That Nice Dark Sound
Daniel N. Leeson

An essential element of clarinetistry - one with which every player comes to grips during the formative years - is the character of the sound produced. Because it is so important, a great deal of effort is expended seeking those elements that, purportedly, contribute to the sound's personality. As a consequence, from its first days, the Internet's KLARINET list has had what may be perceived as a continuous discussion on one topic: the acquiring and perpetuation of a distinctive and pleasing sound character.

Among the things that are spoken of as being responsible for the nature of a player's sound are reeds, ligatures, mouthpieces, and the clarinet itself; and each of these topics is additionally refined and further refined in a never-ending search for the principle contributors to the sound's character. No matter how arcane the suggested contribution of any ingredient thought to influence sound character, there is invariably an articulate vocal minority prepared to champion its importance in the production of a beautiful, mellifluous sound. I present here, at the very surface of investigation, just a few of the many layers of analysis devoted to sound production.

  1. the reed: type (commercially manufactured or hand made), cane source by geography, dimensions, style and technology of cut;
  2. the ligature: brand, technology of clench (table or face-side attachment, single- or double-point pressure), media (wound string, metal, plastic);
  3. the mouthpiece: maker, material (glass, wood, hard rubber, plastic), measurements (table length, tip opening, slope of curve);
  4. the clarinet: system (Oehler or Boehm), manufacturer (model and even year of model), medium (Rosewood, African blackwood, metal, glass, composite), bore dimensions.
The degree to which sound character dominates the clarinet playing community's interest is a measure of its importance. So the fact that discussions about sound quality eclipse all others, and the fact that performers attempt to influence its personality in every possible way, should not come as a surprise.

But discussions about sound character are not without their problems, substantial problems, too. Specifically, the most significant difficulty is caused by the fact that there is little agreement as to how and to what degree the above factors influence the personality of the sound. Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that the discussions about the character of a clarinet's sound use an ad-hoc vocabulary that is neither universally agreed-to nor very precise. Much of the language that is employed describes sound in terms of words normally associated with colors, light, or textures. Thus, for example, a sound is said to be dark or bright or smooth, and, for reasons that are not at all clear, what most players seek is something described as "that nice dark sound."

Students yearn to achieve it. Teachers direct their charges to practice in a certain way or to buy certain equipment in the belief that doing so will enable one to obtain it. Variations are created with this reed, that mouthpiece, this ligature, that instrument, this mouth position, that tongue location, all under the presumption that a particular mix will yield "that nice dark sound."

To show the breadth of opinion, I offer a sample of deliberately unattributed statements taken from the KLARINET list. There happen to be 23 such statements and it was a challenge to restrict the cross section to so few comments. Each was a serious contribution made sometime between 1993 and the first quarter of 1995. Some credit a specific thing as important, even critical, to "that nice dark sound," but almost every specific is eventually contradicted by another posting. Other comments dwell on related questions and attempt to clarify a vocabulary that is seen by some to be inappropriate, even meaningless.

What the reader will see - and perhaps be surprised by - is that, after almost two centuries of use, the clarinet is an instrument the production of whose sound character remains unclear and ill-understood, even by some of the most experienced performers. The views are disparate and illustrate the range of dogma with respect to the subject of sound makeup. Each paragraph represents the comments of a single individual. I edited the text, sometimes heavily. The order of presentation is chronological.

  1. "The vamp contour [of Vandoren V-12 reeds] contributes to a large, dark sound, just right for orchestral playing."

  2. "Would someone please tell me what a 'dark sound' is and how I get it and when I know when I have gotten it? That has to be the most used buzz word in clarinet playing today. 'Dark' doesn't describe sound character any more than 'purple' or 'hamburger smell' or 'banana pudding' does."

  3. "My opinion of bright vs. dark sounds: a bright sound borders on but does not enter the realm of STRIDENT and a dark sound borders on but does not enter the realm of STUFFY. Both can be acceptable."

