Fake Anniversary: Invention of the Clarinet

ClarinetOn this day in 1623, the Comité pour l’Invention de la Clarinette was formed. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the flute. For example, the fingerings of the notes in different octaves were pretty much the same. This made learning the flute fairly easy. It was, in the words of one Comité member, “Too logical!” And so: the clarinet.

The problem was physics. The flute has holes on both ends and thus, it is based on the octave. But by closing one of the ends, it was possible to make the clarinet based on a 12th — an octave and a 5th. In this way, the upper registers were fingered in totally different ways. It was, in the words of one Comité member, “A perfect mess!”

But the Comité was not finished. They added various keys at random, just making the whole instrument a nightmare of complexity. But still, their work was not finished. They found that by placing buttons very close to each other — buttons that did very different things — they could normally get a 12 year old clarinet student to cry in under three minutes.

In the clarinet community, it is often joked that the instrument was invented by eight people who never met each other. But that’s not actually true. The Comité pour l’Invention de la Clarinette worked very hard to make the clarinet the bane of woodwind players everywhere. But it has been great for the clarinet instructors who have avoided suicide.

7 replies on “Fake Anniversary: Invention of the Clarinet”

  1. Barney says:

    Have you ever heard ‘The Unbelievable Truth‘? (I never know what BBC radio programmes are accessible outside the UK). You might like it – “David Mitchell hosts the panel game in which four comedians are encouraged to tell lies and compete against one another to see how many items of truth they’re able to smuggle past their opponents.”

    It has a sort of competition with QI to find weird facts, and prove the other programme wrong.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I thought I replied to this. I have seen bits from both shows. Actually, there was something on QI that has been bugging me for at least a year. It claimed that black was the coolest color to wear in the sun, because even though it absorbed more sunlight, it also radiated more body heat. It was a statement of black body radiation. The problem is, the color of a cloth does not determine how well it radiates in IR. What’s more, radiation isn’t the only way we get rid of heat. But even though it was wrong, it was amazing that a little quiz show could get me thinking so much about an issue. The British really are better than we are. I now think the revolution was a bad idea.

  2. Lawrence says:

    I played clarinet for a few years in the school band. First year I didn’t know how to read music. The songs were simple enough I could memorize them. We moved back to Phoenix at the end of that school year. The music teacher was better out here, and I learned to read music, and got better playing. He got upset with me when I quit. I had just lost interest. My daughter plays violin and likes it. I didn’t know flute was easier. Now that I think about it, it’s funny that only girls chose the flute and only boys chose trumpet in my band class.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      It is interesting how woodwinds tend to appeal to girls and brass to boys. Of course, I’ve always hated loud noises, so I wouldn’t pick brass. But now I’d be interested in learning the trumpet.

      I wouldn’t necessarily say the flute is easier to play. In particular, the embrasure is a real pain, and that’s what I am staying away from. But the flute, oboe, and sax all at least make sense. But what I’ve found in playing the clarinet is that it doesn’t actually matter, because you are always thinking (hearing?) in a relative sense. So it doesn’t matter that in the second register, you are using a different fingering for the same note. Well, most of the time, anyway.

      But mostly, I would just like to play this:

  3. Donald Shimoda says:

    I love this piece about clarinets. I never knew this information. Actually, I don’t know how any of the great instruments were created. Quite fascinating. What’s really amazing is how people (composers) take these instruments and make great or not so great music. Mozart was great and still is via his music. I can’t imagine my life without the music I love, but I never gave a thought as to how the musical instruments came into being.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I don’t actually know how the clarinet was built. I do know that it comes back thousands of years. But it is true that it is based on a 12th, which is weird, although the physics of it is simple. The reason a sax isn’t this way is because it is a cone and not a tube. But I’ve come to adore the sound of the clarinet as I’ve gotten older. It’s just beautiful. And now that I’m learning it, I appreciate people who can really play it.

  4. paintedjaguar says:

    Oh, you think the clarinet is crazy? Let me introduce you to my frenemy Mr. Ulleann Pipes. I fell in love with the sound, and love bagpipes in general, but just trying to keep them playable… well. As for musical tastes, I used to have a cat who would sit at my feet and sing along when I was practicing. I think perhaps the pipes reminded him of his mama.

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