Boehm System vs. German Systems

Different clarinet systems compared

As you are not German (in that case you would be reading the German version of this page) you may think that all clarinets are of the same or at least very similar design - and that the Boehm System is "the classical clarinet". This type is used in most orchestras in the world by most top clarinet players, likely all you have ever seen and heard - and you could leave it at that. But that is not the whole story.

In German speaking countries and the near and middle east (like Greece and Turkey), in Oriental Klezmer and in Jazz (New Orleans style) people use a different type of clarinet. These are generally called German system, usually special versions/descendants of it. There is the German modern classic system called Oehler system, which derives directly from the Müller clarinet (and not from Klosé's Boehm System). There is the Albert or simple system used in Jazz and Klezmer. You find the historical background under History.

Why is this? Isn't the Boehm system the most modern and best overall?

No, you can't say that for every purpose. The modern Boehm instrument is an excellent general-purpose instrument, but there are situations in which players prefer a different type, to play their kind of music. And that could be Mozart, Jazz or Turkish folk. Maybe you have seen the expressions "Boehm" and "German" on lists of manufacturers of clarinets and reeds, and you may have seen clarinets that look a bit different from what you see at school, in your band or on TV. If you ever been to New Orleans and seen the Jazzers play in conservation hall, their instruments look different as well. They are all descendants of the "German" system.

Different systems - an evolution

The development of the clarinet - starting as a simple instrument about 1700 until the current models we play today, proceeded in many steps. These did not draw one straight line. It rather resembles the family tree of a natural evolution:

Picture: family tree of clarinet types

The first 50 or so years there was only one type of clarinet system, all were copies of Denner's clarinet. A felt key more or two didn't make much of a difference. About 1812, Iwan Müller had introduced many improvements that are still in use in modern clarinets: (salt spoon keys, sunk in and cut-under tone holes etc.). In 1839 Klosé's Boehm system branched from the Müller clarinet, and since then there are two major branches: The French Boehm instruments and all others, which more or less variants of the Müller clarinet, now called German systems.

Just like in nature, some exotic branches developed, thrived and died out - or survived in a niche. Development takes place at different speeds in different regions; species that have long since died out elsewhere still can be found on remote islands, but completely new species can also develop there.

Technical improvements spread quickly, but fingering doesn't change

There were always improvements, sometimes smaller ones, sometimes revolutionary ones. Some improvements spread quickly and became the standard, mostly purely technical ones that did not require a change in playing practices. For example, the ring key, invented by Adolf Sax, was quickly adopted across all existing systems. New bearing types and cushions could also be easily transferred from one system to another, even be used in different instruments (Oboe, Saxophone) altogether. In this respect, the separation of the systems is not at all as strict as it might appear - even on the graph. The instrument makers are of course very interested in all types of innovations, and they look at other instruments the same way they did hundreds of years ago, usually on international music fairs.

Other developments that include different fingering changes and playing practices were only slowly accepted, most of those were not embraced at all. It may be surprising, but especially the best players are slow to accept even great improvements: We all like to stay with what we have once learned and have now mastered. This very much includes knowing how to overcome the instrument's shortcomings and using workarounds.

A typical example is the improvement of the removal of the "fork fingering": The improvement replaced forked fingering by additional tone holes and keys. It could be used straight on, but the players would have to re-learn movements, and they didn't like that idea. The solution was to let the mechanics translate the traditional forking into the additional key lifting and closing, so the fingering did not have to change.

This may also explain why all really revolutionary system changes for the clarinet failed, with the one exception of the introduction of the Boehm clarinet. This change could only succeed with the influence of the Paris Conservatoire and the cultural dominance of France in the 19th century. I will discuss this further below.

How to tell the difference at first glance

The Boehm and the German system look rather similar, many keys are (still) at exactly the same place and look alike. The most obvious difference is at the end of the key levers for the little fingers: Where the Boehm System has four levers, the German system has two rather flat, half-round key ends that both have a small wooden roll for sliding.

Lange Klappen Deutsches System

In detail there are a lot more differences, mostly subtle ones, in the keys, the mechanics, the mouthpiece, the lay, the reed and even the bore (fully cylindrical in German clarinets, with subtle widening and narrowing in the Boehm bore to improve intonation). Generally speaking the Boehm system produces a sharper, lighter sound, that is more flexible than the sound of the German system. The German system produces a darker sound on a usually much harder reed. But then even to a professional conductors the sound can be so similar today they couldn't tell the difference by just listening (says Daniel Barenboim, and he has often played with Germans and others alike).

