Why Do Wind Instruments Go Flat In The Cold?

Why Do Wind Instruments Go Flat In The Cold
Written by Corey Morgan

It’s a common phenomenon to have wind instruments – say the trumpet, producing flat notes in the cold and very sharp notes in hot environments. There now exists the need to maintain a fairly moderate temperature when playing wind instruments if one must avoid producing an unpleasant pitch.

When string, woodwind, and brass instruments undergo an extreme change in temperature, their instruments will be badly affected in its tuning and its pitch due to the materials they are made out of.

Let’s consider how this wind instruments go flat in cold and how this can be corrected?

How does cold weather affect the pitch of sounds produced?

There’s no better way to describe this than through its build. Yes, it’s physics. Wind instruments are made of brass – a fine alloy of copper and zinc (although modern models of brass instruments contain other elements).

These are metals and as such are temperature dependent. On cold days, due to a considerable drop in temperature, these metals lose some of their energies and vibrate at a lower frequency. Thus, the speed of sound is greatly reduced. This results in producing flat notes.

Similarly, On a hot day, the temperature increases and this causes the molecules of these metals to vibrate more than their average kinetic energy. What this does conclusively, is that the pitch becomes greatly altered so that what you hear is distinctively sharp.

How can this be avoided?

For players to avoid this, the trick lies in the embouchure. To make up for the extreme effect of weather on the pitch of sounds produced, the player must be masterful of their embouchure.

For players whose pitches are flats, a corrective measure is to increase the pressure by making the mouth smaller. This way, more force will be forced through the mouthpiece consequently compensating the flat pitch and normalizing the situation.

You could also move your tuning slide. If you know that you’re playing in a cold environment, move your tuning slide out further than normal. This can prevent any tuning issues. You can do the same when in a hot environment.

Woodwind and brass players can counter this situation by pulling on their tuning slides when their instruments are sharp at extremely hot temperatures. Similarly, at colder temperatures, they must push their slides to contract the inner spaces of their instruments; doing this provides enough resistance to produce heat.

What temperature is optimum for wind instruments?

Often, players tend to leave their instruments in the car, the attic, the basement, or even the garage and many other inappropriate places. Wind instruments are best kept at room temperatures.

It’s better to maintain them at room temperature. One must ensure that the temperature is not below 0°C or above 35°C.

How does temperature affect wind instruments?

Temperature changes deal great damage to wind instruments. Players must be wary of where they keep or store their instruments. This is much like leaving a glass cup in a refrigerator for a while.

The glass cup cracks overtime due to uneven expansion. Much like that, when wind instruments are left in extreme cold, the metals tend to warp up overtime. This effect might not be noticeable initially. But with time, it becomes obvious and disturbing

To lower pitch, aerophones are forced out, and if you want to raise the pitch, you push them in. The sharper the reed, the flatter the note produced. Similarly, the softer the reed, the sharper the note heard.

Reed charts – are used as a general guideline due to the perception of reed strength. Because of the condition, no two instruments are alike, even if they are the same exact model. Straight brass mutes for example typically cause an instrument to go from sharp to very sharp; it’s actually frustrating.

The instrument will become flat if you use a cup mute. When the temperature is high, playing with a straight/harmonic mute makes brass playing extremely difficult and tiring.

Humidity has a long-term negative impact on wooden instruments. Players must ensure that their instruments are kept safe from extremely humid environments. A dry environment will cause a wooden instrument to shrink.

What’s the right place to store woodwinds?

Much like other delicate appliances and gadgets that we own, your instruments are no different and deserve much care – even if not more. The case humidifier is a great option to explore to prevent your instruments from drying out – by restoring a controlled amount of water vapour.

Another fascinating option is the acid free-paper lined cases . It’s a great choice to keep moisture out from reaching your instruments.

How to take care of your wind instruments during the cold?

  • Many musicians undermine the importance of breaking in a woodwind instrument and swabbing it on a regular basis to control moisture content in the bore.of your instruments.
  • Never try to force a tight swab through a joint. Stop pulling the swab through before the bottom end disappears into the joint so it can still be removed from the instrument if necessary.
  • When the instrument is cold when touched, one must avoid playing it. Before warm air is blown through it, it must gradually warm up to room temperature or that of the outside environment. Before playing, cover the instrument with a jacket or leave it in the room for sometime so it can feel warm. Warm up exercises for wind players are not just for the player, but also for the instrument. The instrument needs to be warmed up regularly during the winter.
  • Warming up your instruments is an appropriate practice to cultivate, it sharpens not just you-the player (your hands and your muscles) and keeps the instrument optimum for sound. This way, you won’t have to worry about your pitch.
  • Make sure the interior bore is well lubricated. Bore oil can be used to keep the wood sealed if it has a dull, dry appearance. Bore oiling, on the other hand, is best left to a professional because too much can cause problems.