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What Aristotle Knew about the Clarinet


Tom Ridenour


What could an ancient Greek philosopher tell us about the clarinet? In response one might reasonably ask, "How could he tell us anything it, since it had not been invented at that time?"


The fact is Aristotle could not tell us anything specific about the clarinet, but he did and does have something to say about how to think about the clarinet or anything else the human intellect might seek to clearly understand by. Specifically, Aristotle tells us that all things made have four causes, or four reasons for coming into existence and taking the concrete form they do.


The first he calls the material cause; the second, the efficient cause; the third, the formal cause and the last one he calls the final cause. The first three causes exist only as a necessary means for the fulfillment of the final cause. Without the final cause they would have no meaning or purpose as well as no objective criteria to guide their own development. Even in the metaphysical/moral realm we find this holds true, since of the four cardinal virtues,––temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice–– the first three are there serving as means of achieving the highest cardinal virture, justice. If there is no justice, then temperance, prudence and fortitude have no guidance about their proper use and tend to devolve into intemperance, impetuousness and stubborness.


Well, anyone who thinks about this for a moment will see the four causes are just uncommon common sense, which is what Aristotle's (and his most faithful and astute philosophical disciple, St.Thomas Aquinas) thought was all about. But how specifically can they help our understanding of the clarinet?


Let’s begin answering that indirectly by seeing how various things look in the light of the four causes. The material cause of a candle, for instance, is wax and string. The efficient cause is the candle maker. The formal cause is as means of sustaining a flame. The final cause is to give light. There is, of course, more to candles, but there can never be less. The four causes are there to give us a foundational picture of the object, not an exhaustive one. But the causes are essential because further elaboration must be based upon the understanding of the object in the light of the four causes in order to be valid and not go astray in some critical way. So, let's see what we conclude when we apply them to the clarinet.


The material cause of the clarinet is metal and various other appropriate materials, most commonly Grenadilla wood or plastic. The efficient cause is Ye Olde Clarinette Maker. The formal cause is to produce sound by means of a reed moving air in a partially stopped pipe. The final cause is the production of the musical sound/phrase. With this knowledge we are not only able to properly begin evaluating clarinets, but evaluating attitudes clarinetists take in the process of clarinet selection.


For instance, there is the clarinetist who asks first and foremost the following question, “What is the clarinet made of?” Such a clarinetist thinks that the body of the clarinet simply must be made of a certain material and will consider nothing else. Such a one is locked into the material cause, and heedlessly rejects all clarinets, irrespective of how well they actually perform, based upon this singular and material consideration. Such persons (and there are many) have lost sight of, if they ever saw it at all, the real purpose of the clarinets and is caught up in this rather dull and uninteresting bias.


Next, there is the person who asks something like, “Where is it made?” or “Who makes it?” or “What is the brand?” This person has become convinced that only one maker or place can make good clarinets. They are status oriented; they look for image and appearance. They never have an understanding of the real differences and qualities and varieties offered by different makers and the advantages each might hold, because they are myopically fixed upon the false notion that only a certain maker is any good. They feed their prejudice by “hanging” only with those who confirm their bias and rejecting, unexamined and out of hand, the claims of others.


Such a person practically treats a clarinet as royalty simply because it has a certain label. One may think such a statement is extreme but I recently heard (we are not making this up) of a clarinetist who had purchased an old junker of a clarinet for singular purpose. Whenever she played badly or practice was frustrating she would pick up the junker and throw it against the wall.


My reaction was, “Why? It wasn’t the poor junker’s fault practice was aggravating; it was the fault of the clarinet she was playing.”


Then in a flash I understood: She had come to regard her clarinet perhaps as badly behaving royalty; an acoustical Royal Brat. Of course, royalty cannot be directly punished, even when behaving in the most outrageous ways. So for this badly behaving, hard to get along with young prince she had purchased a whipping boy from amidst the acoustical hoi polloi. Rather than switch her allegiance to another, she had even come to blame herself for frustrating failure.


This person, again, is locked into a prejudice and cannot or is not willing to try to transcend it. Her criteria is label only: a criteria by which someone who cannot even make a sound on the clarinet could purchase clarinets.


Next, there is the person who asks, “What does it sound like?” This person is closer to the final cause, but is not yet there. Why? The clarinet is not a sound making machine, though it makes sounds: it is not a door buzzer! The clarinet is a phrasing machine, playing many sounds in a connected, coherent way as to make a musical thought! Most players who are concerned with sound often are fixed only on one area of the clarinet, which is timbreal. I once saw a clarinetist who judged other clarinets based upon the timbre of one note of his own clarinet, even though no other pitch on that particular instrument approximated that quality: and he was teaching in a university.


Again, such a clarinetist, no matter how many letters are affixed to the end of his name, is fixated in a myopic condition of marginal considerations and, while his or her criteria is not wholly a prejudice or based upon utterly nonmusical criteria, it is severely limited in its scope and yields, when applied, very little about the true value of the clarinet as a worthy musical instrument. For the clarinetist I knew, the clarinet was not just monochromatic, it was apparently monotone as well, for only one pitch seemed to satisfied.


Finally, there is the clarinetist who fixes like a laser beam on the final cause of the clarinet, that final cause being the production of the musical sound/phrase; not just sound, but connected sound. Such a person is not oblivious to the content of the other causes and the necessity to hold them to the highest standards. To the contrary, he or she realizes that these causes and their processes must be adequate in some minimal ways to be acceptable at all. But all is for naught if the final cause is not achieved to a high degree.


So, what is the criteria or content of the final cause? The final cause contains a comprehensive view and complete understanding of the demands of playing music. These demands form the criteria by which the material, technical and acoustical means used to produce it may be properly judged. A complete answer to“How does it phrase?” compells one to unavoidably focus upon critical technical and acoustical considerations in an objective and quantitative fashion. Such considerations are very specific but broadly based in their scope of consideration. Their content is made up of the concrete and clear answers to the following and other important questions:

How evenly matched is the blowing resistance from note to note, hand to hand, register to register, long pipe to short pipe?

How perfect is the response at all dynamic changes crossing the two breaks of the clarinet and within each register?

How stable is the pitch, colour and shape of the tone in dynamic changes?

How much embouchure/air pressure exchange is required to produce the full pitch and dynamic ranges of the clarinet?



These and many other similar questions related to how well the acoustical design of the clarinet enables the clarinetist to efficiently and securely produce the musical sound/phrase make up the specific, practically applicable content of what our ancient friend and benefactor, Aristotle, would call the proximate final cause. Of course, there is no room in this article to go into depth about the various aspects of the final cause as related to clarinet performance. For the reader who is interested, he or she will find them fleshed out in no small detail in this author's complete pedagogy of the clarinet, "The Educator's Guide to the Clarinet."


In closing it should be said that the savvy reader would not be safe to infer from the above that materials and processes that make up the means are altogether unimportant. Each has an important role to play in the production of a successful instrument; all the causes are important. But to give one or more of them disproportionate emphasis is to needlessly limit one's ability to clearly understand and evaluate any given instrument fairly and objectively. Understanding the four causes and learning to apply them to clarinet analysis gives one the means, the intellectual context or framework, by which any given clarinet may be effectively tested and rightly understood. It is, in fact, the surest way in an unsure world to have calculable success in selecting clarinets, or success in doing practically anything else, for that matter. To fix upon one of the first three causes to the point of excluding or ignoring the others is to get trapped in a side-show, which precludes the thought process and consigns one’s self, de facto, to a certain narrow, dull bigotry. And as we all know, where the dynamic of prejudice rules the biggest loser in the equation is the bigot himself.