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Science

Searching for a Better Bassoon

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Fairbanks, AK - Musical instruments require extremely high quality wood.  One Botanist has spent the last five years at the University of Alaska, Fiarbanks searching for alternatives to what’s becoming an increasingly limited resource for woodwind instruments. 

The bassoon is six feet long, has four joints, and it’s known for its distinctive deep tone.  UAF PhD candidate and Botanist Katy Levings took an interest in the woodwind instrument when she was five.
“It was one of the first instruments I could pick out in a recording," she says. "There aren’t a lot of solos for bassoon, but the most common that everyone knows is peter and the wolf.  Whenever anyone asks me what the bassoon sounds like, I tell them to watch fantasia.”

Levings says musicians have long held that the material their instruments are made from directly affects the sound.  But, because building a bassoon is both expensive and time consuming, instrument makers only consider how easy the wood it is to work with. Bassoons are typically made from maple trees in the eastern United States.  But their availability is becoming increasingly limited. “Maple’s been attacked by the Asian horn beetle and they’ve been cutting down anything that’s infested," she says. "So, the large trees are being cut down and soon there’s not gonna be enough high quality wood to make a musical instrument.”

So, Levings decided to look for alternatives to maple.  For the last five years, she’s studied the tiny cells in different kinds of wood to find out which types might make the best sounding instruments.   Alaska isn’t home to a wide range of hardwood tree species.  Levings says she only found two this far north that might be good candidates for instruments like the bassoon. “So, we tried Alaska paper birch and Red Alder and theoretically they would not work, those two species have a cell types that’s really large and tends to absorb a lot of sound so it causes a dampening effect.”

Levings did find other kinds of woods outside the state that might work better.  She says she hopes her findings will help instrument makers look at wider range of characteristics when it comes to finding the right wood to produce the best sound.