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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000399.txt from 1998/03

From: "Alec Hill" <>
Subj: Re: Clarinet as a Tuning Instrument
Date: Fri, 6 Mar 1998 14:44:22 -0500

Why should we designate different varieties of clarinet after the note
produced when we finger a C rather than after the lowest note produced by
the instrument? Both conventions would be logically possible. The problem
with the latter is that it is both inconvenient and inconsistent.

In what follows I'll distinguish between the two conventions by quoting the
latter form, e.g. a Bb clarinet would be described as a 'D clarinet' when
designated by its lowest note.

Ask the player of any woodwind instrument to play a scale of C major and the
fingering will be almost the same regardless of the instrument. With the
clarinet we have the unique problem that its two principal registers,
chalumeau and clarinet, are a twelfth apart so this rule can apply of course
only in the clarinet register. The recorder family shares this variation:
descant and tenor have the same fingering as the clarinet register,
sopranino, treble and bass the same as the chalumeau. Commonality of
fingering and of a notation system which relates to that fingering rather
than to the absolute pitch produced makes it relatively easy for a clarinet
player to switch not only between different members of the clarinet family
but also, say, to a flute or saxophone, without having to switch to a
completely new fingering system every time.

I'm convinced that the ability to sightread well comes after repeated
practice when the brain has learned to make an automatic and direct
connection between pitch notation and the fingering. Thus after long
experience of playing bassoon parts on the bass clarinet I now automatically
transpose any bass clef parts up a 9th without thinking. The drawback is
that if I need to play bass clarinet parts notated in the bass clef (e.g.
Shostakovich) then I have a real problem turning off this mental activity
and making what should be a much simpler transposition of an octave.

The point I am trying to make is that a constant relationship between
fingering and notation is both natural and useful. It seems both natural and
convenient to describe your instrument by the transposition necessary to
relate that fingering/notation to concert pitch. If you are playing an Eb
clarinet and the conductor asks the band to tune to concert Bb, say, then
you think "Eb clarinet - I'm pitched a minor 3rd high I will have to play a
minor 3rd lower to compensate, hence I'll play G". However if you think "'G
clarinet' - hmm, my bottom note is E, that means ... er, has any got an

With brass instruments the lowest note is fundamental to the pitch system of
the whole instrument. On a brass instrument (excluding oddities such as the
serpent and cornett) every note is produced by the vibrations of a column of
air the full length of the instrument. There are available a limited number
of variations of that length, through the use of valves or slide, but it is
always the length of the air column from mouthpiece to bell that determines
the pitch. Alter the length of the instrument by inserting a tube into the
bell and you will change the pitch of every single note.

This is not so on woodwind instruments. Each note is basically produced by
the vibrations of a column of air from the mouthpiece to the first open
hole. (Of course it's a little more complicated than that since closing
holes just below the open one also affect the pitch but these are secondary
end effects.) If you insert a tube in the bell it will not significantly
affect the tuning of most of the notes, just 2 or 3 near the bottom of the

Last year I had occasion to play bass clarinet in the Romeo and Juliet
Suites of Prokofiev. One movement ended with a low D (concert pitch C)
which was a semitone below the range of my instrument. The problem was
solved by the simple expedient of dropping a suitable length cardboard tube
into the bell of the instrument, fingering bottom Eb, resulting in an
acceptable D. Apart from the Eb, obviously, and a couple of notes above it,
everything else on the instrument still played in tune.

The choice of E for the bottom note of the soprano clarinets is not a
fundamental property of those instruments but merely an arbitrary accident
of history and manufacture. For example, the Bb soprano in 99% of cases has
E as bottom note, sounding D in concert pitch, so perhaps could be described
as a 'D clarinet'. However there do exist two variants, the full Boehm Bb
whose bottom note is Eb and the basset clarinet used by Mozart whose bottom
note is C. They both perform identically to their more common brother with
the exception of the downward extension facilitated by extra keywork. Would
it be useful to describe them respectively as 'C# and Bb clarinets'? How
then would you distinguish the former from an A clarinet whose bottom note
is E and which is thus also a 'C# clarinet'?

Bass clarinets with bottom note of Eb or C are both common. They perform
identically over most of their range, those extra 3 notes of the C
instrument are a bonus, not a fundamental change. Would it really be useful
to describe these as 'C# and Bb bass clarinets'? By dropping the tube into
my bass clarinet bell to play low D, had I changed it from a 'C# bass
clarinet' to a 'C bass clarinet'? From one point of view it is perfectly
logical to say this -- it's just not very useful. On the other hand if you
inserted a tube into the bell of a trumpet, which lowered its bottom note by
one semitone, then this would also cause every single note on that
instrument to be lowered by the same amount! A Bb trumpet would truly become
a trumpet in A.

Do brass players really describe their instruments by the lowest pitch?
Isn't it the case, at least for horns and trumpets, that these are
transposing instruments whose lowest notated pitch just happens to be C, so
that the description using either convention turns out to be identical? If
so it would seem to be just an attitude of mind as to how you would describe
this. Certainly a trumpet playing friend of mine regards his Bb instrument
as being so described because that is the pitch produced when he reads a C.
But then he also plays clarinet, so maybe that experience has clouded his
judgement! It would seem that it is the lower brass who are out of step. Is
it simply the case that there is no universal
agreement as to what pitch of tuba should be used in ensembles, therefore
arrangers just provide parts at concert pitch to be played by whoever turns
up? I have however seen parts labelled Bb Tuba, written in treble clef, with
the same transposition as the bass clarinet, so maybe things are improving
for them.

To summarise, all clarinets are downwards extensible without changing their
fundamental characteristic, namely the fingering - pitch relationship.
Unlike the situation for brass instruments, the lowest note is not
fundamental to the overall characteristics of the instrument. It would not
therefore be very useful to designate the different members of the family by
labelling them according to what is a rather arbitrary property.

Alec Hill

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