Why Clarinets Squeak and Other Instrument Oddities

Why do clarinets squeak? Why do trumpets have spit valves? What’s with all these instrument oddities? Musical instruments are strange things. Hollow tubes with holes in them. Long metal pipes bent into strange shapes. Boxes with hammers and strings. Holes where you don’t expect holes to be. What’s with all this? Here are the answers to some of those strange questions you always wanted to ask but never did.

Why Do Clarinets Squeak?

Have you ever been in beginning band? Have you had to attend a beginning band concert? It seems like the clarinets are always squeaking! Why does that happen? What can they do to stop the squeaking?

Many factors affect whether a clarinet squeaks. And all these are things that the clarinet player must learn and practice. Beginners are still learning – give them a break when they squeak.

Here is a list of some of the more common reasons for clarinet squeaks:

  •         Biting down, or clamping down too hard on the mouthpiece
  •         Having too much or too little of the mouthpiece in the mouth
  •         Inconsistent airflow
  •         Incorrect tonguing technique
  •         Bad reed – old, chipped or dried out

Good news – the more a clarinet player practices, the less he will squeak. So practice away, my clarinet friends.

If you want more information about this, see here and here.

Why Does a Piano Have Three Pedals?

Almost all pianos have two pedals. Some pianos have three pedals. What’s the difference? Does it matter if your instrument has two or three pedals?

Right Pedal

The pedal on the right is the damper pedal. When pressed, this pedal raises all the dampers (or long felt-covered bars) from the strings inside the piano. The strings will then continue to vibrate and sound until the pedal is released and the dampers are reapplied to the strings. If you have a grand piano or open the top of your upright piano, you can see this happen.

Left Pedal

The left pedal on a piano is the soft pedal. Depending on the piano, this pedal works in one of two ways. Either the use of the pedal causes the hammers to strike fewer strings, or the hammers are moved closer to the strings so they cannot strike the strings as hard as usual.

Every key you see on your piano attaches to two or three strings inside the piano. When you strike a key, you activate a hammer inside the piano that strikes the strings related to that key. When you press the soft pedal the hammer slightly moves so it only strikes a portion of the related strings (two strings instead of three, or one string instead of two).

Other pianos use a slightly different system to get a similar result. In this system, the soft pedal causes the entire set of hammers to move slightly closer to the strings. This means that the hammer cannot strike the strings with as much force, resulting in a softer sound.

Center Pedal

And then there is the third pedal. Not every piano has a third pedal. This third pedal will do one of two things, but not both. On some pianos, the third pedal, called the sostenuto (sustaining) pedal, allows certain notes to sustain (or hold) without holding all the other notes at the same time. It is an interesting effect. However, unless you are playing advanced piano literature, you probably will not need to use this third pedal.

Some piano makers have taken that third pedal and given it a completely different purpose. Sometimes that third pedal performs as a “practice” pedal or a “silent” pedal. If you live in an apartment, perhaps the neighbors aren’t too excited to hear your late-night practicing. Or your early-morning arpeggios. What should you do? Put your piano in “silent” mode, by pressing that third pedal, and practice away.

What’s So French About a French Horn?

What’s so French about a French horn? Actually…not much. And it appears that the term “French horn” is only used in the US, Canada, and Britain. Everyone else just calls it a horn. So where did the term “French horn” come from? Guess what – no definite answers exist. But there are three theories about the use of that term.

Theory #1

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a German Count went to France, picked up some hunting horns, and brought them back to Germany. These horns were a bit different than the ones they already had in Germany. Because of that, the people may have referred to these as the French horns to differentiate them from the German horns that were already in the country.

Theory #2

Horn originally developed from hunting horns. The hunting horns in Britain were different than the French hunting horns. The French hunting horns were larger. When musicians began to use these new horns in Britain they reminded people of the larger French hunting horns, so they called them French horns.

Theory #3

In the late 1600s instrument makers crafted horns in Britain, Germany, and France. Each country made the horns slightly differently, and each country contributed different features in the development of the modern horn. Evidently, the best horns of the time came from French makers, so musicians called them French horns. (Not to be confused with the British horns, the German horns, etc.)

Is there a final answer to the question about the term “French” horn? Of course not. And if you are in a rehearsal and the conductor asks the horn section to play a section of music, does he mean just the French horns or the entire brass section? Play it safe, and assume he is just referring to the French horn section.

Looking for more info? Check here or here.

