I get asked all of the time if different metals of an instrument really matter. Is there an absolute difference between gold, silver, platinum, nickel or even wood?
What I find most amazing about this question is that it has been addressed so many times, but not much scientific research has been put into this. The most that we as flutists have done so far about this topic is to simply use our ears and to play-test the instruments. This follows many problems already because of the different opinions people will have regarding the matter. These opinions stir much controversy and may be deemed offensive amongst those who are passionate about this topic. Not to mention, this is music we are talking about in the end. There truly is not a correct way to do this art. This is not mathematics. Our work is not concrete. All we have are general rules and outlines on how to create art that pleases the imperfect human ear.
From my personal experience, I find that the materials do make a difference, at least for my playing and hearing. Much like a marimba and vibraphone. Both are made of different materials and clearly make a different sound. They have different densities and are made of different materials. Therefore, I think gold and silver should make a difference as well. We can clearly hear the difference between a wooden flute and a metal flute. However, it is significantly harder for the listener to hear the difference between gold, silver, platinum or even nickel, simply because these are all metals. Wood is not a metal so it’s easier to distinguish between the two. The level densities between wood and metal are so far apart from each other. Conversely, the levels of densities between metals are much closer. Furthermore, metals share many of the same properties such as good conductors of heat, high boiling points, etc. Because of this, the performers or listeners have a much harder time distinguishing between each metal.
Nonetheless, they are different metals in the end. Some say that it is not so much about the metals but more so the cut that is made on the headjoint. To some degree, I agree with this. The cut is a significant part to how the instrument will respond and what timbre it will deliver, but it is not the ultimate factor of what will determine the sound. There is so much more than just the cut. The performer’s preference due to their anatomy also plays such a huge role. Perhaps the amount of air the performer uses will determine what density of metal works best for them. That is after all why many flutists, not all, enjoy playing on a heavy wall. They prefer a different level of density which is the same idea of using the different densities of gold, silver, etc.
What do I play on? A flute with a gold headjoint and silver body. I have found for myself that I have a very weak sound playing on all silver. With the same headjoint cut, I have played on gold and found my sound to project a lot more with ease, and I absolutely needed this, because I also play with a saxophonist and sometimes with an orchestra behind me. I have listened back to two recordings of myself playing on my solid silver flute and another with my gold headjoint. Without a doubt, I as well as many others can hear how I project comfortably with the gold headjoint. However, I have learned that if I played on an entirely gold flute, I would have an extremely difficult time controlling my sound. Large interval jumps would be much more difficult, changes in tone colors would be harder and even articulation would become a problem. I would try different gold flutes and find most that are close to the same results. Trying a gold head on my silver flute made me realize that that combination was best for me.
Sometimes buying gold, silver or platinum have something to do with the musician’s pride. I have found cases where the performer simply bought a gold flute to appear more professional even though they sounded better on their previous silver flute. Although, sometimes there are cases in which one will have to buy gold because it works for them. I honestly was unhappy at first with the idea of having to buy myself a gold headjoint. At first, I did not want to spend a large amount of money on a headjoint, but then I realized that it was a huge investment in my career. My flute is the reason why I have a place to live, why I get to eat and why I even have a car in the first place. Therefore, it was only right for me to make the purchase.
There have been remarks made by highly respected players who have heard their past recordings and could not tell which flute they have recorded on. They could not tell if the metal was gold, silver, etc. So does it really make a difference? My hypothesis would be that they felt most comfortable playing with that instrument at that moment in time during the recording. We all know that the human body changes over the years. Muscles grow or get weaker, bone structure changes, finger muscles change and so much more. These factors are what cause these alterations in our bodies. That is the reason why professional flutists at a high level find themselves new flutes.
So here is what I have to say to those who may be testing out a new flute, headjoint or body: trust what resonates best within you. Do your best to not offend anyone with your opinions. Most importantly, make music.