The Clarinet's Sound

The oldest known description of the clarinet's sound dates back to 1740, and it tells us that "... the tone of the clarinet is rather similar to a distant trumpet." This may have been correct at that time (but then, too, there is a good chance that the writer had not yet personally heard a clarinet). Today, however, the clarinet has got a very characteristic, distinct sound, that is not similar to any woodwind instrument (though it is somewhat similar to the organ's and the harmonica's sound, which are acoustically closely related). Even a small child that has not much classical experience can tell a clarinet from a trumpet or an oboe - that is why it was used as "the cat" in Peter and the wolf.

This article (like most others on this topic) assumes you are familiar with some standard examples of clarinet music. If you are not or would just like to brush up your memory, you will find a number of sound-snippets (MP3-files) of typical pieces of music for the clarinet to listen to here.

How the clarinet should sound - different ideas in different countries

You will find very divergent ideas about how a clarinet should sound - regardless whether you meet people who have hardly ever heard a clarinet or professional players. The ideas have a lot to do with what people have already heard and where they have grown up (that is what cultural background they have). The small distance between Dover in England and Calais in France is a border not only in lingual sense, but in playing style or in what musicians one knows and hears. And such borders exist between many states and cultures more or less. With Benny Goodman in your ears you'd be surprised how different a German player would sound. And somebody grown up with Turkish music or with Klezmer might say all other styles are missing "soul" and therefore are strange and not really beautiful...

Different cultures have brought up special ways to sing and to play instruments - this is nothing specific to the clarinet. It seems that with the clarinet you have the extremes ends of these ideas with the German style on the one hand and the Oriental (Arabian/Persian/Turkish/Klezmer/Gipsy) style and sound on the other. Now what is it all about?

The German style: Beautiful but cool

To start with let me try to describe the German sound idea as the one extreme, because describing that is rather simple. The Germans (the vast majority) play a clarinet with a hard reed and a narrow bore. That results in much less overtones than other clarinet systems. They play no vibrato - never - not the slightest. It is an open question, whether classical composers (all Germans: Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Wagner, Brahms) wanted their clarinet music played with vibrato. Articulation is rather sharp with your tongue on the reed like the letter "t" - never like "h" (that is with your lungs). If you want to play staccato-scales, you play it "ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta...", not "ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka..." or "da-ha-ha-ha-ha". Due to hard and therefore not so flexible reeds the different registers (Chalumeau, Clarinet, high) sound very different, and the player can do little to balance that. To sum it up: The German clarinet emulates an old-fashioned church organ, or, as Jack Brymer said: It is like a marble statue - beautiful but cool.

The Oriental style: lots of "soul", but not so noble

On the other end you have the oriental style: That is the Arabian/Persian/Turkish/Klezmer/Gipsy sound and style. Here the clarinet emulates the voice of a singer - emotion is everything. In consequence the sound has a wide spectrum of overtones, and uses vibrato and glissando (sliding from tone to tone) extensively. The player picks from a wide range of articulation, can play staccato and legato, too, but many facets in between. The voice of the clarinet sounds like that one of a laughing or crying person. The dominant articulation is "hu-du-hu-hu-hu-dju-dju". In general the style is described as "with soul", that is very emotional, by the artist and the audience.

The in-between-styles: French, English, US-American

There are many other style ideas who are somewhere in between these extremes - and of course one should not think of styles as being all on a one-dimensional line, but rather a field of different styles. The roman countries, (France, Spain and Italy) who differ in themselfs, too, have a lively and sharper sound than English and US-American clarinet players with their usually well balanced sound and a decent vibrato - very much like English tenors compare to an Italian or Spanish tenor.

This is an interesting field - but since sound is much easier anticipated by listening I recommend you to listen to different players from different countries and make yourself your own picture!

What do you hear when you hear a wood wind instrument play?

