The Chemistry of Clarinets

Introduction

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The clarinet is an orchestral woodwind instrument that is commonly made of wood, however, student model clarinets are made of plastic.  A reed made of bamboo attaches to the mouthpiece, and when air is blown past it, the reed vibrates and produces sound.  The type of wood and the type of metals used will influence the tone and resonance of the clarinet.  I chose to research the chemistry of clarinets because I am a clarinetist, and I was wanting to know how the materials that make the instrument affect the sound.  Playing the clarinet is one of the best things in my life, and since learning to play it I have grown greatly as a musician.

Composition of ...

  • African Blackwood (C22H22O7), wood fiber compound (including carbon fibers (C)), or resonite ((C8H8∙C4H6∙C3H3N3)n)

  • copper-based alloy (Cu)

  • nickel (Ni), silver (Ag), or gold (Au)


Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

  • Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene ((C8H8∙C4H6∙C3H3N3)n): A type of plastic resin that is commonly used to make various wind pipe instruments, clarinets being the most popular.  This material makes up the body of the clarinet.  ABS is the perfect material to make a beginner’s clarinet because it is tough, making it durable.  Also, it is resistant to heat and impact.  ABS has a smooth, glossy finish that looks nice on a musical instrument.


  • Nickel (Ni), silver (Ag), or gold(Au): These metals are used to plate the metal parts of the clarinet, including the keys and trim.  Nickel is the strongest and cheapest, making it a good choice for beginning musicians because of its durability.  Silver plated keys add more resonance to the sound because it is a softer metal that allows more vibration.  Gold is the softest metal of the three, which makes it the best for resonance, but also the most expensive.  The keys are plated with one of these metals in electroplating baths.


Chemistry's Role

ABS is a manmade material that is made of acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene monomers.  Acrylonitrile is made from propylene and ammonia.  Butadiene is made from petroleum hydrocarbon from butane.  Styrene monomers come from benzene and ethylene from coal.  The process to make ABS requires a liquid mixture of acrylonitrile and styrene monomers.  The butadiene is then dissolved into the liquid and then the monomers are polymerized along with free-radical initiators.  Polymerization is the process of monomers chemically combining to create a chain called a polymer.  

Nickel, silver, and gold are all naturally occurring elements.  They plate the keys using electroplating baths.  The metal is put in a bath of water that is electrified along with the piece getting plated.  Through hydrolysis, the electrons are transferred onto the piece.  This is an example of electrolysis, which is a chemical reaction involving an electric current.


Background Research

The prices of clarinets depend on the materials and quality of craftsmanship.  A brand new Jupiter student model clarinet, made of ABS resonite and nickel plated keys, sells for $369.00.  A brand new Buffet Divine professional model clarinet, made of African Blackwood and gold plated keys, sells for $7,749.00.  Clarinet reeds usually sell in boxes of 10 reeds each.  Rico is a popular brand of student reeds, and one box sells for $31.25.  Vandoren v12 is a popular brand of professional reeds, and one box sells for $56.99.  Both brands of reeds are made of the same material: bamboo.  However, Vandoren v12 reeds have a special style of cut and thickness that makes it higher quality.  The more work put into refining the reed, the more expensive the reed.

Resources

Greenline Buffet clarinets are made of 95% powdered African Blackwood and 5% carbon fibers.
Helps prevent cracking and tuning issues with temperature and humidity changes.

The keys can be nickel, silver, or gold plated.  
Nickel is the strongest and cheapest, good choice for beginning musicians, durable.
Silver plated keys add more resonance, it’s soft so it allows more vibration.
Gold is the softest, best for resonance, also most expensive. 
 
The metal parts are made of a copper-based alloy, then plated in nickel, silver, or gold.
Plated by electroplating baths.

Cheap clarinets are made of plastic resin, also called resonite. An example is ABS.  

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is a common material for clarinets.
(C8H8∙C4H6∙C3H3N3)n  is the chemical structure of ABS.
ABS is tough and resistant to heat and impact.
It appears smooth and glossy.

ABS is made of propylene and ammonia (acrylonitrile), petroleum hydrocarbon from butane (butadiene), and benzene and ethylene from coal (styrene monomers).

African Blackwood (Deoxypicropodophyllin) also known as grenadilla wood, has a chemical formula of C22H22O7 

To make ABS:  liquid mixture of acrylonitrile and styrene monomers.  Butadiene is dissolved into the liquid and monomers are polymerized with free-radical initiators.  
Polymerization: monomers making polymers.

Electroplating: uses hydrolysis, electrons are transferred from the metal onto the piece being plated while under electrified water.

Buffet Divine professional clarinet = $7,749.00
           made of African Blackwood and gold plated keys
Jupiter student clarinet = $369.00
           made of ABS and nickel plated keys

box of 10 Rico reeds = $31.25
box of 10 Vandoren v12 reeds = $56.99

About the Author
Period6AllisonMatye.JPGAllison Matye is a Junior at Billings Senior High School.  She has a passion for music and she plays clarinet in Senior High’s Symphonic Band and Philharmonic Orchestra.  She also sings with the Varsity Singers and Harmoniques.  Her college plans include majoring in music education and clarinet performance.  In her free time she enjoys teaching clarinet lessons, reading, and drinking tea.
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