The workshop

Timber and Tone - Tonewoods

The word “tonewood” simply means any timber that is used in making musical instruments. It is not the case that some woods produce a “tone”, while other timbers do not. Certainly each timber may sound “different”, and different players will have their own preference, but nearly every timber ever discovered could be, and probably has been, used in a musical instrument. So what governs the choice of woods that are commonly used?

First, it is a question of supply ~ what is available in the right sizes? Then the question of workability arises, is the wood strong and stable enough, can it be bent, shaped, glued and polished? The final choices are made as the available materials, music and design change over the years, until a particular timber becomes associated with a particular instrument and certain tones. If the violin had evolved in Brazil, its materials, shape and music might have been very different.

We only need to look at the Sitar, Ukulele and Banjo to see all these things at work ~ materials, technology and culture conspire to create an instrument unique to a local environment and its music. The Lute is a wonderful example of what happens when international trade becomes part of the equation, they have been made from just about everything, including Sycamore, Ebony, Pear, Ash, Rosewood, Ivory and even copper. Each one has been a valid, working, musical instrument, each with its individual character and tone.

Tone is not a “quantity” in the sense of “more tone” or “less tone”. It is more like a recipe, a list of all the different ingredients, the partials, overtones or harmonics that make up the whole sound.┬áVolume is the quantity of sound, tone is the quality.