Purely physical the tone of an every instrument is a sound event, technically speaking a complex vibration of the air, a mixture of different frequencies in different intensity that changes over time in a way that is characteristic for an instrument. The instrument sound is mainly characterized by different parameters:

  • the base frequency, on clarinets usually transposed
  • the overtones of each tone
  • the attack sounds
  • potential vibrato
  • other noises by the instrument and player
  • the room's acoustical characteristics

How a tone is created

As said above: Purely physical the tone of an instrument is a sound event, technically speaking a complex vibration of the air. Looking at a string instrument that is easily understood (and yes, I very much simplify the reality here): There is a string - a generator of waves, that swings when you plug or strike the string. The waves make the instrument's body swing, too, that makes the air around swing what we hear as tone. Longer strings need more time for one full swinging movement than shorter strings, so the player makes the string longer or shorter with his finger to create tones of different height. The number of swings per second gives the tone's frequency.

How is a tone created in the clarinet - what is swinging there?

Click on the picture to start the animation. To see an animation you must have a flash player installed.

While you just plug or strike a string that answers by swinging, you blow into the mouthpiece of your clarinet. This lets the air (blue arrows) flow through the reed tip opening into the bore. Then the air presses the tip of the reed against the lay of the mouthpiece, which for a short time blocks the airflow. But the reed is elastic: it swings back and air flows in again, until the pressure lets the reed close the opening again and so on.

As result we have a nearly steady flow of air (blue) that is rather slow and pressure waves (red) that travel through the instrument by the speed of sound. It is the pressure waves rather than the air flow that is important for the tone.

The reflection

So pressure-waves travel through the bore from mouthpiece to the bell and then spread out into the open air. But at the opening of the bell the pressure wave is reflected by the surrounding air, too, and a significant part flows back into the instrument until it reaches the mouthpiece an the reed opening. And again it is being reflected and goes back toward the bell. At the same time the mouthpiece creates a new wave.

If now after the time the wave needs to travel there and back the reed opens and creates a new wave that mixes with the reflected wave, we have a so called "stationary wave" and the air in the bore is swinging in the frequency of the time the wave needs. Since the wave travels with the fixed speed of sound the length of the clarinet defines the height of the tone. This is true when all keys are closed, but if you now open a key, the wave can break out there (a shorter way), is reflected there and travels back - but this time a shorter way, therefore the time is shorter and therefore the frequency must be higher, if you want to keep the wave stationary. When playing you don't have to think about all that it - this goes fairly automatic once you are used to it.

We have seen that the wave is reflected three times, that is it travels four times through the instrument. That is due to the cylindrical bore and the type of the mouthpiece. With conical instruments (as the oboe or the saxophone) the wave is reflected only once (when coming out), so the wave is just a double-wave and therefore half as long as one of a clarinet of same length. There one would expect that the oboe's tone is double the height as that of a clarinet of same length and in reality you find just that.

Reality is even more complex

What we have just said is strongly simplified. Next to the main frequency all overtones (see below) are swinging, too, so the waves become complex - they overlay. To give you a simple idea what overlaying is: when you sit in your bathtub and continue to make a simple wave with your hand, first you have a simple wave pattern on the surface, but over time all reflections add up to something really complex.

There is another challenge to consider, which affects the instrument builder: The length of the air column is not easily calculated since the reflection doesn't happen at the end of the bore, but further out. You will find that when you play a clarinet and move a finger up and down even more than a centimeter (half an inch) over an open tone hole, you will still hear that considerably. This shows you how important correct keys, pads and opening distances of tone holes really are.

Base frequency

This is what one would assume makes the strongest part of a sound impression - and to some extend that is correct. The base frequency is what you do conciously hear - that is the information that the notes (the notes alone) on the sheet represent (their height - next to their length), and it is needed to identify the melody the instrument plays. But that part alone would be an undistinguishable beep like that of an old mobile phone ringing. It is all the other aspects that "make" a musical instrument's tone.

What transposing means

We call the clarinets A, B flat or E flat. That has nothing to do with a "base" tone (that does not exist for clarinets in the sense that it exist as natural base tone for brass instruments), but the tone, that sounds, when you play a "C". So when you play a C major scale on a B flat clarinet, it is the same as a B flat major scale on a piano. When you play a C major scale on an E flat clarinet, you hear the same as an E flat major scale on a piano:

when playing a C, you hear a to hear a C, you must play a
Piano C (the piano doesn't transpose) C (the piano doesn't transpose)
B-clarinet B (the instrument sounds one tone lower) D (you must play one tone higher)
A-clarinet A (the instrument sounds one-and-a-half tones lower) D sharp (you must play one-and-a-half tones higher)
E flat clarinet E flat (the instrument sounds one-and-a-half tones higher) A (you must play one-and-a-half tones lower)

See also the more detailed example in the FAQ.


