Hold the ice

Frozen trumpets don’t produce better timbre

Despite the growing trend of musicians freezing their trumpets to improve the tone, Tufts engineers have shown that cryogenic treatment has a minimal effect on the sound.

“Our research shows that freezing trumpets does not make a better-sounding instrument,” said Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering. “One of the great things about studying musical instruments, though, is if the player believes it will make a difference, he or she will play better, so it acts as a sort of placebo.”

Rogers conducted the two-year research project with his former graduate student, Jesse Jones IV, who presented their findings at the 146th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America on November 11.

In 1998, Selmer Musical Instruments, maker of many wind instruments, including the Vincent Bach Stradivarius trumpet, became interested in offering the cryogenic treatment as a factory option to its customers. Before moving forward, the company asked the Tufts engineers to independently verify whether frozen trumpets produce better sounds.

The Tufts researchers analyzed 10 trumpets—five of which were cryogenically treated—and found there is no statistically significant difference between treated and untreated instruments. In fact, differences from player to player and instrument to instrument overshadowed any changes that freezing might have produced.

Rogers and Jones cooled the instruments to minus 195 degrees Celsius (minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit) and then let them slowly return to room temperature. The process is a dry one: The trumpet is placed in a chamber cooled by liquid nitrogen, but the nitrogen never comes into contact with the instrument.

Some trumpet players believe a cryogenically treated trumpet has a better tone, or timbre, and a more distinct presence, a term musicians use to describe the “special sparkle” of sound that one instrument has over others.

Proponents believe that cryogenically treated trumpets play in tune more easily because their notes are more centered. They also believe that the treated instruments won’t tire the trumpeters as much. (Trumpets are one of the most physically demanding instruments to play.) “Some musicians will say this allows them to play their trumpet all night long,” said Jones.

Firms that offer cryogenic processing say the treatment results in a trumpet that is artificially aged and that any internal stresses due to manufacturing are relieved. “Heating softens metal and relieves stresses, so it is difficult to understand how freezing a trumpet would also relieve stress,” said Jones.