  4. "I first heard the term 'dark' used to describe oboe sound sometime in the late 50's. I asked for a definition, got one, and have never had any difficulty in understanding what was meant the countless times since then that I've heard the term used; nor have I ever perceived any ambiguity in the way the terms dark and light are used. I suppose I could find alternate words to label the tonal characteristics concerned, but was never until now aware of there being any controversy about this."

  5. "Virtually all terminology that I have ever heard musicians use when discussing sound is subjective; its meaning comes from consensus. Most acousticians would regard an unambiguous, scientific and objective description of what they usually call tone color as requiring the use of numbers rather than words. Given the two distinguishable tonal characteristics that I personally would differentiate in terms of lightness and darkness, I know on the basis of having done the spectral analysis that the brighter sound is the one having greater relative amplitudes of higher partials. All other things being equal, this could be directly related to nothing other than the reed. If you like, an infinitely thick reed will produce an infinitely dark sound, and an infinitely thin reed will produce an infinitely light sound (where decreasing thickness provides an increasing ability to excite higher partials in the air column)."

  6. "In my experience instrumentalists - not just clarinetists or wind players, but all instrumentalists - frequently comment on tone color. They do so by making analogies with color or texture. In my opinion what is actually heard are differences created by the prominence (or lack thereof) of the upper partials in a player's sound. A predominance of upper partials is frequently described as a bright sound; a sound which does not emphasize the upper partials is often described as a dark sound. I personally feel this custom of using color to describe sound has become almost universal, and is widely accepted among all instrumentalists. It is a convenient simile. Instead of referring directly to the timbral content, an analogy to the dark/light spectrum is made."

  7. "[X] suggests that color descriptors are useful. I suggest that to be true only if all agree that the words describe the thing that they are trying to describe uniquely. I know what I mean by dark sound. You know what you mean by dark sound. But what each of us has in our head may be quite different. For some, their concept of dark sound would be thought of by others as bright, and vice versa. What good is served by the use of a term that is so non-specific and non-descriptive? I think that is false to say that everyone knows what a dark sound is. Each person knows what a dark sound means to him or her. That is about as far as the usefulness of those terms extends."

  8. "I've never seen a program note to the effect that, 'Ms X is known for her dark sound', and if I walk into a music store saying that I'm looking for 'dark toned clarinets' you can be sure the person behind the counter will say, 'Sure, we got lots of 'em."

  9. "Let me tell you a story: as a kid, I studied on West 48th Street in New York City. Manny's music store was there and it had a marvelous selection of clarinets for sale. One day, when I was just hanging around looking at clarinets, a kid of about 16 shows up with his father and asks to try a clarinet with a dark sound. The salesperson says, 'I have exactly what you want. This clarinet's sound is so dark that it is like black velvet, like outer space, like the grave.' The kid tried it and sounded like a strangled chicken. He asked the price. It was $150. His father tried to get the price down to $75 but the salesman would not budge. The kid and his old man walk out. Ten minutes later, another kid comes in, this one about 19 and alone. He says, 'I want to try a clarinet with a bright sound. The salesman, who had not even put away the clarinet from the kid who sounded like a strangled chicken, said, 'I have just the thing for you. This instrument is so bright, it is like the sun, like a flashing diamond. And he gives this kid, the SAME CLARINET that he described not 10 minutes before as having a sound that was as dark as the grave. The kid plays it like he was born for that horn. He wails, he screams, he is all over that horn. He pays the $150 and walks out with it. Go figure."

  10. "I play on a Harris silver [ligature]. It is very good, generates a nice dark sound and is very responsive (looks good too)."

  11. "I have been using the Rovner [ligature] for 8 years now and I have always felt that it gave me a dark sound."

