Monday 2 June 2008

The acoustics of musical wind instruments – and of musicians

Professor Joe Wolfe


Both physicists and musicians are accustomed to simple descriptions of musical instruments: for the musician, this gives a simple insight into their operation, while, for the physics student, this provides excellent examples of standing waves, as well as useful metaphors to be used later in electromagnetism and quantum mechanics.

Musicians, of course, are interested in subtle and complex higher order effects, many of which introduce interesting physics. Our lab has developed techniques for measuring the acoustical properties of musical instruments, especially the acoustical input impedance spectrum, which tells how easy or hard it is vibrate air at any given frequency. This has been used to provide databases for wind instruments that allow the development of physical models precise enough to make predictions and analyses useful to makers and players.

We are also able to measure the response of vocal tracts while they are in use for singing and playing. We shall look at how some singers modify the resonances of the vocal tract to increase their output power and/or change their timbre. Then we shall look at how the player’s vocal tract is involved in wind instruments, including those in which the tract has a spectacular influence on timbre, such as the didjeridu, and on pitch, like saxophones and clarinets. Illustrations and demonstrations will be included!

  • Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (Doors open at 6pm)
  • Venue: Ithaca Auditorium, Brisbane City Hall
  • Refreshments: There will be complimentary drinks and nibblies following the talk, and Joe will be available to answer any questions.
  • Questions? Contact Joel (0411 267 044 or or Nelle (

Professor Joe Wolfe heads the Music Acoustics Laboratory at University of New South Wales with colleague John Smith and a number of students and other collaborators. He has received awards for both teaching and research (most recently from the French Acoustical Society), and is also a talented musician and composer. His group maintains a large web site, for both musicians and physics students and teachers, at