At first glance, there seems to be little connection between chemistry and musical instruments. Which only makes it more fun to make a programme proving the opposite!
It doesn’t matter if they are string, wind or percussion instruments. Both their durability and the quality of sound they produce, depend heavily on the materials they are made of.
One of the most famous examples of the connection between sound quality and chemistry are the famous Stradivarius violins, considered the best violins ever. Their inimitable sound seems to be linked to chemical treatment of the wood and above all to the characteristics of the varnish used in the finishing.
The final polishing of the instruments has always been a chemical science, since it’s based in paints, varnishes and dyes. But it’s the modern technique of electroplating that ensures the best look and sound quality of the instruments. It allows to coat surfaces with very thin layers of copper, silver, gold and nickel in various combinations, though a solution of ions of these metals and by applying an electric current (neutralizing the charge of the ion and forcing its deposition as solids).
In string instruments, chemistry reappears … on the strings!
Until the late 19th century, guitar strings were made of biopolymers obtained from the intestines of animals: the “catgut” is also used in surgery. They were hard to manufacture, very sensitive to humidity and they easily got out of tune.
Strings of synthetic polymers, such as nylon, emerged as an economical alternative: they are resistant to humidity and they don’t go out of tune.
But the most appreciated strings are the metallic ones, because they produce a very clear and intense sound. Their structure, a metal wire that wraps around another, makes for good sound quality.
The problem with these strings is that metals are sensitive to corrosion, a chemical reaction greatly facilitated by the sweat of the hands which degrades the quality of the sound.
Nowadays, the solution appears to have been found: protecting the thin metallic cords with a polymer covering, or using the chemistry of metals to produce metal alloy resistant to corrosion.
And so we have music and chemistry in the same score, in perfect harmony!