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Beethoven vs Bacteria

March 18, 2011

When I was in elementary school, I was asked by the music teacher whether I would like to learn a musical instrument. As it turned out, the one missing instrument in the school band was a trombone. If I wanted to play an instrument, it would be the trombone, and only the trombone. I wasn't that excited about that, but I decided to give it a try. I was led to a dank storage room, where the music teacher fetched the trombone case for me, gave me a book of simple tunes, scheduled twice-weekly lessons during my free periods, and sent me on my way.

Brass is an alloy that's quite resistant to corrosion, so the instrument was still in good shape after this extended period of less than ideal storage. The case, however, was another story entirely. It took my mother quite some time to expunge most of its mildew odor. After all that work, I spent only a few weeks with the trombone before deciding it wasn't for me. I never learned an instrument, but both my children did. Later, I designed and built a few electronic music synthesizers, and I wrote programs to have my computer play music for me.[1]

Drawing of a trombone

My old nemesis! Drawing of a trombone from H. Carhart and H. Chute, "First Principles of Physics", Allyn and Bacon, 1912. (Via Wikimedia Commons).

As I read in the summary of a recent article, mildew would not have been my only enemy if I had continued with the trombone. Mouthed instruments, such as brass and woodwinds, are like a culture dish for all sorts of nasty organisms. The article, "Is Your Child's Hobby Making Him Sick?" was published in General Dentistry, a journal of peer-reviewed articles published by the Academy of General Dentistry.[2] The article reports on a study that showed that brass and woodwind instruments are heavily contaminated with bacteria and fungi, and these can cause minor to serious infection and allergic reaction.

Researchers took swab samples from more than a hundred sites, such as internal chambers, mouthpieces and cases, on thirteen high school band instruments. Six of these instruments were currently used, but the others had not been used for about a month. This sampling found 442 different bacteria, including Staphylococcus, along with 58 molds and 19 yeasts. Lead author of the study, R. Thomas Glass, DDS, PhD, says,[2]
"... Without the proper sanitation, bacteria and fungi can thrive for weeks and even months after the last use... Parents may not realize that the mold in their child's instrument could contribute to the development of asthma."

Many of the bacteria found were resistant to the typical antibiotics prescribed by general practitioners.

The authors of the study gave advice on how to protect against infection:[2]
• Instruments should be cleaned after each use.
• Cleaning should not be confined to just the mouthpiece.
• The entire instrument, both inside and out, needs to be cleaned on a regular schedule.
• Frequent wipes should be done to the parts of the instrument that come into contact with the skin and mouth.
• The instrument should be taken apart regularly for a thorough cleaning.

It's known that some silver compounds have antibacterial properties, thus the practice of putting silver nitrate solution into the eyes of newborns. Silver metal itself may have an antibacterial property, and the use of silver mouthpieces has been recommended.[4]

Figure caption

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis (Karl Joseph Stieler, 1820).

My Aunt Estelle painted a huge copy of this while she was an art student. One of her pastorals hangs in my office.

(Via Wikimedia Commons))


  1. D.M. Gualtieri, "MIDI Output Interface to a Parallel Printer Port," Computer Music Journal, vol. 10, no. 3 (1986), pp. 79-82.
  2. Lauren Henderson, "Is Your Child's Hobby Making Him Sick?" Press Release, Academy of General Dentistry, March 14, 2011
  3. R. Thomas Glass, DDS, PhD, et al., "Is Your Child's Hobby Making Him Sick?" General Dentistry, vol. 59, no. 2 (March/April, 2011).
  4. Christopher Woolnough-King, "A Microbiological Survey Into The Presence Of Clinically Significant Bacteria In The Mouthpieces And Internal Surfaces Of Woodwind And Brass Musical Instruments," University of Newcastle upon Tyne UK, Published 1994-1995.

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Linked Keywords: Elementary school; musical instrument; trombone; brass; alloy; corrosion; mildew; electronic music synthesizer; brass instrument; woodwind instrument; Petri dish; culture dish; organism; Academy of General Dentistry; bacteria; fungi; infection; allergic reaction; high school; Staphylococcus; mold; mould; yeast; antibiotic; general practitioner; silver; silver nitrate; Beethoven.