Serpent (3D Printed Instrument)

By Dr. Mark Witkowski
email: m.witkowski [at] imperial.ac.uk

Serpent 1The 3D printed serpent is part of an on-going project to create and make designs for a range of historic wind instruments in this new technology for education and research, in collaboration with the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in Oxford.

The original serpent is a wood bass horn with finger holes for playing. Although they look like something out of the dark ages, they were invented in 1590 by Canon Edmé Guillaume of Auxerre and were used for many centuries to accompany sung liturgy in French churches. When played softly the serpent complements the human voice extremely well. When played robustly the serpent provides a solid bass line and they were introduced into military bands from about the 1750s onwards being used extensively throughout Europe and in the USA.

Despite being notoriously hard to master and play, the serpent has a range of three octaves and these instruments were made in their thousands over the four hundred years they were the bass instrument of choice (largely by virtue of being better than all the rest!) Superseded by mass manufactured valved brass instruments such as the tuba from the 1850s onwards the serpent is obsolete today.

Serpents are one of the most easily recognised and memorable musical instruments in any historic collection. The serpent does not fit well into the modern orchestra and the instrument languished in obscurity, unloved, for more than a hundred years until the early music revival of the 1970s. There is now a surprisingly active body of serpent players and enthusiasts.

This 3D printed instrument is derived from a early 19th century example held in the Bate Collection in Oxford. Measurements from the original were translated into a CAD drawing. The body of the instrument was printed in 20 sections on an Ultimaker2 3D printer at the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace and assembled by gluing. The mouthpiece and pipe are an extra six parts.

Serpent2

The printing in PLA took some 200 hours and the finished serpent weighs about 2Kg. The full-sized 3D (approx 800mm tall) printed musical instrument sounds well and plays very authentically - that is, it’s just as difficult to play as the real thing. A halfsize black and yellow striped “serpenteau” was also printed to show the construction. 

Using 3D printer technology, music enthusiasts, researchers and schools can combine CDT skills and music strands to reproduce and explore rare and unusual musical instruments with very low material and production costs.

Serpent 3