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Instruments of Change

How the music industry is working to save trees used to make guitars, violins, and other instruments

PETER SKINNER/SCIENCE SOURCE (TREE); COURTESY OF TAYLOR GUITARS (WOOD); STARMAX/STARMAX/NEWSCOM VIA ZUMAPRESS.COM (SHEERAN)

FROM TREE TO GUITAR: Wood from ebony trees is cut, processed, and crafted into fretboards to help guitars produce their signature sound.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the different ways people are working to protect trees used to make musical instruments.

Musicians, from the likes of pop star Ed Sheeran to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, often go on tour. For the past few years, many artists have needed to pack something extra along with their luggage and airplane tickets when they’ve traveled: passports for their instruments.

Musical instruments have traditionally been crafted from the wood of trees like ebony and rosewood. They’re known in the music industry as “tonewoods” because of the superior sound they produce. But these trees are increasingly under threat, as loggers cut down large numbers of the highly valued species and forests are cleared for agricultural and urban development. As a result, international rules have been put in place that restrict the trade of certain tonewoods. Instruments made from these trees may require permits to cross borders for concerts or sale.

The loss of tonewoods could have a big impact on how instruments are made in the future. Recognizing that, members of the music industry are taking action. They’re working to conserve tree species on which they’ve long relied—for the sake of forests as well as for the musicians who depend on them.

Musicians, from pop star Ed Sheeran to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, often travel on tour. Of course, they have to bring their luggage and airplane tickets. But for the past few years, many artists have needed to pack something extra. They’ve carried passports for their instruments.

Musical instruments are usually made from the wood of trees like ebony and rosewood. They’re known in the music industry as “tonewoods.” That’s because of the excellent sound they produce. But these trees are under growing threat. Loggers cut down large numbers of the highly valued species, and people clear forests for farming and urban development. So international rules have been created to restrict the trade of certain tonewoods. Instruments made from these trees are transported for concerts or sale. But they may need permits to cross borders.

The loss of tonewoods could change the way instruments are made in the future. Members of the music industry know that, so they’re taking action. They’ve relied on these tree species for a long time. Now they’re working to conserve them. This will help not only forests, but also the musicians who depend on them.

MAKING MUSIC

Luthiers, people who make stringed instruments, have used certain tonewoods for generations. Different types of wood have different physical properties. These measurable properties affect how a material sounds and performs, which can make it better for crafting certain parts of an instrument.

For example, ebony and rosewood are both strong and hard. That’s why fretboards and fingerboards for instruments such as guitars and violins are often crafted from these woods. Strings stretch across these boards along the instruments’ necks. Musicians press down on the strings to play different notes, so the boards need to be able to withstand constant use.

Because of its sturdiness, rosewood is also used for the back and sides of guitars. The wood doesn’t absorb much energy from the sound waves the instruments produce, resulting in a clear, warm, prolonged tone.

Luthiers are people who build stringed instruments. They’ve used certain tonewoods for generations. Different types of wood have different physical properties that can be measured. They affect how a material sounds and performs. A material’s properties can make it better for certain parts of an instrument.

For example, ebony and rosewood are both strong and hard. Fingerboards are often made from these woods. String instruments such as guitars, violins, and cellos have fingerboards along their necks. Strings stretch across these boards. Musicians press down on the strings to play different notes, so the boards must be strong enough for constant use.

Because it’s so strong, rosewood is also used for the back and sides of guitars. The instruments produce sound waves, but the wood doesn’t absorb much energy from these waves. That results in a clear, warm, long-lasting tone.

TOBY SMITHREPORTAGE ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

AXED: A worker in Madagascar chops down the rosewood tree, exposing the prized pink wood at its center.

ROSEWOOD UNDER THREAT

The various woods used to make musical instruments come from around the world. Many of these trees are under threat for multiple reasons. Rosewood, for example, grows in tropical forests in Asia, Africa, India, and South America. Although rosewood is cut down to make instruments, it’s mostly harvested to make high-end furniture in Asia.

The demand for rosewood furniture destroyed many rosewood forests in Asia. Loggers then headed to South America and cut down large numbers of the trees there. Some nations, like Brazil, tried to ban the logging and exportation of rosewood. But loggers again just relocated to places with unprotected forests, like Africa. Poachers also found ways to illegally smuggle the wood out of protected areas. As a result, rosewood became the most trafficked wildlife product in the world, based on market value (see Wildlife Black Market).

The different woods used in musical instruments come from around the world. Many of these trees are under threat for more than one reason. For example, rosewood grows in tropical forests in Asia, Africa, India, and South America. Rosewood is cut down to make instruments. But it’s mostly harvested to make high-end furniture in Asia.

The demand for rosewood furniture destroyed many rosewood forests in Asia. Then loggers headed to South America. They cut down large numbers of the trees there. Some nations, like Brazil, tried to ban the logging and removal of rosewood. Again, loggers just moved to places with unprotected forests, like Africa. Poachers also found ways to illegally remove the wood from protected areas. As a result, rosewood became the world’s most trafficked wildlife product, based on market value (see Wildlife Black Market).

JURGEN FREUND/NATUREPL.COM

TRAFFICKED TIMBER: A huge number of illegal logs are transported on a barge near Malaysia.

INTERNATIONAL PROTECTIONS

In 2017, rosewood gained protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This treaty was created to ensure that trade of wild animal and plant products is done sustainably—in a way that doesn’t threaten the organisms’ survival. The CITES regulations limited the trade of rosewood and objects made from the trees, including musical instruments, worldwide.

