Using acoustic simulations in musical instrument restoration

Last February I attended the opening conference of the COST-Action Wood MusicK at Cité de la Musique, Paris.

“This Action (WoodMusICK – WOODen MUSical Instrument Conservation and Knowledge) aims to combine forces and to foster research on wooden musical instruments in order to preserve and develop the dissemination of knowledge on musical instruments in Europe through inter disciplinary research. This program involves curators and conservators on the one side, wood scientists, chemists and acousticians on the other side, and finally, researchers in organology and making of instruments.”

In other words, I met lots of interesting people ranging from musical instrument conservators to builders of medieval instruments such as the serpent.

I was there to present my master’s thesis about finite element modelling (FEM) of the kantele. FEM is simulation method used quite commonly nowadays in musical instrument research. I thought it might be an interesting tool for studying how different methods for conserving old instruments affect the sound of instruments before actually going into practice. But I did not think that most of the times we assume that wood is linear, orthotropic material, which makes the computation easier. However, we do not know much about the properties of wood in extreme conditions, e.g., eaten by worms, filled with cracks, dried cells.

Organ by SchweickartAnother case where simulations can be useful is when an old instrument has been changed in the course of time before it has been brought to the museum for conservation. Occasionally it may be difficult determine why a certain change has been made to the instrument.  I recently learned an example of this when visiting the Cité de la Musique again. In their collection, they have an organ made by Jean Baptiste Jeremy Schweickart in 1784. Later someone had added extensions to the tubes, which makes some notes sound off-key and it is not clear why this kind of change has been made. In this case, one must carefully undo all the changes to examine their effect. This is easily done with computer simulation.

For the restoration of the kanteles, several aspects related to the strings are interesting. Museum kanteles are often found without strings. We are not sure which material the strings have been made from, and how they have been attached to the body. Most common way to study the old instrument is to make a copy, a fac-simile of the instrument. A few years ago,  a working group, Kantele eläväksi, published a guide to document old kanteles for enabling copies of them. While it is a good way to obtain a playable version of the old instrument, making several fac-similes can be laboursome.


Check this video about a fac-simile kantele played by Arja Kastinen.



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