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What is the ultimate clarinet sound
A discussion about the specificity and characteristics of the clarinet sound
The issue of sound is crucial for virtually every musical instrument and particularly for woodwind instrument like
clarinet and saxophone. Undoubtedly the clarinet has a characteristic and distinct sound that is immediately
The volume and the pitch are physical realities and therefore can be measured. But aesthetic is a very subjective
topic, aesthetic of sound is an even more abstract concept. The translation of musical expression into written
words is a near impossible task. The music is a language, but a language that cannot be translated into another
language, it is universal.
Does the sound have a meaning, does the sound conveys a message?
The difficulty is to find the right metaphor, the appropriate symbols to describe the sound in term of words.
Shakespeare already understood the metaphor of "music in words"
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
-The Merchant of Venice
Charles Baudelaire, the French poet also felt the confusion of the senses in his poem "correspondences"
Comme de longs ?chos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une t?n?breuse et profonde unit?,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clart?,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se r?pondent.
II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
- Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,
Like longs echoes that, in the distance, blend
Into a shadowy and profound whole,
Vast as the night, vast as light,
Fragrances, colors, and sounds respond to one another.
There are fragrances as fresh as the flesh of children,
As sweet as oboes, as green as prairies,
-- And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant,
Spleen et ideal,IV
In fact, this is synesthesia, a "process in which one type of sensation produces a secondary subjective sensation
(as when one sees a particular color in response to certain music)"
Fragrances, colors and sounds are confusing, melting down, a plethora of words are used to describe the sound with
more or less success. here are some, the list is not exhaustive, feel free to add your own, the imagination has no
Bright, broad, expressive, dark, warm, brilliant, rich, mellow, soothing, reedy, round, square, robust,
pear-shaped, dramatic, great, resonant, dull, sad, happy, shrill, gentle, melodic, vocal, lustrous, big, throaty,
penetrating, blue, menacing, explosive, incisive, caressing, pale, lively...
The same appears in oenology, the science of wine, were the wine tasters applied themselves for centuries
to find words that can describe the idiosyncrasies of the wine they are tasting. But even though the oenologic
vocabulary is highly codified, the musicological sound lexicon is rather confuse.
The clarinet is the instrument which is the closest to the human voice, it is a singing instrument.
So each professional clarinet player has his characteristic voice and sound that can be immediately recognized, and
there is not one true sound, one ultimate clarinet sound, but rather a plentitude of subtleties and nuances that
differentiate one musician from another.
That is relevant to virtually all conventional music instruments. For the clarinet, the differences are maybe more
It is even more complex when one consider that the clarinet doesn't sound the same whether you play in one register
or in another register. When you play, let's say a low E , it sounds significantly different from the E played an
octave higher, like there were two different instruments. This is due to the fact that the clarinet produce
distinctive overtones spectrum depending on the register played.
This contributes without a doubt to the riches of the clarinet and to its versatility.
There were different schools of clarinet playing, each of them advocating a certain quality of sound, French,
German, English, American, Italian, but it is quite ludicrous to give a sound a nationality, so I prefer to use the
term of "school".
But today, the differences,if any, tend to narrow and disappear, the globalization is not a vain word.
The fact remains that the archetype of the French school is personalized by Louis Cahuzac (1880-1960) who is
renowned for his extreme clarity, fluidity and agility, perfect in expressivity, timbral and tonal qualities.
Philippe Cuper is today the best representative of the present clarinet French School. He was the pupil of Gilbert
Voisin who was himself a disciple of Louis Cahuzac. The sound of the clarinet as conceived by Louis Cahuzac is
since the reference for most of the clarinetists.
The English school can be characterized by the use of wide bore clarinet (large bore 15.15-15.30mm), larger tone
holes with no undercutting. It is a bore that is practically parallel till the bottom joint. The large bore Peter
Eaton Elite clarinet is as far as I know the only commercial instrument available. The vibrato is widely adopted by
the English players.
Frederick Thurston, Thea King, Gervase de Peyer, Emma Johnson, Reginald Kell, Jack Brymer, Anthony Pay are among
the most prominent representatives of the English school.
And now, what about the German school (Karl Leister, Sabine Meyer), the famous dark sound? In fact, a bright tone
accentuates the higher partials while the dark sound does not emphasize those upper partials. The relative
amplitude of the various partials is a function of the acoustic characteristics of the clarinet, and how it is
played. (A partial is any pure tone component of a complex tone).
A lot of factors influence the quality of sound and the "tone color". The mouthpiece of course ,the type of
clarinet and the reed, a thin reed will produce a brighter sound than a thicker reed.
Most German and Austrian clarinetists play with the Oehler system clarinets.
The Oehler system has more keys (21) than the Albert making it more comfortable in a player's hands. Oskar Oehler
add some of these improvements to the Baermann system clarinet at the end of the 19th century. Karl Leister and
The Albert system clarinet (thirteen keys and two rings) makes easy to get that "special sound" especially in the
There are some playing differences between the Boehm and the Albert systems:
The Albert system clarinet has fewer keys making fast playing quite difficult on account of its fingering
construction, on the other hand some Eastern European players argue that this allow them to move their fingers
faster. A clarinetist who plays with the Boehm system cannot simply switch over to the Albert system due to its
completely different fingerings.
As I already mentioned the Albert clarinet has a dark and "woody" sound particularly in the lower register.
And finally the Albert system also facilitates the notes bending,slurring and the glissendos, thanks to its unkeyed
tone holes. This is the reason why it is widely used by Balkanic musicians in Greece, Armenia, Turkey...
It is also used by a few Klezmer clarinetist because the Albert fingering suits the scales and modes of the
Most of the great New Orleans jazz clarinet players at the beginning of the 19th century used the Albert clarinet
system mostly for economic reasons (it was more affordable on the second or third hand market) and also
because music teachers coming from the old continent were playing Albert. Among the more famous Albert
clarinet jazzmen were Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, Omer Simeon, Albert
Nicholas and many others. Nowadays Woody allen choosed the Albert system too because he wanted to feel closer to
all those guys he liked.
If we have to choose a sound of reference for the jazz clarinet, undoubtedly Johnny Dodds has the hottest sound of
the New Orleans style and there is a lot of player trying to reach this specific sound.
Due to its closeness, its intimacy to the human voice, the clarinet's sound is maybe the best vector to express the
range of human emotions, from tenderness to rage, love, passion, sensuality, lust, burst of joy, mourning and
The Mozart's clarinet concerto is one of the most appealing piece of music of all the music repertoire.
The clarinet is a vocal instrument, it shares the expressive ability of the human voice.
The sound of the clarinet is the convergence of a myriad of factors, objective and subjective, material and
The reed, the mouthpiece, the ligature, the type of clarinet, the weather, the humidity, the dryness, the
temperature... are some of the physical elements that can be monitored by the artist. but it is the musician's soul
that will shape that "true sound".
Music is about interpretation, about creation and there must be a spiritual transformation in the part of the
musician when he meld his own soul whith that of the composer. Only then the "right sound" will be produced.
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