Why Do Trumpets Have Spit Valves?

Spit valves are just gross, right? Trumpet players get to some rests, and the first thing they do is blow spit all over the floor. What’s with that? Ewwww! Think about how trumpet players produce sound. They blow – directly into their instrument. And with all the air that blows, you also get saliva. The air blows out through the horn, but not the saliva. It stays in the horn and collects.

Pretty soon, our poor trumpet player begins to sound like he is playing underwater. Because he is – sort of. And since he is not playing “Under the Sea,” we don’t want it to sound like that. The spit valve on a trumpet (and all other brass instruments) is located where the saliva collects in the horn. The brass player can open the spit valve, blow through his horn without making a sound, and empty all the water from his horn. Then he can continue to play with a good sound. Just be glad you don’t have to clean the floor after the band concert!

Why Are There Holes in the Tops of Violins?

The reason for the holes in the top of a violin (or viola, or cello, or bass) is simple – to let the sound out! Imagine if you are in your bedroom with the door shut and you want to tell your brother or sister to bring you a snack. You yell, but they never bring your snack. They will say they never heard you. But if you open your door and yell, they will hear you and bring you your snack (you hope). That’s the idea behind the holes on the violin. They are called f-holes – because they look like fancy letter f’s. Or some might call them sound holes. Vibration inside the body of the violin causes the sound, but that sound needs a way to get out. The f-holes let the sound out.

If the idea of f-holes fascinates you, you can read more about it here.

So, now you know the answers to some of life’s perplexing questions. You can impress your friends with your vast musical knowledge!

What are some other questions you have about instruments? You know, those questions you have always wanted to ask, but thought everyone else already knew the answers to. Ask away, and I will try to find the answers.

Leave your questions in the comments!

And check out some of our posts about specific instruments!







Buying a Piano – 10 Things to Consider

Are you planning on buying a piano soon? Maybe a Christmas present for a child or grandchild? Do you have any idea what you are doing? Or what you are looking for? I’m here to help! I have 10 key things for you to consider when buying a piano.

Do you want an acoustic piano or a digital piano?

What? What’s the difference? Which one do I want? An acoustic piano is a piano – the kind that has been around for three hundred years. A digital piano is an upgrade to an electronic keyboard. For serious piano students, I would recommend an acoustic piano. While digital pianos have made great progress, they still aren’t quite the same as an acoustic piano.

Digital pianos:

Positives –

  • They can be less expensive.
  • They often take up less space.
  • A student can use headphones so others are not distracted with the sounds of practicing.
  • They can be connected to computers to use with various notation software.
  • Digital pianos are definitely easier to move!
  • Also, they don’t need to be tuned and aren’t affected much by temperature and humidity.

Negatives –

  • Size of the keys on a digital piano can differ from an acoustic piano, causing difficulties switching between the two. (Like at lessons, performances, competitions.)
  • The action of the keys can be quite different between the two types of pianos. (Action of keys – how much effort it takes to press the keys for sound.)
  • Sometimes the pedals on digital pianos do not function the same way that they do on an acoustic piano.

Summary –

Be sure to discuss your thinking with your child’s piano teacher. If you choose to get a digital piano, please try several and compare them to an acoustic piano. You want to get one as similar to an acoustic piano as possible. Check the size of the keys and be sure the keys are weighted.

Acoustic pianos:

Positives –

  • This is the standard that your child will need to feel comfortable playing. Lessons, performances, competitions almost always use acoustic pianos. Sometimes switching from one to the other can be very challenging for a child.
  • Overall, a decent acoustic piano will give the best playing experience.

Negatives –

  • They can be more expensive than digital pianos.
  • They take up space and need to be placed where there is relatively constant temperature and humidity.
  • Acoustic pianos are very heavy and difficult to move – especially up or down stairs!

Summary –

If at all possible, I would recommend an acoustic piano for your child.

Digital or Acoustic Piano
Digital or Acoustic Piano

Do you want an upright piano or a grand piano?

I think every serious piano student dreams of having a gorgeous grand piano. I know I did. But the reality set it. Grand pianos take up massive amounts of space. And cost a lot! I have never had the space for a grand piano, and I expect I will never have that kind of space. A good upright studio piano is a great alternative. A beginner does not need a grand piano. But if you have the space, the budget, and the desire, go for it! Just think it through carefully first!

Do you want a new piano or a used one?