Musical instruments produce a wide spectrum of sounds, of which the pure base sinus wave usually is only a very small part (except for some Synthesizers, that sound very artificial). The fundamental wave (that is nearly a sinus) is usually overlaid by overtones. Overtones are of higher frequencies - usually (but not necessarily) whole numbered multiples of the frequency of the fundamental tone. You find a more detailed discussion on overtones in Wikipedia. Simply spoken overtones are higher tones - like an octave, one-and-a-half, a double octave and so on that are produced as resonance by the instrument. In general (but not always and not with a simple pattern) these overtones become weaker and weaker the further away from the fundamental frequency they are, and they are what makes an instrument sound characteristic for each instrument. Without the overtones the clarinet's C would sound exactly like an oboe's or a trumpet's - it would be a sinus wave. The overtones form a spectrum which is called overtone row.

The picture above, taken from the book "Musik im Kopf" (music in your head) by M. Spitzer shows the sound waves and overtone spectrums that different instruments produce: The flute produces a nearly pure sinus wave, because it has got a dominant base wave and only one considerable overtone, the recorder has got more overtones - so the sinus wave shows distortions. The clarinet has strong interferences, and double reed instrument and a brass instrument have strong overtones, but each with a different pattern.

The overtones that strongly influence the instrument's sound are called formands. You find that all instruments except clarinets have their formand on one line (the red line). This has to do with the acoustic characteristics - mainly the cylindrical bore - of the clarinet. Looking at the overtone spectrum one understands why the clarinet was compared with a trumpet - their overtone spectrum is the most similar.

The clarinet - as opposed to other instruments - does produce quite different overtones spectrums depending on the register you are playing. A low c sounds quite differently from the c an octave higher - a bit as if it were two different instruments. The lowest tones again have a completely different, very characteristic sound.

The sound snippet lets you hear the difference between low chalumeau register and higher clarinet register.

Attack sound

The instrument's attack sound, too, is a very important sound aspect of the instrument. When the reed of the clarinet starts to swing and the wave inside the instrument begins to stabilise (which takes only a fraction of a second) makes a distinct sound/noise. This is true for all kinds of instruments. This beginning of the tone that we call attack is usually much more characteristic than the tone after the attack phase for itself. If you only hear the long held tone of an instrument without the beginning, it is much more difficult to distinguish between instruments.

long held tone legato to staccato The first sound snippet gives you long tones - it is difficult to say what instrument it is. The second gives you legato to staccato - here there is no question what instrument it is.

The most typically tone sound with clarinets is a staccato that is not too short in the deep register (no wonder Prokovjev used this for starting the melody of the "cat" in "Peter and the wolf".

The real importance of the attack sound for the sound impression can be heard when listening to cheap synthesizers: they can only generate the held tone, which may be sampled from a real instrument, but it misses the attack sound. This makes the cheap synthesizer sound so very artificial. Good synthesizers can create the attack sound of instruments - of strings (especially when plugged), and of the wind instruments. That makes them sound much more natural. This is really complex with horns, bassoons and clarinets, because the attack sound is so different at different registers, even tones, that the manufacturer has to sample the attack sound for a lot of notes.


Another aspect of the sound is whether you play a vibrato or not, and if you do, how strong it is and how it is done. This is particularly controversial in the discussion of clarinet sound since traditional "German" (including Austrian) clarinet players don't play any vibrato at all. Most other national "schools" (if the country is big enough to develop one of its own) are playing their clarinets with some form of vibrato; even if the composer did not intend it (and this is discussed for "Germans", for example for Mozart, Weber, Wagner and Brahms).

The Vibrato corresponds primarily to respectively national styles: it sounds moderate at English, clear with French and very strong with jazz and Klezmer clarinet players (that is: Benny Goodman would play a strong vibrato and a "h"-attack even playing Mozart). The other way round you will find German clarinet players play Milhaud or Saint-Saens "straight" without vibrato, even if it would be necessary and sensible - for example because the clarinet repeats a theme that was played just before by a flute and then an oboe, both with a strong vibrato.