  12. "In the past, whenever the subject of dark and not dark sounds was being discussed, the majority of players who entered into the discussion said that they were trying their best to get a dark sound. At least three of those who said this referenced Harold Wright as the person whose dark sound they wanted very much to emulate. Now, X [a respected repairperson and mouthpiece maker] says that he tries 'to emulate the sound of Harold Wright with my mouthpiece,' and then goes on to tell us explicitly that 'I do not like a DARK sound. I prefer a rich sound with a good balance of fundamental and overtones.' So what do we have here? On one hand we have some posters saying that they want to emulate Harold Wright's 'dark' sound, and, on the other hand, a mouthpiece maker who admits to not liking 'dark' sounds creating a product for that specific marketplace."

  13. "I find that Vandoren Black Master [reeds] produce a really controlled, dark sound."

  14. "What are some methods of producing a 'dark' sound? My teacher told me that if you use a double embouchure, you can emulate it. But how does a person make that sound?"

  15. "I went to the music store today to drop off my clarinet to be repadded and I was tempted to buy this type of mouthpiece that I saw. The 'A5' facing was said to be the 'darkest' sound because of its big chamber. Right now I use a HS* (is this a dark sound-giving mouthpiece?)."

  16. "I compared a Selmer C85, an O'Brian Crystal and a Gigliotti #3 facing. The latter struck me as much the best. Dark sound."

  17. "The Selmer Recital model [mouthpieces] tends towards a dark sound."

  18. "What do you do to get that nice dark sound? I would suspect that a Pete Fountain mouthpiece - which is obviously made for jazz purposes alone - would give you a much brighter sound than the Vandoren - which is made for classical playing. But you don't need to go into the realm of crystal to find tremendous differences in bright/dark sound in mouthpieces."

  19. "I thought everyone knew about Rovner rubber ligatures. They are string ligatures without all the wrapping and binding. They produce a dark sound."

  20. "It's starting again and I'm feeling faint!! It's a conspiracy, to be sure. For months there has been little said about 'this mouthpiece' (or reed or ligature or clarinet or hair tonic, for that matter) 'giving a nice dark sound.' And in the space of only three days, there were about 15 such statements. They're doing it on purpose, just to drive me crazy!! Didn't I see someone's post about not liking a certain Van Doren mouthpiece because it gave a dark sound, while someone countered that that was particularly strange, because he or she always thought that it gave a bright sound. It has to have been a year ago that we all slogged through mud about the use of the non-descriptive words 'dark' and 'bright' in describing clarinet-sound characteristics. There was no conclusion except for several people helpfully describing 'dark' as meaning an abundance overtones (or maybe it was no overtones at all, I forget), while 'bright' meant the exact opposite (or maybe it was the other way around, I forget). And while this was a useful attempt to make order out of chaos, there was not much agreement with that definition because of the rejoinder, 'But I don't know what to do to get more (or less) overtones in my playing.' As for making more or less high partials, I didn't even know I was making any of them. Now I read that this thing that no two people can agree on in the first place is derived from a ligature ('The Rovner string ligatures gives that nice, dark sound'), the mouthpiece ('The Van Doren B45 gives that nice, dark sound'), and the clarinet ('The new LeBlanc has that nice, dark sound'). This use of words like 'dark' and 'bright' to describe the character of sound of a clarinet is, IN MY OPINION, among the most unstable ideas that have consistently survived every rational attempt to kill them. I know everyone uses the words. And we all sort of agree and smile. But I find these terms full of doo-doo, imprecise, non-descriptive, and of unknown origin. I think that the elbow patches on my suit jacket are responsible for the darkness of my sound. And who is to say no? What reasonable, viable, scientifically sound (no pun intended) experiments have ever established one single truthful thing about the use of the term 'dark' and the term 'bright' when referring to the character of sound of any wind instrument? If there is any truth to the statement that you can't kill a bad idea, it is the continual perpetuation of this dark/bright fantasy with people all over the world buying this or that accoutrement because it will give them 'that nice dark sound.' There was one great clarinetist in NY who swore that it was Vitalis hair lotion that gave him his 'nice dark sound.'"