Technically both systems are on the same level of craftsmanship. Even the Albert clarinet or simple system that is built today or the Turkish clarinet that is based on a late Baermann design today apply the same modern screws, precise bores and excellent keys. Mechanically some details on the Boehm system make the instrument more sturdy and easier to maintain - e.g. where the German system has long levers, the Boehm clarinet has turn-keys that last longer and work more reliably. The solding connections on long levers on German clarinets may wear out and break after many years of use and abuse (not greasing the corks, for example). However, if you have bent a key, you will find that correcting that is easier with German instruments because one lever does only operate one pad, while there are complex mechanics on the Boehm instrument.

You will often be told that most Germans use a string to fix the reed to the mouthpiece's lay instead of using a ligature. Yes, many still do it, but many Germans use ligatures today. The ligature was invented by Iwan Müller in Germany around 1800. But even the latest, most expensive ligatures have only disadvantages compared to the string, which is the simplest, most reliable, sturdiest and acoustically most perfect way at the best price. It is the rather the form and surface of your mouthpiece which decides whether you can better use a ligature, or a string is better.

Other systems

Albert System or "Simple System"

In the New Orleans Dixieland Band the old clarinettist plays something that looks rather like a German system and the fingering appears to be the same - it has the typical sliding rolls. You can see the key system is simpler, many tone holes have no keys at all. On Youtube you can see them, too, the most prominent example of such a jazz musician is Woody Allen. If you see such a clarinet, then you probably are looking at an Albert system, a direct descendant of the Müller system. In England and the USA this is also called "simple system". The Albert System was created at about the same time as the Baermann clarinet was developed, and has survived in jazz and is still produced for this purpose. Fewer keys have the advantage of more possibilities to change the pitch and play glissandi with partial covering of tone holes. That is why many jazz musicians still stay true to it.

Turkish/Greece/Oriental/Klezmer instruments

The Oriental clarinet, which is played in the Balkans and throughout the East (except for countries with a long French or English presence like India, where as a result the Boehm system became common) is also somewhat similar to the Simple System. They are also descendants of the Müller clarinet. Typical for Turkey and Greece is the use of G clarinets, which is two notes lower than the B-flat instruments. Typical Oriental artists like Husnu Senlirdici play on such systems:

Oriental system - Husnu Senlirdici

Oehler system, "full Oehler" system

The last major development in the German clarinet which was widely accepted by players was the Oehler system around 1900: Oscar Oehler, a clarinet builder, moved the tone hole of the right middle finger to the side of the instrument (=Oehler system) and added a cup/flare resonance mechanism for a better sound of the long tones (this is then called a "full" Oehler system). Most high-quality German instruments today are based on this system, which has undergone only a few changes since about 1905. So "Oehler" and "full Oehler" are one variant of the German system. Simpler clarinets (student instruments) usually have no cup mechanism, so they are not full Oehler systems.

Austrian / Viennese Clarinet

This type of a "German system" only has a relevance in Austria, but then it is predominant here. It has got practically the same structure as the Oehler style, but with a slightly larger bore diameter (German: 14.6mm, Viennese: 15mm), so the bore is about as wide as that of the Boehm instrument. With the German instrument, however, it again has the relatively long and completely cylindrical bore in common.

New German Clarinets

After the development of the Oehler system the clarinet builders of course did not stop to experiment, and there are ambitious ones - mostly the younger - masters constantly try to implement improvements. Partly with good success. The problem is acceptance (see above). In order to implement a fundamental reform, the advantage of a system change must be significant.

Today's Boehm System

In France, the Boehm clarinet was developed by Klosé from 1839 onwards, from where it replaced the Müller clarinet and its further developments almost worldwide. Iwan Müller - a German who had grown up in Russia - had not succeeded in convincing the Paris Academy of his improved instrument. For Klosé as a Frenchman the academy was not such a big problem. The rest of the world took the recommendation from Paris seriously. At that time France was culturally dominant in Europe, and compared to the old clarinet, the Boehm instrument was a tremendous advantage. Only in the German cultural region, in the Orient/Turkey/Greece, Klezmer and in jazz there still are successors of the German system. Only in Germany and Austria these systems continue to be developed until this day. Today, Boehm clarinets tend to be played more and more in the German cultural region as well.

Can you switch systems and "relearn"?

I am sometimes asked whether it is possible to switch systems and re-learn. This can make sense for people who started to play German systems and now want to buy an Alto or Bass clarinet - and these are much cheaper in Boehm variants. That was the reason for me: I had to learn to play Boehm because I wanted a top-of the class Bass clarinet and didn't want to pay twice as much for a German top model than for a Buffet Crampon 1900 green line.

Rarely ever a person who has learnt to play Boehm needs to learn playing the German system. This happens sometimes because they move into Germany (however today you could continue playing your own system), but sometimes there are enthusiasts who are convinced you can hear the difference and the German models sound better.