There are advantages to both. A new piano should guarantee that the piano is in great condition, pretty well in tune, and ready to play. A new piano may have delivery included in the price, or it may come as an option. But, a new piano will definitely cost more than a used one. So, a used piano may be a good option for you. The price will be less, and you could get a great piano that way. You will be responsible for moving and tuning the piano, and any other repairs that may be needed. Consider your options.

What is your piano budget?

Let’s face it – buying a piano can be a very big expense. So decide in advance how much you can reasonably afford to spend on a piano and stay with that budget! Maybe you won’t find anything in your price range at the first place you look, but don’t give up. Keep looking.

Who will be playing this piano?

Are you buying the instrument for yourself, for your child, or maybe a grandchild? Consider what the player needs. A beginner does not need the same quality instrument that a pre-professional player needs. Someone who is just going to play for fun does not need the same high-quality instrument that a serious advanced student may need.

Where will you put the piano?

Do you have a dedicated music room for the piano? (I wish!) Will the piano go in your living room? A child’s bedroom? Decide in advance where you will put the piano. Measure the space, then measure the piano you are looking at. Be sure the piano will fit in the allotted space. Old advice said to always put the piano on an inside wall. More recently, from what I have read, as long as the walls and windows are well-insulated, it doesn’t seem to matter as much. The main idea is to keep the piano in a room where temperature and humidity are somewhat stable. Putting it right next to an outside door may not be a good plan.

How does the piano sound?

You (or your child) should like the way the piano sounds. Listen and play several pianos. See how the sound differs from instrument to instrument. Learn what you like and keep trying pianos until you find one whose sound pleases you. Have someone else play the piano so you can listen to the sound. Bring along someone to act as a second opinion – a friend, someone else who plays, a teacher, a technician.

How does the piano feel?

This is almost as important as how it sounds. Play the keys. Are they hard to press? Are they too easy to push down? What feels good? Are the keys slow to respond? When I was growing up I frequently played the piano for our church. I hated the piano at church. The keys were so hard to play, they took so much effort to play. It was difficult to do very technical pieces on that piano because the keys were so hard to work with. And then I got to play on a Steinway! What a world of difference! Loved playing on a Steinway. Too bad they were way out of my price range! But over the years I found several other pianos that I really enjoyed playing. The action and response of the keys is critical to choosing a piano.

How does the piano look?

Granted, this is not the most important thing to consider when buying a piano. Don’t ever let someone try to sell you a piano based on its looks. But you will have to look at this piano for a long time. Is it in a style and finish you can handle? Can you live with it in your house? When I first started learning piano we had an ancient upright piano that someone (maybe my dad?) had painted pale pink! What?! But it worked for us. We didn’t keep it forever, but that is what we started with.

Where will you buy the piano?

Go look at some music stores and piano stores. If you are not in a large city you may have to travel a bit to find a good store. Check several stores. Try different makers of pianos, and different models of each maker. (Kind of like the process of buying a car.) See what you like. Are there certain brands of pianos that have consistent sound and key action among their models? When you find what you like, then you can start looking at the used market. Piano tuners might know people looking to sell a piano. Look for online listings of pianos for sale in your area. I bought my current piano from a private seller about 30 years ago. I have never had any regrets.

If you are looking at used pianos there are several other things you need to look at.

First, check the outside of the piano.

Are there visible cracks or water marks? What about the legs – are they stable? Does a bench come with the piano? Will the top of the piano open? Does the piano have a rack to place music on?

Then, look at the back of the piano.

Are there cracks in the wood piece across the back? Does it look in good condition? Are all the ribs still firmly attached all the way across the back of the piano?

Look inside the piano.

Each hammer should have a good amount of felt left on it. The strings should all be in the same condition – if there are several much newer than others, that could be a sign of a major problem. Look for any cracks in the large iron plate across the back. Cracks are not a good thing!

I found this website that contains very detailed information about what to look for to determine the condition of a used piano. I think it would be helpful for you. The site also has a section with the history of all the major piano makers.   Read Here

Do you know what to look for when buying a piano?
Do you know what to look for when buying a piano?

I hope you enjoy either hearing or playing your new piano, whichever one you choose! And, in case you were wondering, I did get to play on a Steinway again. My daughter’s high school senior violin recital was held at a Steinway store, and they used the best piano they had in the recital area. It was wonderful! No, I still can’t afford one, but they are fabulous to play! And the piano that I do have, the one I bought used 30 years ago? It is a Yamaha Studio model, made in about 1960.