How do you tune a clarinet?
Depending on which jokes you’ve heard, there are several different punchlines, but I’ll spare you the comic routine for some facts and helpful hints to improve your tuning.
All instruments have their own unique tuning tendencies, and the clarinet is no exception. Here’s an overview and factors which can affect standard clarinet tuning:
Warmer temperature = sharper pitch
Colder temperature = flatter pitch
Louder = lower
Softer = sharper
Too soft reed = lower/flatter
Too hard reed = higher/sharper
Embouchure too tight = higher/sharper
Embouchure too loose = lower/flatter
If you can’t remember whether to push in or pull out, here’s a helpful alliterative tip:
Shorter (bore length) will make you sharper
Longer (bore length) will make you lower
Keeping this in mind, if you are sharp, pull out. If you are flat, push in. These adjustments should be made in very small increments at a time until you are in tune. You can make these adjustments between the barrel and upper joint, but you can also adjust between the upper and lower joint or the lower joint and the bell. Be careful that you do not pull out too much between any of these pieces, otherwise your clarinet might fall apart (this is particularly problematic between the upper and lower joint).
Here are some tuning tips to help all clarinetists:
- Don’t check the tuner until you’ve warmed up. If you tune as soon as you assemble your instrument, it won’t be accurate since the instrument (and you) aren’t sufficiently warmed up.
- Find your instrument’s good tuning notes. Each clarinet has its unique tuning tendencies, although there are generalities among all clarinets. In general, chalumeau C, open G, and clarion F are pretty reliable to tune to. As you get used to your instrument’s tuning tendencies, find your clarinet’s trustworthy notes to tune to.
- Don’t adjust for every out of tune note. Once you have tuned to your trustworthy notes, don’t keep pushing in or pulling out for other out of tune notes, otherwise you will upset the entire tuning equilibrium of your clarinet. You can adjust other ways (see below) for individual notes.
- Train your ears. Listen first, look at the tuner second. As you become more familiar with the clarinet’s tuning tendencies through the regular use of tuners, listen before you look to help train your ears to hear when you’re out of tune. Remember, tuners reinforce the tuning verdict – not make it for you!
- In addition to being in tune with other musicians, the clarinet should be in tune with itself. Make sure that in addition to matching pitch with others, your clarinet intervals are well-tuned. For example, when you are playing a lower note, make sure that the twelfth above matches its tuning tendencies when you add the register key. If your low D is flat but your high A is sharp, you might need to have the key height adjusted so this interval matches.
Here are some factors that affect clarinet tuning and how you can use these to make adjustments for individual notes:
- Finger height. Keep your fingers closer to the keys to lower the pitch,and move them further away to raise the pitch.
- Bell in knees. Make sure that you aren’t playing with the bell in your knees, because this will produce a flat and stuffy sound (especially on low E or middle B)
- Breathing. The initial attack after a breath will be sharper, so plan your breathing spots accordingly to help – not hinder – your tuning.
- How long you’ve been playing. The clarinet gets sharper the longer you play it since the instrument gets warmer as you play longer.
- Embouchure changes. Adjusting the embouchure will produce a difference in tuning, although I advise you to explore other avenues before altering the embouchure, as embouchure adjustments can also decrease clarity, response, and overall sound. Before changing your embouchure to tune, you should first examine possible equipment deficiencies.
If you are consistently very sharp or flat, it might be time to rethink your equipment. Reeds, mouthpieces, barrels, and other equipment can all affect tuning, so make sure you are playing on equipment which helps improve tuning.
- Mouthpieces – Most mouthpieces are pitched at A=440 or A=442, so make sure you are using a mouthpiece which is best suited for your performance needs. Not every mouthpiece is in tune with itself. Be sure to try several of a model to make sure you can identify its pitch tendencies as they will vary like instruments will.
- Barrels – Clarinet barrels come in a variety of lengths to help your tuning needs. If you’re consistently sharp, opt for a longer barrel, and if you’re consistently flat opt for a shorter barrel. It is common to use 66mm barrels for tuning at 440, although you must find what barrel length works well with the rest of your setup. Typical barrel lengths for the B-flat clarinet range from 65mm to 67mm, although there are adjustable barrels which allow you to change the length of the barrel so you can more easily adapt to different tuning situations.
- Tuning rings – Tuning rings are small rings made of various materials (typically metal or plastic) to be inserted into the barrel or between the other joints to fill the gap that is created when pulling out, as some clarinetists believe that exposing too much of the tenon lessens the acoustical properties of the instrument.
The most important thing to remember about tuning is that it is never constant. The most effective tool we can use for tuning is our ears, since tuning changes note to note, minute to minute. Just because you were in tune yesterday (or even five minutes ago) does not guarantee that your tuning will be the same now. Always hear the note before you play it, as this will help both tuning and response. The best clarinetists are those who are able to listen and adjust to the constantly changing musical environment.