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harmonics, a principle well understood by the ancient Greeks and Romans in playing upon the aulos and tibia.[1] This is easier to accomplish with the double reed than with the beating reed; in fact with a tube of wide diameter, such as that of the modern clarinet, it would not be possible by this means alone to do justice to the tone of the instrument or to the music now written for it. The bore of the aulos was very much narrower than that of the clarinet.

Britannica Clarinet Mouthpiece.jpg
Fig. 2.—Clarinet
Mouthpiece. a, the
mouthpiece showing
the position of the
bore inside; b, the
single or beating

In order to facilitate the production of the harmonic notes on the clarinet, a small hole, closed by means of a key and called the “speaker,” is bored near the mouthpiece. By means of this small hole the air-column is placed in communication with the external atmosphere, a ventral segment is formed, and the air-column divides into three equal parts, producing a triple number of vibrations resulting in the third note of the harmonic series, at an interval of a twelfth above the fundamental.[2] In a wind instrument with lateral holes the fundamental note corresponding to any particular hole is produced when all the holes below that hole are open and it itself and all above it are closed, the effective length of the resonating tube being shortened as each of the closed holes is successively uncovered. In order to obtain a complete chromatic scale on the clarinet at least eighteen holes are required. This series produces with the bell-note a succession of nineteen semitones, giving the range of a twelfth and known as the fundamental scale or chalumeau register, so called, no doubt, because it was the compass (without chromatic semitones) of the more primitive predecessor of the clarinet, known as the chalumeau, which must not be confounded with the shawm or schalmey of the middle ages.

The fundamental scale of the modern clarinet in C extends from Britannica Clarinet Range.jpg. The next octave and a half is obtained by opening the speaker key, whereby each of the fundamental notes is reproduced a twelfth higher; the bell-note thus jumps from E to B♯, the first key gives instead of F its twelfth C♯, and so on, extending the compass to Britannica Clarinet Extended Compass.jpg, which ends the natural compass of the instrument, although a skilful performer may obtain another octave by cross-fingering. The names of the holes and keys on the clarinet are derived not from the notes of the fundamental scale, but from the name of the twelfth produced by overblowing with the speaker key open; for instance, the first key near the bell is known not as the E key but as the B♯. The use of the speaker key forms the greatest technical difficulty in learning to play the clarinet, on account of the thumb having to do double duty, closing one hole and raising the lever of the speaker key simultaneously. In a clarinet designed by Richard Carte this difficulty was ingeniously overcome by placing the left thumb-hole towards the front, and closing it by a thumb-lever or with a ring action by the first or second finger of the left hand, thus leaving the thumb free to work the speaker key alone.

There is good reason to think that the ancient Greeks understood the advantage of a speaker-hole, which they called Syrinx, for facilitating the production of harmonics on the aulos. The credit of the discovery of this interesting fact is due to A. A. Howard,[3] of Harvard University; it explains many passages in the classics which before were obscure (see Aulos). Plutarch relates[4] that Telephanes of Megara was so incensed with the syrinx that he never allowed his instrument-makers to place one on any of his auloi; he even went so far as to absent himself, principally on account of the syrinx, from the Pythian games. Telephanes was a great virtuoso who scorned the use of a speaker-hole, being able to obtain his harmonics on the aulos by the mere control of lips and teeth.

The modern clarinet has from thirteen to nineteen keys, some being normally open and others closed. In order to understand why, when once the idea of adding keys to the chalumeau had been conceived, the number rose so slowly, keys being added one or two at a time by makers of various nationalities at long intervals, it is necessary to consider the effect of boring holes in the side of a cylindrical tube. If it were possible to proceed from an absolute theoretical basis, there would be but little difficulty; there are, however, practical reasons which make this a matter of great difficulty. According to V. Mahillon,[5] the theoretical length of a B♭ clarinet (French pitch diapason normal A = 435 vibrations), is 39 cm. when the internal diameter of the bore measures exactly 1.4 cm. Any increase in the diameter of the cylindrical bore for a given length of tube raises the pitch proportionally and in the same way a decrease lowers it. A bore narrow in proportion to the length facilitates the production of the harmonics, which is no doubt the reason why the aulos was made with a very narrow diameter, and produced such deep notes in proportion to its length. In determining the position of the holes along the tube, the thickness of the wood to be pierced must be taken into consideration, for the length of the passage from the main bore to the outer air adds to the length of the resonating column; as, however, the clarinet tube is reckoned as a closed one, only half the extra length must be taken into account. When placed in its correct theoretical position, a hole should have its diameter equal to the diameter of the main bore, which is the ideal condition for obtaining a full, rich tone; it is, however, feasible to give the hole a smaller diameter, altering its position by placing it nearer the mouthpiece. These laws, which were likewise known to the Greeks and Romans,[6] had to be rediscovered by experience in the 18th and 19th centuries, during which the mechanism of the key system was repeatedly improved. Due consideration having been given to these points, it will also be necessary to remember that the stopping of the seven open holes leaves only the two little fingers (the thumb of the right hand being in the ordinary clarinet engaged in supporting the instrument) free at all times for key service, the other fingers doing duty when momentarily disengaged. The fingering of the clarinet is the most difficult of any instrument in the orchestra, for it differs in all four octaves of its compass. Once mastered, however, it is the same for all clarinets, the music being always written in the key of C.