Given the large number of musical instruments—which contain relatively small amounts of rosewood—being moved or sold across borders, these tighter restrictions hit the music industry hard. They also required governments to spend time and money issuing permits for items that were causing minimal harm to forests. So, in 2019, after careful consideration, CITES rules were altered. It now exempts already-constructed instruments from its 2017 restrictions, while continuing to require permits for rosewood lumber used to make any new products.

That’s been a relief to many artists and instrument manufacturers, making it easier for them to transport instruments around the world without extensive documentation. “We are finding a balance between use and conservation so ecosystems and orchestras can thrive for years to come,” says Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras.

In 2017, rosewood gained protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This treaty makes sure that trade of wild animal and plant products is done sustainably. That means it doesn’t threaten the organisms’ survival. The CITES rules limited the trade of rosewood and objects made from it worldwide. That included musical instruments. 

Musical instruments contain only small amounts of rosewood. But many instruments are moved or sold across borders, so the tighter rules hit the music industry hard. They also made governments spend time and money on permits for items that weren’t causing much harm to forests. So CITES carefully considered the problem. In 2019, the rules changed. Now already-made instruments are free from its 2017 rules. But permits are still needed for rosewood lumber to make any new products.

That’s been a relief to many artists and instrument manufacturers. Now it’s easier for them to transport instruments around the world without a lot of paperwork. “We are finding a balance between use and conservation so ecosystems and orchestras can thrive for years to come,” says Heather Noonan. She’s the vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras.

COURTESY OF CHRIS SORENSON/TAYLOR GUITARS

FUTURE INVESTMENT: A community member plants a seedling in Cameroon as part of the Ebony Project.

RESTORING EBONY FORESTS

When it comes to ebony, some people in the music industry are taking a hands-on approach to promote environmental sustainability. Today, much of the ebony used for musical instruments comes from West Africa, where Taylor Guitars is leading the charge to save the species. In 2016, the California-based guitar maker worked with scientists from the Congo Basin Institute to launch the Ebony Project in Cameroon. It aims to study the species and replant ebony forests. So far, the project has planted more than 15,000 ebony trees.

The company is also helping to educate musicians about how the ebony in their instruments is produced. “If we wanted to continue making music, we needed to understand the resources used to make our instruments,” says Scott Paul, Taylor’s director of natural resource sustainability.

Ebony has long been prized for its rich, black color. But many ebony trees actually have marbled coloring. Unfortunately, a tree’s color isn’t known until after it is chopped down and its interior wood is exposed. People harvesting African ebony trees have long taken only the valuable black wood, leaving the marbled trees to rot. But in reality, there’s no difference in how the differently colored woods sound. So Taylor decided to use ebony of any color or pattern for its guitars to reduce waste and promote conservation.

Some people in the music industry have begun working to protect ebony. They’re trying to make sure the wood is used sustainably. Today, much of the ebony used for musical instruments comes from West Africa. Taylor Guitars is leading the charge to save the species there. In 2016, the California-based guitar maker teamed up with scientists from the Congo Basin Institute. They started the Ebony Project in Cameroon. It aims to study the species and replant ebony forests. So far, the project has planted more than 15,000 ebony trees.

The company doesn’t just use ebony in their instruments. They also help to teach musicians about how it’s produced. “If we wanted to continue making music, we needed to understand the resources used to make our instruments,” says Scott Paul. He’s Taylor’s director of natural resource sustainability.

Ebony has long been prized for its rich, black color. But many ebony trees have marbled coloring. Sadly, no one knows a tree’s color until it’s chopped down to reveal its inner wood. For a long time, people have cut African ebony trees and taken only the valuable black wood. They’ve left the marbled trees to rot. But really, the differently colored woods sound the same. So Taylor decided to use ebony of any color or pattern for its guitars. That reduces waste and helps conservation.

ALTERNATIVE INSTRUMENTS

In Europe, violin makers wanted to reduce the need to harvest ebony altogether. They tried turning to native trees to craft their instruments instead. But because the native species’ physical properties differed from traditional tonewoods, they didn’t work as well. The violin makers approached scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology for help. Together, they came up with a manufactured ebony substitute, called Sonowood.

Sonowood is made of compressed maple, spruce, and walnut wood sourced from local forests. The material has a density and hardness similar to that of ebony. When musicians tested instruments outfitted with Sonowood parts, they loved the sound. That included a musician who normally plays one of the world’s best violins, a centuries-old Stradivarius!

Paul of Taylor Guitars says alternative woods still need to be used sustainably. In the end, he says, musicians, instrument makers, and scientists need to work together to save the trees that gave rise to an artform loved by people around the world. “Music transcends language and culture. Now it’s giving us a platform to educate people about managing natural resources.”

In Europe, violin makers wanted to reduce the need for ebony completely. They tried using native trees to make their instruments instead. But the native species’ physical properties differed from those of tonewoods, so they didn’t work as well. The violin makers asked scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology for help. Together, they came up with a manufactured ebony substitute. It’s called Sonowood.

Sonowood is made of compressed maple, spruce, and walnut wood. The wood comes from local forests. The material has a density and hardness like that of ebony. When musicians tested instruments made with Sonowood parts, they loved the sound. That included a musician who normally plays one of the world’s best violins. It’s a centuries-old Stradivarius!

Substitute woods still need to be used sustainably, says Paul of Taylor Guitars. He says that musicians, instrument makers, and scientists need to work together to save trees. Those trees led to an artform loved by people around the world. “Music transcends language and culture. Now it’s giving us a platform to educate people about managing natural resources.” 

CONSTRUCTING EXPLANATIONS: Explain how the different approaches taken to protect tonewoods could conserve these tree species.

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