Overtones and The Old French School 

The Old French School mainly refers to a style of clarinet sound and sound technique originating in France from approximately 1840 to 1940.  Hyacinthe Klose succeeded Friederich Berr at the Paris Conservatory in 1839 and worked with Louis-August Buffet to develop the Klose-Buffet clarinet system, which is essentially the modern French clarinet.  It had slightly smaller tone holes and four needle springs(1).  


Since there are no useful recordings of players before the early 1900's, it is impossible to hear exactly when the qualities of the Old School began.  We can listen to the second generation of clarinetists, the "grand students" of Klose, and follow the line of succession from them well into the 20th Century.

What are the qualities of the Old French School?  We know that in Germany and France the mouthpiece was turned so the reed would rest on the lower lip.  In Germany the teeth were made to rest on the mouthpiece top whereas in France, the upper teeth were cushioned by the upper lip.  Called double lip embouchure, this way of playing was standard in France until the mid 20th century.  Other than the mode of embouchure used by the French, the sound itself was marked by a lighter quality of tone than in Germany as well as a vibrato generated from the throat.  Equipment was also modified, clarinets and mouthpieces, so the sounds produced would be darker or brighter as desired.


Some of the more famous students of Klose include:

K.I. Boutruy, who received First Prize in 1852.

A. Grisez, who received First Prize in 1857.

Augusta Holmès

Adolphe Marthe Leroy, who succeeded Klosé in his Paris professorship in 1868

Louis A. Mayeur, to whom he also taught the saxophone in the early 1850s

I.G. Paulus, who received the "Légion d'Honneur" in the same year as Klosé

Cyrille Rose, who received First Prize in 1847.

Frédéric Selmer, who was so accomplished that a special "Prize of Honour" was created for him in his final year, 1852.

Charles Paul Turban, who received Second Prize in 1864 and First Prize in 1865.(2)

The students of Rose and Turban made recordings in the 20th century and from their sounds we can understand much about how their forbearers sounded and played.

The recordings of:

Prosper Mimart (C. Rose)
Henri Lefebvre (C.Rose)
Aguste Perier (Turban)
Gaston Hamelin (Turban)
Louis Cahuzac (C. Rose)

are a great study if we want to understand the elements of sound that defined the Old School.  The sound of the old school, initiated by H. Klose, is characterized by a concept of sound that is deep, round and at the same time light and colorful without edginess. Careful listening shows the prominence of the 12th and 17th overtones (the 5th and the 3rd an octave up). The best examples from the next generation, to name a only few, show how concept of sound and voicing can be used to make overtones prominent and serve to keep the tradition of a whole sound alive while maintaining individuality.

D. Bonade (Levebvre)
Ralph McLane (Hamelin)
Weber (Hamelin, Bonade)
Yona Ettlinger (Cahuzac)

The Effect of Overtones in Clarinet Sound


Every musical instrument has it's characteristic sound, which is the result of the intensity and arrangement of it's overtones. This is why when played into the harp of a piano, the flute sound reverberating back sounds like a flute, a violin like a violin and the clarinet like a clarinet. The overtones of the clarinet sympathetically cause the strings of the piano to vibrate, causing the sound coming out of the piano to mimic the clarinet, flute or violin.


Concept of sound is of the greatest importance in playing any musical instrument because the quality heard by the minds ear determines, to a great extent, the quality that comes out of the instrument. The mind hears and the body reacts to arrange the overtones that are desired.  

Below is an extreme example of how overtones can be intensified with the voice alone.

Here are examples clarinetists, past and present, who have uniquely individual sounds. In the examples with piano accompaniment you must watch and listen closely to determine which overtones are the clarinet overtones. Notice in the brighter sounding players, the first and second octaves are strong with many very high overtones. In the darker sounding players, the octaves can also be strong but the the highest overtones are barely audible.

Ralph McLane (USA)

Louis Cahuzac (Old French School)

Ulysse Delecluse (New French School)

Anthony McGll (USA)

Karl Leister (Germany)

With the exception of a few prominent teachers (3), there is little mention of the possibility that overtones, mainly the 12th from the fundamental and the 17th,  can be intentionally intensified to create the sounds that enhance  a players conception.  


The basic German/Austrian temperament has been to intensify the fundamental tone creating what we call a darker sound by de-empnizeing the upper partials(4 note Langdon-see thumbnail 5 Karl Leister).

With the “New French School” (@1940-1980) the first two octaves generally found prominence in the sound, diminishing somewhat the 12th and 17th, creating a quite bright and thin sound with a lot of edge and reediness. But with the school founded by Klose we find a balance in the spectrum wherein the older French players emphasized an intensified 6th partial, or 12th, which, in turn, strengthens the 17th.  The 12th is the 5th of the chord one octave and a fifth up from the fundamental and the 17th is the 3rd of the chord two octaves up from the fundamental.  When these tones within the fundamental tone are intensified, a major chord sounds within the single note....1-12-17 or 1-5-3. After the next octave sounds the overtones line up with another major chord in order, 1-3-5. This arrangement of the major chord of overtones within each note, creates a round and three dimensional quality of sound that has a very complex and beautiful effect​ with great resonance and a strong center if brought out with the requisite intensity. This is the epitome of the Old French School sound. (5)

The overtone series of any musical sound is constant with the exception of the intensity of certain overtones which determine the timbre of individual instruments.

