Bass Clarinet Key Clicks

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This post has been much-requested and is well overdue. I think bass clarinet key clicks are an underused (and often misused) technique with a lot of potential: the sounds are interesting but complex, and unfortunately much quieter than say, saxophone key clicks. For the recordings I’ve used a DPA very close to the instrument, so that you can get a really good sense of some of the pitch material possible here, but please be aware that these are quiet – the best solo pieces I’ve seen that use key clicks have all been amplified! (I’d recommend headphones for listening to the sounds on this post!)

If you have questions or other things it’d be useful to know please leave a comment. I do feel that this post is somewhat incomplete and would love to know what else you’d like to know as composers!

So, the most important thing to keep in mind is that what goes down, must come up: every time I press a key on the bass clarinet (which comes with a lot of mechanics!), it makes a noise both on the press and on the release. Here’s a clip with some slow press-and-release actions in the very lowest register:

The most useful action for loud key noise happens in the bottom register of the instrument, where the biggest keys are. These are the C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F# and G# keys, and we can trigger them either open or closed, that is to say that they make different noise sounds (with different pitches) depending on whether the hands have closed the other toneholes or not.

What you’ll hear is me quickly opening and closing the key in the fingering diagram.

So first, with the instrument open:

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And closed – here I’m still just operating the lowest key while holding everything else closed:

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For the main body of the instrument, it’s slightly less about key “noise” and more about a kind of pitched tapping. In the examples I’m playing slowly so that you can hear the pitches, but there’s no reason these can’t be played at any tempo. Here’s an F major scale in the first register, descending:

Here’s E major: 

Eb major:

D major: 

C major: 

Because of the “what goes down must come up” rule, this only really works descending. Ascending, we get this: 

There’s still a little bit there, but I really have to work to get any sound out. It might, however, be useful to get from a position with all the keys covered to one where none are (rather than just letting everything go, which will give you a big spring-back noise). You also can’t use this effect in the second register, as the register key doesn’t work on key noises.

Up till this point I’ve been playing these without touching the mouthpiece at all, but you can and it changes things a bit, if I add the teeniest tiniest bit of pressure to give a bit of pitch it sounds rather nice: 


Another thing I like is the big pads below the keys can be trilled independently with the fingers with the right hand. There are five of them, and there’s more weight to the key the lower you go so the response is lessened, but I rather like the spring back effect.






The trill keys don’t make a lot of noise, but you might find that useful. I give them a few presses each from top to bottom in this clip: 

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5 Responses to Bass Clarinet Key Clicks

  1. Pingback: Index / TOC (scroll down for recent blogposts) | heather roche

  2. Tom says:

    Good post! One other thing that I like to do with the closed holes batch is to firmly hold the reed completely closed – that way they sound at the same pitch as if you were playing normally, rather than a different pitch. For instance, the low F fingering then sounds as low F rather than something like an out-of-tune Eb a seventh above – as an improviser I find it less confusing if I decide I want to match with other pitched material!

    • heatherroche says:

      Oh, good call Tom – I kind of glazed over mixing pitch with key clicks and why one might like to do that on a practical level (not a level composers are always thinking on, but I should put forward the option for sure ;)

  3. Julia says:

    Hello! Are there any solos you are aware of for bass or Bb clarinet that use this technique? Thanks!

    • heatherroche says:

      Good question – there are loads that use them in the context of a bigger piece (but nothing that’s only about that). Lachenmann’s Dal Niente. Liza Lim’s Sonorous Body, for example.

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