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Plastic Sounds

Plastic instruments are bringing music to kids around the world

©Steven Greenall via Warwick Music

People have been playing trumpets and trombones for centuries. For most of that time, those instruments have been made out of the same material: a metal called brass.

Steven Greenall is an engineer based in England who has played the trombone since he was a kid. About 10 years ago, he had an out-of-the-box idea: Could he make a trombone out of plastic? He decided to give it a try.

Today, Greenall runs a company called Warwick Music Group. The company makes plastic trombones and trumpets, as well a new instrument for beginners called a pBuzz. The instruments have become wildly popular, especially with young people. More than 250,000 have been sold worldwide. 

People have been playing trumpets and trombones for hundreds of years. Those instruments were made out of the same material for most of that time. It’s a metal called brass.

Steven Greenall is an engineer. He’s based in England. Greenall has played the trombone since he was a kid. He had a crazy idea about 10 years ago. Greenall wondered if he could make a trombone out of plastic. He decided to give it a try.

Today, Greenall runs a company. It’s called Warwick Music Group. The company makes plastic trombones and trumpets. They also make a new instrument for beginners called a pBuzz. The instruments have become wildly popular. They’re especially a hit with young people. More than 250,000 have been sold worldwide. 

Good Vibrations

Greenall’s design team faced a challenge. How would they make a plastic instrument sound like a metal one? Most instruments make sound by causing air particles to vibrate, or move rapidly, in an enclosed space. For instance, when people buzz their lips into a trombone, the air inside vibrates. Waves of energy, called sound waves, bounce inside the instrument’s tubes, producing sound.

Plastic is much less dense, or has less matter in a given space, than brass. That causes the air inside to vibrate differently. To make sure the plastic instruments sound the same as brass ones, engineers had to adjust their designs.  

Greenall’s design team faced a challenge. How would they make a plastic instrument sound like a metal one? Most instruments make sound by causing air particles to vibrate. They move rapidly in a closed space. For example, when people blow into a trombone, the air inside vibrates. Waves of energy bounce inside the instrument’s tubes. These sound waves produce sound.

Plastic is much less dense than brass. That means it has less matter in a given space. That causes the air inside to vibrate differently. Engineers wanted to make sure the plastic instruments sound the same as brass ones. They had to adjust their designs.

Courtesy of Brass for Africa

Kids playing plastic instruments in Uganda

For example, metal trombones have round tubes. Greenall designed the tubes for the plastic trombone, known as the pBone, to be square-shaped. That shape causes the air to move through the instrument more slowly.  

Greenall also made changes to the instruments’ valves. These buttons adjust the amount of space in which air vibrates. That affects the pitch, or how high or low the sound is.

The valves of brass trumpets have to be oiled so they slide easily. To build the valves of the plastic trumpet, or pTrumpet, Greenall’s team used a plastic that produces its own oil. “It’s easier for students to maintain,” Greenall says.

For example, metal trombones have round tubes. Greenall designed the tubes differently for his plastic trombone, known as the pBone. Its tubes are square-shaped. That shape causes the air to move through the instrument more slowly. 

Greenall also made changes to the instruments’ valves. These buttons change the amount of space in which air vibrates. That affects the pitch. That’s how high or low the sound is.

The valves of brass trumpets have to be oiled. That allows them to slide easily. Greenall’s team built special valves for its plastic trumpet, called the pTrumpet. They used a plastic that makes its own oil. “It’s easier for students to maintain,” Greenall says.

Making More Music

Plastic instruments have many advantages over brass ones. They cost less to make. Plastic is a lighter material than brass, making the instruments easier for kids to tote around. They’re also more durable. You can drop them on the ground without damaging them!

Those qualities have made plastic instruments a popular choice for school music programs around the world. Greenall’s team will soon add instruments to their lineup. The group is now designing a plastic flute and saxophone.

Greenall is excited to be giving more young people the opportunity to play music—like he did as a boy. “Music transformed my life,” Greenall says. 

Plastic instruments are better than brass ones in many ways. They cost less to make. Plastic is also a lighter material than brass. Kids can tote the instruments around more easily. They’re also tougher. You can drop them on the ground without damaging them!

Those qualities have made plastic instruments a popular. They’re used by school music programs around the world. Greenall’s team will soon add more instruments to their lineup. The group is now designing a plastic flute and a saxophone.

Greenall is excited to give more kids the chance to play music, like he did as a boy. “Music changed my life,” Greenall says. 

©Fred Ernst via Warwick Music

Kids playing plastic instruments in the Netherlands

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