Set aside the fact that wood was the major element of human development (fire) and without it we may be a completely different species. I wonder, where would music be if wood were removed from our history?
Take away Spruce and Strataverious would not have invented the perfect violin. Remove Sitka Spruce or Hard Rock Maple and Steinway may never have grown to fame. And without Pear our woodwinds may never have evolved so stunningly.
Each species is different in color, density, size and grain pattern which means each species has its own special place in the world of music. Pear wood is the rare species that won’t warp under high humidity or splinter if being carved. Like all woods, its unique combination of traits makes it suitable for a specific purpose. In the case of woodwinds, where water vapor may be especially present and splintering is critically not allowed, pear wood is optimal.
The strings of a piano key *exert about 160 pounds of pressure. That’s about 18 tons of tension across the instrument. The sitka spruce of a Steinway soundboard is designed to withstand high tension yet vibrate freely up to the edge where vibration is stopped by a rim of hard rock maple.
For the extra curious, you can see the entire original patent of Steinway’s soundboard here
There is a small dedicated cohort who spend their time listening to wood and describing its qualities to instrument makers. They work like sommeliers deciding what adjectives are suited to a given species of wood. A luthier may describe a *spruce-topped guitar as punchy and articulate. Or a cedar acoustic as smooth and vocal. They have a sophisticated pallet designed to read the distinctions each wood will bring to an instrument.
A luthier in her workshop.
On the other end of the spectrum there are people who use science to decide what species of wood is best suited to bring about the precise sound quality an instrument maker is seeking. Measuring factors that determine a material’s loss coefficient or timbre, these scientists look at the material’s Young’s Modulus or density against the speed of sound to come up with a graph of physical and mechanical properties. These properties are translated into a spectrum of connections that enables a more objective understanding of wood’s relationship with sound.
Long story short, wood is elemental to the music we create. As synthesizers and digital sound-makers take the stage let's not forget where we came from.
*From a study on “The acoustical properties of wood”