1: Fundamental 

2: Octave above fundamental 

3: 12th (fifth of the chord) 

4: Second octave above

5: 17th (3rd of the chord)

6: another 5th above 

7: The 7th of the chord  

8: Third octave above. etc......

For our purposes we do not need to go farther up in the series. For the clarinetist it is important to understand that because of the physical design and properties of the clarinet, the strong overtone that we can actually train ourselves to hear with true clarity, that gives the clarinet its characteristic quality, is the 12th above the fundamental. This tone has been called the “ping” or center by many generations of players. When this tone is intensified within any given note the clarinet tone begins to have a strong center or core.  For the clarinet, it can be said that the center of the sound is the 12th overtone.  It is also interesting to remember that, in the overtone series, there is always a major triad sounding in every note of the scale, fundamental-12th-17th (inversion) and at the second octave, octave-17th-19th or 1-3-5. It is the intensification of these major triads that gives sweetness and resonance to the clarinet tone. Mastery of these overtones can also allow the player to vary their intensity and create a wide variety of color on the instrument. (6 see Langdons comment on Kincade)

The only references I have found to the importance of controlling overtones to achieve a beautiful sound are from Ralph McLane and Keith Stein.  The eminent clarinetist and teacher John Mohler shared notes from his studies with McLane:

“The following are transcriptions by me (JM) of prerequisites originally in McLaneʼs hand. The originals were on paper then worn and only in fragmentary form: 

TONE QUALITY: same pp as ff; must be pleasing, flexible and "rich in overtones" 

TECHNIQUE: The ability to play even the most difficult passages with the greatest of ease and always have reserve (be able to play faster or slower than required/expected) 

STACCATO: release of tone, length of which is determined by the amount of time the tongue is off the reed.

(I think “release” is particularly appropriate rather than “attack” -jm-) 

LEGATO: Carrying tone from one note to another without a change in the air column ( or noise with fingers), thereby creating no noticeable difference in the dynamics from one note to another. Support, half the value of a note, before an interval; support the air column for change in reed and air column resistance.”(7)

McLane did not teach augmentation of the 12th to his students even though he stressed a sound "rich in overtones”. Rather he relied on concept and imitation and the necessity of finding the “ping” in the sound. (7a)  For McLane, the “ping” was the 12th.


The very first prerequisite involves tone quality and overtones. Listening to McLane, especially the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet, it is possible to hear the 12th in his sound in very high relief.

How To Train The Brain To Hear Overtones

As far as I can tell, few teachers have taught the technique of hearing overtones directly, for the

purpose of enhancing tone.  Most teachers stressed having a strong concept of tone by listening to the teacher and imitation.  This is a good foundation for developing sound but because it relies on imagination there is a great possibility that the quality in the mind will morph into something different due to stress, emotion or mood.  The overtones are always there no matter how one feels and are a great anchor for being able to create the sound you want consistently.

Keith Stein, in his "The Art of Clarinet Playing", wrote a chapter dedicated to clarinet tone. In it he describes the necessity of developing a concept, in the mind, of a beautiful sound....

Stein writes,

"This teacher finds that having students analyze clarinet tone is a quick means of making them more tone 

conscious. The following analysis of tonal components affords definite ideas with which to work:


Tone has delineation or outline. Roundness, like a full moon , is a good "shape" with which to begin. However, tone may also be "ribbon-shaped" or at other times a "threadline" of sound, depending upon the demands of the music. Demonstrate by playing the lowest F, striving to make the tone enunciate a clearly defined "0." 


Many players correctly outline a round shape but fail to fill it with body. Like a pie crust without filling, some tones are round in outline but are hollow or empty. There is a physical means by which a solid texture can be achieved. Project the air and voicing as far front in the oral cavity as possible.


Good tone is three dimensional. It should approximate the effect of calling down a long corridor or through a long pipe. Depth is most easily demon-strated in the chalumeau register by playing

completely through the clarinet.


Fine tone has a velvety quality similar to a veiled voice in contrast to the open, wild voice of a boy yelling. Demonstrate with opposites. First play wildly, with a honking tone, on open G (2nd line) with the fingers thrown away from the clarinet. Follow this by  "ooh," placing all the right hand fingers down together with the left hand fourth and fifth fingers.


Fine tone glows and radiates from the player like rays from the sun. An effective comparison is that warmth of tone is like the glowing embers of a campfire. Demonstrate this spreading glow with a warm dark tone on chalumeau G or A-natural, aided by the appropriate" opening up" of the previously cited over head areas.


