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Microstructural Modeling and Characterization of Reeds

Participants: Connor Kemp and Gary Scavone

Period: 2013 - ongoing


From the player’s perspective, there are three primary components that make up a woodwind instrument: the body (or air column), the mouthpiece, and the reed. Each is important but only the reed is changed frequently, due to poor performance and/or decay over time. Thus, it is the reed that the musician spends the most time evaluating or adjusting and that has the greatest degree of variability on his/her sound on a daily basis. Perhaps surprisingly, almost nothing is known about what makes a reed “good.” Significant variations exist among the 5 or 10 reeds (each costing from $2–5) in a given box, with less than 50% of them being considered good enough for public performance.

Since 2013, we have pursued a research project to evaluate the macro- and micro-structural properties of woodwind reeds. The long-term goal of this research is to determine measurable properties of reed cane that can be used to improve the sorting consistency of reeds when they are packaged, perhaps with more refined classifications, as well as assess aspects of reed fatigue and damage mechanisms to inform the design of synthetic alternatives. Ph.D. student Connor Kemp, with a previous background in materials research and micro-scale modeling, has been conducting a sequence of experiments using various experimental techniques (scanning electron microscopy, optical microscopy, X-ray diffraction, nano-indentation, uniaxial compression loading, cyclic compression loading, frequency-dependent vibration excitation …) to assess the consistency and degradation of reed cane properties at various length scales. This research has involved collaborations with the reed manufacturer D’Addario Woodwinds (who has supplied raw cane and finished reed products for our studies), Dr. Francois Barthelat in the Laboratory for Advanced Materials and Bioinspiration, Mechanical Engineering Department, McGill University (who has provided access to some measurement equipment and helpful advice) and saxophonist Remi Bolduc, Schulich School of Music, McGill University (who has agreed to regularly play a set of reeds over many months as part of a research study to evaluate the evolution of material properties).