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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000188.txt from 2010/11

From: Tony Pay <>
Subj: [kl] Jennifer's question
Date: Sun, 14 Nov 2010 12:41:03 -0500

(I've changed the subject of this thread so that it isn't mixed up with stu=
ff about "what equal temperament 'means'":-(

On 13 Nov 2010, at 11:34, Jennifer Jones wrote:

> It is mind blowing to me (and well outside my narrow experience) that cla=
rinets could be designed for specific centering pitches within 3Hz of one a=
nother. With all the variations in temperature and humidity between perfor=
mance venues, seasons and the huge number of variables in simply designing =
and machining the instrument, that sort of precision seems difficult.

I think it's instructive to consider why this might seem a puzzle. The ans=
wer is bound up with how we understand the world of clarinet playing -- ind=
eed, how we understand the whole world of music making, and much else about=
human culture.

The thing to see is that we are hardly ever at the real beginning of a subs=
tantial piece of of culture. Everything is a development of, or a reaction=
to, what has gone before. (Think of language.) So, nobody that we know e=
ver designed a clarinet from scratch, in isolation. They proceeded by modi=
fying what was already available.

What's more, they acted under the stimulus of players; even if their idea w=
as new, it got modified by feedback from existing players pretty quickly.

So, when we say a particular model of clarinet 'is designed to play at a pa=
rticular pitch', we are making a statement about a large collection of obje=
cts that has come to be (or hopes to be) embedded in a constantly renewed p=
opulation of players, makers and audiences. (The players sort of evaporate=
off at one end, and get initiated at the other:-)

We are saying that any of these objects can be played, more or less at that=
pitch, by a group of people who have learned how to make them work accordi=
ng to an accepted canon of musical performance. And we mean also that thes=
e people have learned how to make them work at that pitch in varying circum=
stances -- different reeds, different mouthpieces, different temperatures (=
the pitch of a clarinet is strongly affected by ambient temperature) -- and=
so on.

So how the 'design' of a clarinet develops has a lot in common with evoluti=
on. And what we wind up with is an instrument that the community in genera=
l accepts as being a reasonable tool for producing what we agree a clarinet=
is 'spozed' to sound like at the agreed pitch.

Of course, a player develops in this way too, beginning with their decision=
to embark on the road of becoming a clarinet player, with the study and pr=
actice that that entails.

Because people's mouths come in different shapes and sizes, sometimes diffe=
rent players end up with slightly different versions of a particular piece =
of kit. But they all have to start SOMEWHERE in their journey towards the =
canon -- and the pitch of the canon, A=3D440, A=3D442 or whatever -- so tha=
t's why we give them something that's spozed to play OK for them to work on.

Now, one thing that acoustics teaches us is how we can CHANGE the pitch of =
something that is spozed to play at a given pitch. So if the standard of p=
itch changes, we know what to do to alter a clarinet 'at' A=3D440 so that i=
t becomes a clarinet 'at' A=3D442 -- roughly, shrink it by a quite accurate=
ly determinable amount. So that sort of calculation is what I imagine inst=
rument makers perform.

> I thought it interesting that the high clarinets website from the univers=
ity of Edinburgh mentioned an Eb sopranino clarinet that has a particularly=
flat lower register.
> =

> (1041) Clarinet in Eb, M=FCller type (possibly continental Europe, c 1850)

As Lesley explains in her video, that's a thing that sometimes happens when=
the bore of an instrument warps over time. The clarinet becomes 'out of t=
une with itself'. That can often be corrected by reaming out the bore, whi=
ch usually contracts. (You can also tell how much it has contracted, becau=
se wood shrinks in a constant proportion with and against the grain, allowi=
ng you to reconstruct the dimensions of the circular cross-section that has=
become elliptical.)

> With your experience playing period clarinets, (or modern clarinets for t=
hat matter), do you find that certain clarinets "sit" better at certain pit=
ches, e.g., 440Hz or 442? Does this vary with season, e.g., winter vs. sum=

Yes; with experience, and when the instrument is well-in-tune with itself, =
I guess one can tell roughly what pitch it was spozed to go at, making some=
(I would say) reasonable assumptions about the sort of sound it was spozed=
to make.

-- =

Tony Pay
79 Southmoor Rd =

Oxford OX2 6RE
tel/fax +44 1865 553339 =

mobile +44 7790 532980

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