heather roche

…on writing air sounds for clarinets

Video introduction to this blogpost (see below for the rest of the post):


Update (Feb 15, 2017): It’s the three year anniversary of this post this week, so I’ve updated it with some contrabass clarinet air sounds and a bit more information, hope that’s useful!

Recently, a composer sent me an e-mail asking a number of questions about air sounds. I made a number of recordings for him, and thought it seemed like the perfect excuse for a blog post on the subject. A lot of these questions get asked over and over again, so this blog post aims to serve as a kind of introduction to writing air sounds for Bb and bass clarinet.

This post doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, at least, not right off the bat. I’m hoping that you’ll leave comments with your questions, and I’ll try my best to address them all. I’m sure there are plenty of things I haven’t thought about, and I’ll update this post as the questions come rolling in.

There are plenty of sound files here. Things are fairly quiet (with a fairly close mic), so I’d recommend some headphones. And anytime I mention pitch, we’re talking about transposed pitches. Bb clarinet a major second higher; Bass clarinet a major 9th higher.

First, some basic things to keep in mind:

* A clarinet is not a flute. This sounds obvious, and it is, but needs to be stressed. Clarinetists are constantly being asked to match volume of air sounds with that of their flutist colleagues, and it’s almost never possible. The flute can produce quite a lot more volume, and the instrument is slightly better suited to nice mixes between pitch and air sounds. I’m not sure that I can demonstrate through recordings the dynamic capabilities of clarinet air tones, so just believe me when I write, it’s never going to be as loud as you’re hoping it will be.

* Be careful, especially when using the bass and contrabass clarinets, not to forget about unavoidable key noise. You’re going to hear it in the recordings that follow, but just keep in mind there’s a lot of mechanics here. If you’re going to write something wherein you amplify the air sounds, this is especially important to keep in mind. If you want running passages and want to avoid as much key noise as possible, a general tip is to make sure the runs move in ascending pitch.

* If you’re going to write air sounds with an open throat position (great for getting a kind of “white noise” effect), do be aware that your player may start to feel light-headed after awhile.

Air vs. Pitch

One of the questions I most get asked is what is the range of possibilities between air and pitch.

Let’s start off with examples wherein I don’t try to add any pitch to the the air sound (I try to keep the reed from vibrating at all). First on the Bb clarinet, from E3 to C6:

Then the bass clarinet over three octaves from C3 to C6:

To compare, here are two examples where I allow the reed to vibrate a little, first on the Bb then on the bass:

And on the contra – here I’ve let the reed vibrate just a tiny bit, but kept a very open throat position:

And finally, to give you a clearer idea of the kind of spectrum available, here are two different clips. I play each octave five times, each time gradually adding a little bit more pitch, first on Bb then on bass clarinet:

And contra:

On the bass and contrabass clarinets, it’s particularly easy (and quite effective) to gradually introduce pitch on an airy note. This is possible over the entire range of the instrument (and on the soprano clarinet as well), but it’s particularly dramatic on the lowest pitches:

And on contra:

Vowel Sounds and Sweeps

In the following clips, I’ve demonstrated what happens when I form different vowel sounds in my throat cavity while only producing air. It’s extremely subtle, but there is a difference. First on the Bb clarinet:

Then on the bass:

And on the contra:

I like how with the contra, shifting between vowel sounds brings out harmonics. It’s hard to control in that I’m not sure that specific vowel sounds on specific notes are always going to bring out the same harmonics (though perhaps some research should be done here), but I find it very beautiful.

Less subtle is the use of ‘sweeps’. That is, opening the mouth as wide as possible without losing the seal around the mouthpiece. First on the Bb clarinet, from narrow to wide mouth/throat position:

Then on the bass:

It’s also possible to reverse the sweeps (so from very wide to very narrow):

And some contra examples:

Outside the Mouthpiece or Leaking Air:

This gets asked for occasionally. While it does allow for increased volume, I’m not sure it’s particularly effective, as the sound of the air doesn’t really mesh very well with the sound of the clarinet. But you can decide for yourself: here’s an example on the soprano instrument:

Taking off the Mouthpiece

Because the mouthpiece is off in these clips, do pay attention to how much more often I have to breathe in the example clips, because air is moving directly into the instrument without any interference from the reed.

First of all, two examples of this effect on the Bb clarinet, in order to demonstrate the difference between having the barrel on or off. Extreme subtlety of difference here, but while we’re being thorough…. here are two octaves with the barrel still on:

And with the barrel removed:

And on the bass clarinet, with the mouthpiece removed:

For some more examples without the mouthpiece, read on to the ‘inhaling’ section…


Inhaling is also a perfectly viable effect, but please do be careful. If using the reed and mouthpiece, the clarinetist can not breathe audibly in for as long as she can breathe out. But you can hear very easily what’s comfortable in the sound files, as you’ll hear me breathe out fairly regularly. Also worth noticing is that the pattern does repeat once you get to the break (including and from B4), so when writing these, it’s best to stick to pitches below this. Also, I’ve aimed for a kind of action mezzo-forte, a nice compromise between volume and breath duration.

First, the clarinet with the mouthpiece:

Then without:

Then bass with the mouthpiece:

And bass without:

Articulation Effects

Especially when amplified, even a most basic tenuto articulation can be quite dramatic, as demonstrated in the following Bb clarinet example:

The combination of air sounds and fluttertongue is also very effective. Here are two examples, first on Bb then on Bass clarinet:

And finally, one of my favourite effects. Extremely soft slap tongues without allowing the reed to vibrate afterwards (“without pitch”):

Blowing at the mouthpiece

Another great technique is to have the clarinetist maintain a short distance from the mouthpiece itself and with pursed lips, blow air directly at the mouthpiece tip. This can be done by putting the bottom lip on the reed and blowing (very helpful for stability).

In the sound example for the Bb clarinet, I move chromatically upward from a fingered E3, all the way until C6. As you can hear, the pattern repeats itself after crossing the break (B4). You can also hear a fairly prominent whistling sound (though I think it’s slightly more audible on the recording than in real life). That’s not my lips, that’s the reed. Although, this is definitely a technique that could be combined with whistling!

In the bass example, I move chromatically upward from C3 to just over the break (B4). Again, the pattern repeats itself here. Also worth noticing is that the lowest pitches don’t really start to come out until around E3, it’s at this point that they become especially prominent.

Another silly technique, which has become a kind of habit with me when I’m waiting for something to happen, is to wave the clarinet in front of my face while blowing air. I’ve never seen a piece with this in it, probably for good reason.

Bass Clarinet Harmonic Whispers

I think this effect is particularly cute. Low, whispery airy notes on the bass clarinet, allowing high harmonics to just slip out. It’s quite easy to do, isn’t tiring at all and I think it’s quite effective. Here’s low C, C#, D and D#, rotating through the different harmonics. It would be just as easy to hit individual harmonics or to change the order, little glissandi would also work quite nicely. Just think of them as a quiet version of the spectral multiphonic:

Bonus: Clarinet as Shakuhatchi 

This is a little bit gimmicky and one could argue that it doesn’t really belong on this blog post, but here’s a kind of bizarre way one can use the clarinet. Take off the mouthpiece and barrel (though some players do this with the barrel on, I’ve never managed it that way), and play the clarinet more like a flute. Here’s a chromatic octave, fingering from E4 to E3 (and then again fast):

Thanks for reading and listening, hope you found the post useful. Please do get in touch with any questions, and keep in mind that the best possible thing is to work these things out in collaboration with a clarinetist. For inspiration on that front, please check out my posts on collaborating and on professionalism for young composers!

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