Good Math/Bad Math

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Off topic, but I can't resist: clarinet stuff!

This is way off the normal topic of the blog, but I just can't resist.

One of the things that I do for fun is play music. I'm a bit of a dabbler; I play a ton of different woodwinds. But my first instrument is clarinet; I was classically trained, and I've played in for about 25 years now. As much as I like the other instruments I play, particularly my Irish flute, there's still nothing as close to my heart as the clarinet.

There's been a lot of exciting stuff happening in the clarinet world. There are now synthetic reeds that are very close to the quality of the best natural reeds, only they need less maintenance, they're harder to damage, and they last much longer. (I'm particularly fond of Harry Hartman's fiberreeds; in a box of 10 of the very best hand-made natural reeds, maybe one will sound better than a fiberreed.)

In a different vein, I just discovered a very strange new ligature. The ligature is the little thing that holds the reed to the mouthpiece. The shape of the ligature, the way it contacts the reed and the mouthpiece can have a huge impact on the way the instrument plays and sounds. There are dozens of different ligatures, but until recently, there were three main variations:

  • (1) Rigid ligature (generally metal), open loop with screws fastening over the reed. Here's a pic of a mouthpiece with one of those:

  • (2) Rigid ligature, either metal or plastic, with screws fastening over the back of the mouthpiece. (These generally use some trick to reduce the area of contact between the ligature and the reed, and sometimes the ligature and the mouthpiece.):

  • (3) Fabric ligature with a single screw over the back of the mouthpiece. Fabric ligatures use a shaped metal plate to contact the reed, shaped to minimize its impact on the vibration of the reed:

There've been variations on these three for last long as I've played the clarinet, but I've never seen anything else.

I just got something new, called the Bois Delrin ligature. This little bugger is a simple ring of delrin (an very interesting plastic), it's not flexible, it doesn't stretch, and it it has no screws at all. It just slides down over the reed and mouthpiece until it's tight. Here's a pic; the ligature is the little ring piece, the other thing is just a reed protector to fit over the mouthpiece when you're not playing.

This little bugger is the most amazing thing that I've ever tried. It has more impact on the ease of playing than any other clarinet accessory I've ever seen. It's just absolutely stunning. I'm in love! I never dreamed that anything could be such a huge improvement over the giggliotti that I've been using for the last 15 years. Wow, wow, wow!

(The links up there are to Music123 where I bought it; I'm not affiliated with them or with Bois in any way, I get absolutely nothing if you buy one of these little wonders. I just think it's so amazing that I've had to rave.)


  • I was a saxophone player and tried to learn to play clarinet. I hated it! It was so hard, the freaking holes were such a pain in the butt. I wonder if I have my piece of junk clarinet still?
    I never liked the "fake" reeds for saxophone. I'm not sure how much they've changed in the last 4-5 years, but I never liked the sound I'd get.

    By Blogger franky, at 3:12 PM  

  • If you don't like dealing with the holes on a clarinet, don't try playing Irish flute. The holes on a clarinet are tiny, Irish flutes have huge holes.

    The fake reeds have changed a lot. I also tried a lot of the old ones - plastic reeds, plastic coated reeds, etc. These new ones are an entirely different beast - they are much more like natural reeds than the old synthetics. They're made of fibers set in a matrix, just like the natural fibers of cane in a reed. One of them, fibracane, for example, is made by embedding fiberglass fibers into an epoxy matrix.

    The synthetic that I like best, I actually don't even know exactly what it's made of. It's something pure white, with a texture very much like natural cane. Frankly, it looks like crap - the reed surface is white; down under the ligature, the "reed' material is very thin, and covered with a piece of orange rubber to give it the rounded cross-section of the bottom of a natural reed. But it *sounds* almost exactly like natural cane; the very, very best natural cane has a slightly deeper, darker tone. But the average natural cane doesn't sound as good the synthetic.

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 3:51 PM  

  • In music theory, the mathematics of the helix can be very important.

    By Anonymous Doug, at 7:38 PM  

  • doug:

    I'm actually planning on tossing in some music theory on the blog at some point.

    I discovered the math side of music theory during my senior year in high school. My older brother had started college, and I was taking advanced algebra and calculus at the time. He was doing music theory work analyzing serial music (12 tone stuff). What caught my attention was that my brother, who would insist to the death that he could not do math - he was doing matrix algebra. Part of the process that he was doing was assembling matrices and taking determinants!

    Since then, I learned a lot more math, and realized that math meant more than I thought it did then. Music theory is very mathematical, and that's deeply fascinating to me.

    In particular, it's changed the way I listen to Bach: Bach is both magnificently beautiful, and also has an incredibly elegant mathematical structure.

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 8:39 PM  

  • That's one weird looking ligature! It is tempting though...

    (And I would love to learn the irish fluTe! I just have penny whistles laying all over the house...)

    By Blogger Silvermine, at 9:07 PM  

  • silvermine:

    First - don't hesitate. Get one of that ligature. The thing is just unbelievable.

    Second - if you're really interested in Irish flute, the thing to do is get in touch with Pat Olwell. Pat makes the very best Irish flutes around. For the good wooden flutes, they're very expensive, and there's a year-long waiting list. But he also makes Bamboo flutes, and they're absolutely *the* way to learn. For $75, you can get a lovely Eb bamboo flute which is a perfect instrument for learning Irish-style flute.

    (I've also got a positively obscene number of tinwhistles floating around the house; my silkstone tunable alloy is the pride and joy of the collection.)

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 9:37 PM  

  • Mark,

    You ever play around with multiphonics? There's probably some interesting math on the acoustics there.

    By Anonymous steve, at 12:07 AM  

  • Dang it, Mark, are you my long-lost twin or something? 39 years of clarinet, followed by a bunch of woodwinds. I even do the Irish thing, but on pennywhistle and tenor banjo.

    That new ligature looks pretty cool. I'll have to try one out.

    By Anonymous ArtK, at 11:31 AM  

  • In the mid 80's, i took at course at Purdue University called "The Physics of Musical Sounds". I've forgotten most of it. They introduced programs that simulated the violin and piano from first principals. There was a comment that an early version of the violin program produced poor tone. It seems that the model was that of someone playing the violin poorly. The piano program was most notable by it's name - The Piano Fortran.

    The rate at which innovation has proceeded is amazing. Someone gets an idea, and if it's at all good, it spreads like wildfire. As there are more of us, these ideas seem to be springing up faster.

    By Blogger Stephen, at 5:50 PM  

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