Contact sounds can provide important perceptual cues in virtual environments. We investigated the relation between material perception and variables that govern the synthesis of contact sounds. A shape-invariant, auditory-decay parameter was a powerful determinant of the perceived material of an object. Subjects judged the similarity of synthesized sounds with respect to material (Experiment 1 and 2) or length (Experiment 3). The sounds corresponded to modal frequencies of clamped bars struck at an intermediate point, and they varied in fundamental frequency and frequency-dependent rate of decay. The latter parameter has been proposed as reflecting a shape-invariant material property: damping. Differences between sounds in both decay and frequency affected similarity judgments (magnitude of similarity and judgment duration), with decay playing a substantially larger role. Experiment 2, which varied the initial sound amplitude, showed that decay rate—rather than total energy or sound duration—was the critical factor in determining similarity. Experiment 3 demonstrated that similarity judgments in the first two studies were specific to instructions to judge material. Experiment 4, in which subjects assigned the sounds to one of four material categories, showed an influence of frequency and decay, but confirmed the greater importance of decay. Decay parameters associated with each category were estimated and found to correlate with physical measures of damping. The results support the use of a simplified model of material in virtual auditory environments.