  21. "X said 'I can't believe that [any] person would have any trouble identifying the Rovner as producing the 'darker' sound.' I could not agree less! 100 people, each hearing what you suggested would produce unpredictable responses that would astound you in their variety assuming that each such person was uninfluenced by any of the other 99. This 'dark' business is a social phenomenon, not a technical truth. And it is not because 'dark' is a poor word or even a poor analogous description. It is rather that there is no standard for a 'dark' sound, and this permits anyone to interpret anything they want as 'a nice dark sound.' To then say that its definition is clear because it means an abundance (or absence of) upper partials is not particularly helpful because I do not know what to do with my mouth (or face, or throat or cheeks or diaphragm or elbows or kneecaps or goodness knows what) to get more (or less) of those things into my playing, and I don't know what to buy to achieve those things. The only thing I know how to influence is the nature of the sound so that it pleases me. That is my only aesthetic. With the greatest ease I can make some very awful sounds come out of a clarinet and I know how to improve those up to a point. And when I am at that point, I like my sound (though I wish I could produce one that I liked better). But I have no idea if anyone in the world would characterize that sound as dark or bright, and I couldn't care less. The only important thing is that I like it. (Perhaps more important is when the conductor doesn't like it.) If someone wants to say that that is a 'nice dark sound' (or 'an ugly puce sound'), that's OK with me as long as the checks keep coming it. I see all these wonderful young clarinet players running around the world trying to get a sound characteristic by someone else's aesthetic. They want the world to say that they have 'a nice dark sound' when all they need to have is some serious self-criticism.

  22. "The use of words in describing musical things is a very practical issue and I think that we musicians don't do it very well. Because our business involves so much subjective activity, we have the tendency to think that everything we do can be subjective, shoot-from-the-hip, play-like-it-feels, a no constraints, no rules mentality. I am told that the Japanese have more than 50 words for 'rice' because such an important word needs to have all of its nuance well understood and a single word does not do that. It's the same with the character of sound. Too many of us are ready to put such a critical element of playing to bed with the vague, unclear, imprecise, and not very helpful word 'dark.'"

  23. "I also have an old Selmer 10 A and Bb. They have a very dark sound, more like a Buffet than a Selmer. [I want to sell them because] I have a thing for a bright sound."

What is particularly strange about the range of comments on the sound character of the clarinet is that few took note of the importance of the body of the person playing the clarinet; i.e., the player's bulk, acting as a resonating chamber, was suggested by few to be the most important element in determining the personality of the sound while others suggested that the character was attributable to the reed, the mouthpiece, the ligature, and/or the clarinet. Those few who did give credence to the player's body were, however, very aggressive in their stance: "Once the air column enters the mouthpiece, the ingredients that make up the character of the sound are, for all intent and purpose, captured and the equipment adds very little to its basic nature." That sound character is determined by factors over which one has little influence, and includes, but is by no means limited to, head cavities, body shape, chest volume, weight, and lung capacity, to say nothing of the whole arena of dental idiosyncrasies. It is difficult to accept the view that a cork clarinet would sound like one made out of grenadilla wood, so one must recognize that there are limitations to the assertions of sound character being formed before the air leaves the body.

The sound-making device of the clarinet was spoken of by some in the same way as the character of the voice of a singer; i.e., it was within the body, not outside of it as in the case of a string or percussion instrument whose sound is achieved without the assistance of any interior portion of the human anatomy. This startling suggestion implies that, in the main, the clarinet itself is of little importance in the quality of sound produced. Furthermore, it suggests that a player will sound the same no matter what instrument is in his or her hands; i.e., wood or metal, Selmer, LeBlanc, Buffet, or Yamaha, Oehler or Boehm systems. This assertion alone created another and entirely different discussion that dealt with national sound characteristics in playing; i.e., German sound as contrasted with non-German sound.