The actual tonality of the clarinet is determined by the diatonic scale produced when, starting with keys untouched and finger and thumb-holes closed, the fingers are raised one by one from the holes. In the B♭ clarinet, the real sounds thus produced are

Britannica Clarinet Diatonic Scale.jpg

being part of the scale of B♭ major. By the closing of two open keys, the lower E♭ and D are added.

The following are the various sizes of clarinets with the key proper to each:

E♭, a minor third above the C clarinet.
B♭, a tone below the C clarinet.
The high F, 4 tones above the C clarinet.
The D, 1 tone above the C clarinet.
The low G, a fourth below the C clarinet.
The A, a minor third below the C clarinet.
The B♯ 1 semitone below the C clarinet.
The alto clarinet in E♭, a fifth below the B♭ clarinet.
The tenor or basset horn, in F, a fifth below the C clarinet.
The bass clarinet in B♭, an 8ve below that in B♭.
The pedal clarinet in B♭, an 8ve below the bass clarinet.
The clarinets in B♭ and A are used in the orchestra; those in C and E♭ in military bands.

History.—Although the single beating-reed associated with the instruments of the clarinet family has been traced in ancient Egypt, the double reed, characteristic of the oboe family, being of simpler construction, was probably of still greater antiquity. An ancient Egyptian pipe found in a mummy-case and now preserved in the museum at Turin was found to contain a beating-reed sunk 3 in. below the end of the pipe, which is the principle of the drone. It would appear that the double chalumeau, called arghoul (q.v.) by the modern Egyptians, was known in ancient Egypt, although it was not perhaps in common use. The Musée Guimet possesses a copy of a fresco from the tombs at Saqqarah (executed under the direction of Mariette Bey) assigned to the 4th or 5th dynasty, on which is shown a concert with dancing; the instruments used are two harps, the long oblique flute “nay,” blown from the end without any mouthpiece or embouchure, and an instrument identified as an arghoul[7]

  1. Aristotle (de Audib. 802 b 18, and 804 a) and Porphyry (ed. Wallis, pp. 249 and 252) mention that if the performer presses the zeuge (mouthpiece) or the glottai (reeds) of the pipes, a sharper tone is produced.
  2. Cf. V. C. Mahillon, Élements d'acoustique musicale et instrumentale (Brussels, 1874), p. 161; and Fr. Zamminer, Die Musik und die musikalischen Instrumente in ihrer Beziehung zu den Gesetzen der Akustik . . . (Giessen, 1855), pp. 297 and 298.
  3. “The Aulos or Tibia,” Harvard Studies, iv. (Boston, 1893).
  4. De Musica, 1138.
  5. Op. cit. pp. 160 et seq.; and Wilhelm Altenburg, Die Klarinette (Heilbronn, 1904), p. 9, who refers to Mahillon.
  6. See Macrobius, Comm. in somnium Scipionis, ii. 4. 5 “nec secus probamus in tibiis de quarum foraminibus vicinis inflantis ori sonus acutus emittitur, de longinquis autem et termino proximis, gravior: item acutior per patentiora foramina, gravior per angusta.”
  7. See Victor Loret, L’Égypte au temps des Pharaons—la vie, la science, et l’art (Paris, 1889), illustration p. 139 and p. 143. The author gives no information about this fresco except that it is in the Musée Guimet. It is probably identical with the second of the mural paintings described on p. 190 of Petit guide illustré au Musée Guimet, par L. de Milloue.