is because teeth represent an alternative route into the ear, or even a way of short-circuiting the ear. It is said that the deaf Beethoven gripped between his teeth to convey the sounds of the piano to him. Similarly, Thomas Edison would champ on the wood of a gramophone in order to hear faint overtones that, as he claimed in a 1913 interview, were normally lost before they reached the inner ear…”

What if part of the “sound” that the player experiences is in fact created by the vibration of the flute against the jaw and teeth, which might transmit this vibration to the middle and inner ear as a proprioceptive experience of sound? If we assume that different kinds of wood vibrate differently, the idea of the jaw transmitting sound might help to explain the experience of the player—that somethings sounds or feels different, even when to the listener, these differences are slight or even imperceptible.

Regardless of whether these acoustic properties are measurable with the tools available to us today, it is interesting to suppose that the experience of the player is not necessarily purely subjective or imaginary, and that how a flute feels might be just as important as how it sounds.

-Patrick Olwell, Ed. Matthew Olwell

(Editor's note: we have read some claims that the wood of a flute does not actually vibrate, and that the vibration is present only in the air moving inside the instrument. To us, this idea is counterintuitive and at odds with the sensation of vibration we experience in our fingers when playing the flute. We recognize that more research may be needed to clarify this point,

and offer the ideas in this post in the spirit of inquiry.)

Works Cited

Chadwick, Douglas H. “Evolution of Whales,” National Geographic, November, 2001.

Connor, Steven. “Edison’s Teeth: Touching Hearing.” 2001.

Note: special thanks are due to Ivan Goff for introducing us to Steven Connor’s article, cited above.

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