The marketing of clarinets has adopted this lack of specificity and, consequently, uses what appears to some to be confusing, unclear, imprecise, and vague vocabulary in their advertising literature. In fact, some marketing techniques perpetuate this imprecision of terminology by assuming a standard for sound that does not, in fact, exist. For example, the following 20 descriptions are excerpted from a recently published marketing catalog that advertised the complete family of clarinets from the French/American musical instrument company, LeBlanc. The material extracted from this catalog is in quotes.

  1. The 1190S and 1190AS Opus models are said to have a "mature, rich tone [that] possesses great evenness, directness and power."

  2. The 1189 Concerto model "tends to produce a tone that is more flexible and lyrical than the Opus."

  3. The 1142 and 1142A Enternite models are said to have "a clear tone."

  4. The 1188 and 1188A Infinite models offer "a more youthful tone."

  5. The LX2000 is said to have "a tone of remarkable clarity and center, yet is flexible, deep and mellow. [It] responds instantly with perfect tonal clarity."

  6. The 1040, and 1040A are said to have "more definition in tone."

  7. The 1020 is said to be "remarkable for its roundness of tone."

  8. The 1176 is said to have "a rich, full-bodied tone quality."

  9. The 1606S is said to deliver "a full-throated tone that Pete Fountain describes as his famous 'fat' sound."

  10. The 1010 "possesses a full-bodied tone quality."

  11. The 45 and 45A "[have] a beautiful, full-bodied tone quality that is exceptionally flexible, responsive, and easy to control throughout the clarinet range."

  12. The 40 has "a full-bodied, rich, warm tone quality."

  13. The 4 has "a beautiful tone quality."

  14. The 7820 has a "warm, mellow tone quality."

  15. The 1190EbS (an E-flat soprano clarinet) "has the deeper tonal characteristics of the B-flat soprano clarinet. The high tones of the E-flat are particularly fine, keeping their roundness and depth, and are free of the thin, tinny and strident traits that most people associate with the E-flat soprano clarinet." (A personal comment: I know of no studies or surveys that would allow anyone to make an assertion about what traits "most people associate with the E-flat soprano clarinet." This appears to me to be an invented marketing declaration that exists for the sole purpose of praising one brand at the expense of another.)

  16. The 1756S (or basset clarinet in A) has "an extended range to low C providing fuller, richer tone for notes in this normally weaker register." (Another personal note. The assertion of a "normally weaker register" on an instrument that has been generally available for only a few years and, prior to that, had not been heard by anyone for two centuries is, in my opinion, an example of media hype that permits one marketer to say that "My product is better" in a way that avoids direct confrontation. I know of no authority or any responsible party who has ever suggested that the lower range of a basset clarinet is a "normally weaker register." If anything, one could argue that it is stronger and more penetrating than any other register on the instrument.)

  17. The 300 alto clarinet in E-flat has a "mellow, full-bodied sound [that] blends well."

  18. The 430S bass clarinet has "a beautiful dark, robust tone quality."

  19. The 350 contra-alto clarinet has a "deep, dark resonance and clear tone quality."

  20. And finally, the 340 contrabass "has a deep, rich, solid tone quality."

What we have here is a suggestion that a clarinet's sound character is capable of being described as mature, rich, clear, youthful, flexible, deep, mellow, with definition, having roundness, having remarkable clarity and center, is full-bodied, full-throated, fat, flexible, responsive, warm, robust, dark, beautiful, and solid, and that these personalities may be achieved by the simple expedient of having a specific kind and model of instrument.

The net result of this situation is an environment that can create insecurity very quickly. All that is required is that a person be said "not to have that nice dark sound," and, despite the meaninglessness of the statement or any agreed to definition as to exactly what is said to be lacking, careers can tumble downhill, out of control, and all on a whim. It is a problem that will probably never be fully solved, but the environment seems to have become sufficiently chaotic that the voice of rebellion against arbitrary lack of specificity can be heard here and there. Are those voices too late to do anything about this situation? Does the situation even exist?

Copyright © 1995 Leeson, Daniel N. All Rights Reserved