The answer is: Of course you can relearn. I did it (German to Boehm), I wasn't really perfect after a month, but yes, it worked. The relearning of some rare fingering takes time. Getting used to other mouthpiece and reeds types can take some time as well. If you practice regularly (daily), you should fully master the new system after a couple of months. But I know of people who still have difficulties with it and mix up things after years. This mostly happens if you have two instruments of different system types.

... but sometimes you don't have to re-learn (reform Boehm)

Many people who have learned on a Boehm system but sit in the orchestra between players with a German system want a more German sound without having to change their fingering. German instrument makers have developed the Reformboehm for this purpose: German bore, German mouthpiece, German reed, but Boehm mechanism.

If you are only interested in the German sound (and you come from the Boehm system), you can buy a Reform-Boehm. That has however its price, because by the small numbers of pieces a Reformboehm is unfortunately still clearly more expensive than the classical German system.

An inverted system - Boehm bore, mouthpiece and reed with German keys - does not exist to my knowledge.

Will the German system (and its local descendants) eventually disappear?

As mentioned above: The existing systems serve their purpose for the moment. The two leading systems, Boehm and German/Oehler are good for classical music and wind band. The Boehm system is produced in larger numbers and therefore is significantly cheaper (between 30% and 50%) - which means for the same money you can get a much better clarinet in Boehm version. In the top section of products German master producers still build instruments unmatched anywhere in the world, but for the majority of us this is rather uninteresting.

I compared the development of the clarinet with a biological evolution. Animals and plants also branch, specialize, thrive, change and eventually die out if the habitat changes or vanishes. So the general answer is: Sure they will disappear like all other existing things, but it depends on their habitat, if it is still there, if they can compete and if they find new habitats in case their old ones vanishes. With clarinets there sure is competition between Boehm and Oehler for the same habitat (the concert hall, the school band) while the Albert / simple system and the Oriental clarinet "lives" and prospers under quite different conditions. The Boehm system has one strong advantages (price/quality) over the Oehler while the Oehler is the champion in a very narrow niche (the very best of the world's top orchestras). So it is likely Oehler will disappear sooner than other "German" clarinet systems like Albert and Oriental clarinets.

The German system was able to hold its own in Germany and Austria for 170 years because the music markets and the instrument markets were quite isolated nationally. Globalisation has put an end to this - via Amazon, Thomann (europe's largest online music shop, operated in Germany) and hundreds of other dealers on the internet I can now also buy a French CD, listen to a Japanese on iTunes and on the shelf of the music instrument dealer and mail-order company Yamaha and Buffet are just as available as Kreul, Hammerschmidt and Wurlitzer. This considerably increases the pressure on the German system.

Anyone who wants to be a professional in Germany and Austria will continue to play German systems in the next decades at least. The Vienna Philharmonics will still play their New Year's concert and Strauss festivals with German systems in 100 years, same as Berliner Symphonics or Salzburg plays Mozart on German systems. But since the sound of modern Boehm instruments is more a matter of the player, German amateurs are beginning to rethink. 30 years ago only one of 20 clarinet players in my wind orchestra played Boehm, today we are eight, and Alto, Bass and Contrabass Clarinets are Boehm, too.

Future of instrument making - new variants?

The technical progress not only in mass-production but also in development of very small series of products, even of single parts at the end of the 20th century was enormous, and it still continues and begins to have a practical effect on traditional areas such as instrument making, too: Theoretical considerations of acoustics can finally be measured quickly and practically using relatively inexpensive instruments and computers. The development of micromechanics brings almost perfect, extremely small and yet inexpensive parts like micro-bearings. Silicone and other tailor-made new synthetics are being developed. Computer-controlled wood and metal processing (CAM) can be found even in small workshops today, a few years ago only industrial giants could afford that. This means individual workshops can now, for example, model keys according to 3D models designed in a computer and then experiment with them without having to pay for expensive forges or to solder them together or wait for months for new shapes and forms.

This allows instrument designers and makers today to try out improvements that were previously not practically possible: In addition to the daily work, a master workshop might have been able to design and build one experimental type of key or other part by hand. Then they would try it, and if it hasn't improved things much, they would have gone back to start.

With a CAM cutter or 3D printer, however, you can develop a slightly adjusted copy of any workpiece using a computer (any multi purpose laptop computer would do) and then you can have it 3d printed in metal or sturdy plastic during the lunch break - if you have already bought the expensive 3D CAM machine, the operation itself costs almost nothing. One can therefore expect the variety of instrument types and improvements from ambitious workshops to increase considerably again. At the same time, this technology reduces the previously astronomical production costs by replacing tedious, mostly complete manual processing steps. New products can already be admired at trade fairs (and on the websites of workshops) of all kinds of materials.

However, for an improvement to reach mainstream the preconditions have not changed at all: We players must be convinced that the advantages are worth the effort to re-learn and the money we have to spend.