A reason why there is so much discussion about vibrato may be the Bessel-Funktion, which explains why a vibrato sounds less pleasent on clarinets with their odd harmonic overtone scale compared to instruments that have an even harmonic overtone scale (that includes the human voice). You find a detailed explaination at Iori Fujita's page:

Other noises caused by playing the instrument

Furthermore there are noises caused by playing the instrument that are typical and sometimes important; the sliding noise over guitar strings for example (synthesizers can produce that). Closing the keys of the wind instrument wil give a characteristic "plop" - but only using light reeds and therefore only with Boehm models. Besides you can hear air breaking away at the sides of the mouthpiece - this of course is a low noise and can only be heard close up (solo with a microphone).

Subjective sound experience for the player

Of course it is the player who is responsible for the sound - much more than the instrument. You have to master the playing technique. This depends primarily on the correct embouchure and breathing. The player can influence the tone of the instrument in a wide range if you have enough experience in that field. And there are reasons to do so - because the requirements to you are different for different playing situations like a big symphonic orchestra in a music hall, a concert with a symphonic band outdoors or a chamber clarinet quartet. A simple basic thing could be to know what different reeds and mouthpieces to use. A good teacher will help a lot here.

But there is a serious problem you have to overcome (and many are not aware of that): Audience and players get a different sound impression because the vibrations of the clarinet do not reach the inner ear of the listener and player the same way: The lister hears all sound through the air, while the player hears the sound mainly directly through his skull bones - via the teeth that touch the clarinet. You may have had a similar experience the first time you heard yourself talk on a recording or from a video tape - usually this is a surprising if not shocking experience.

The player will hear a much clearer tone than the listener and therefore will have a tendency to prefer instruments that rather sound a little less clear. In return it may be good to know that listeners will still consider a sound pleasant that seems sharp or shrill to the player. If you cannot make technically good recordings of your own playing (which I strongly recommend and which is easy now since even mid-priced videorecorders have much better microphones and sound recording capabilities than tape recorders once had) you should often discuss your tone with others like fellow clarinet players or your teacher, if you have one (strongly recommended, too, and even if only for exactly this reason).

Optimal sound: different for every piece of music

That much is clear: There is no such thing as a generally accepted optimal sound. Each composer and musician has got a certain idea how a phrase should to sound. Whether you play Mozart's slow clarinet parts with vibrato will be discussed emotionally. We know that Mozart wrote for Anton Stadler who played an instrument by Iwan Mueller - it is very unlikely that a vibrato was possible on this, however there is no final proof. Many clarinettists of that time (including Stadler) were oboists who played vibrato on their original instrument. On the other hand a glissando in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is a must. And Arabic, Turkish, Gipsy and Kletzmer music must be played with an oriental "feeling"; which technically translates into bent tones little upward or downward glissandos at the attack of a prominent tone. There you better forget everything your classical teacher has ever told you.

The clarinet player will always have to interpret music in the cultural context of the composer and then has to choose the style of music that he thinks is appropriate - and surely the conductor (if there is one) will give his or her comments on this. If you play in an ensemble, this may require some discussion.

A solution for ensembles: identical instruments for everybody?

When playing in an ensemble you usually you want to be able to sound very similar when playing the same tones or lines - so that individual musical phrases blend into a "clarinet set" very much like the strings in a good symphonic orchestra. We have discussed the issue of different instrument types resulting in different types of sounds. Therefore people have suggested to use identical instruments for everybody - this would eliminate the differences. But that is only theoretically true, as the players are practically different in their volume of mouth, position of teeth, attributes of lips and usually the choice of mouthpieces. Just have a look at clarinet players even in excellent orchestras when their part gets tricky: there is a wide difference in the angle they hold their instrument in (as far as I heard this may not be true for clarinet students the USA, where the "correct" angle is actually taught - nearly enforced - and really maintained). Some players are sitting relaxed, others bend over and swing from side to side or foreware and back. Whatever they do makes them different. We have found that it is most important to talk about this subject and do something - mainly playing together in little groups having capable instructors. At least in the amateur sector that is much more helpful than buying identical instruments. Professionals might then still go this expensive step.