Tonal edge compares to the sharpness of vinegar or lemon necessary to counter balance sweetness in a salad. A rich, round speaking voice contains an edge to give it a cutting quality to complement a desirable smoothness and clarity. Demonstrate by locating and exaggerating the edge in a vocal tone with a raspy "yah." Likewise, exaggerate tonal edge on the clarinet with chalumeau G-sharp.



This property in clarinet tone might be compared to the dark plush of a theater curtain. Bring out a sombre dark tone on low B-flat, as often used in playing the music of Brahms.



There should be a radiance or sparkle in clarinet tone like a partially-obscured sun. This brilliance can easily be over-projected to a degree bordering on shrillness should the occasion demand, as in some of the music of Shostakovich, Use B or C above the staff for demonstration purposes.



Good tone has the power of penetrating or projecting like a bullet cutting through the air or a beam of light through the night. This is especially evident when trying to project a clarinet tone through a mass of conflicting counter melodies or harmonies.



Mellowness and sweetness are manifest in every good tone. This can best be practiced in simple folk melodies or chorales.



Fine tone seems to ride in suspension. Try to float the tone like a bubble in the air or a cloud in the sky.....

After this poetic/descriptive part of his narrative which defines concept, Stein includes the following paragraph of a scientific nature....


Scientific sound analysis has shown that any tone quality is determined by the number and intensity of various overtones (partials). For example, if the teacher plays a fundamental tone such as lowest F, bringing it up in intensity and then tapering down perceptibly, the sixth partial (fifth overtone), third space C, can be distinctly heard in the fundamental low F. Once the student can hear it in the teacher' sound, he should face into a corner of the room and try to distinguish it in his own tone. Having once heard these overtones and realizing that they play a major part in improving his tone quality, the player will be anxious to bring them out in high relief. He will be willing to experiment by varying his voicing, pressure, wind velocity, volume, etc. to bring him closer to his concept of ideal clarinet tone, Although each different instrument lends itself physically to a characteristic timbre, a player occasionally produces a quality foreign to the instrument. For example, performers will frequently

produce a saxophone quality on the clarinet. This simply implies that they are holding saxophone tone in mind while rearranging the clarinet overtones to conform to their concept, even though this is contrary to the physical properties of the clarinet. Here is convincing evidence that the player contributes considerably in determining his instrument's tone quality. Beautiful tone results from a perfect balance of the above musical and scientific characteristics of sound."(8)

The first and most important task is to train the brain to hear the overtones in clarinet sound beginning with the 12th.  One can follow the directions of Keith Stein at first and then begin to utilize other means that train the mind such as computer applications that separate the overtones from a fundamental and measures frequencies and intensity of tones within a single note.  Another technique is to play a note on the clarinet and imagine the 12th above in your minds ear. After a while the 12th will actually become apparent.  Hearing other qualities in the sound, the 17th and partials above, can come quickly after that. One must keep in mind the fact that following this technique will not make your playing sound like someone else's. Because of your habits, physical make-up, touch, and the concept of sound you hold in your mind, the sound will still be yours. The only difference will be a more solid center, consistency and resonance in playing. The contrast between McLane and Harold Wright, teacher and pupil, is a very good example. The character of their sounds is quite individual yet they both produce the same harmonic elements and arrangement of overtones favored by the Old French School.

Clarinetist Ralph McLane studied in Boston and Paris with Gaston Hamelin. His earlier teachers, Therion and Vaninni were also trained in Paris during the era of the "Old French School". McLane wrote in Clarinet Magazine in 1949:


“The really fine French clarinetists play with a double embouchure. Their method of practicing scales develops the muscles in both the upper and lower lip regions to a very high degree. Practice slowly thirds, perfect chords, and all intervals, constantly thinking of each interval before you play it. Progress will be slow, but the embouchure will respond, and eventually will automatically prepare and support the change in lip pressure and resistance of the reed before each interval, whether it is one tone, or an octave or more. You cannot develop the lower part of the embouchure and not the upper..... A very well developed embouchure looks firm and is so, thus requiring the minimum of jaw pressure(9).... Kalmen Opperman varifies that McLane taught intervals, as stated above:

For tone development, McLane advised practicing twelfths softly from low E/B (register key) chromaticly to throat F/C (register key). With six beats on the lower note and six on the upper note.

Example of McLane's "Old French School" exercise


Use Of The Tongue In The Oral Cavity To Enhance The 12th Overtone

When Ralph McLane told his students their sound had to be rich in overtones he did not necessarily intend for them develop a “bright” sound. The “Old French School” must not be equated with the French school prevalent in the 40’s and 50’s, sometimes referred to as the “New French School”. Listen to Mimart, Hamelin, Lefebvre and McLane above. The Old French School fostered a sound that was whole and rich with emphasis on the lower overtones, which, in turn, eliminated shrillness and edge in favor of roundness and fullness of tone.

If you listen for the 12th regularly, hearing it becomes second nature. It also becomes clear that voicing is most important in the overtone process and may be more critical even than equipment. Most of us, when playing, don’t realize the role of the tongue in sound production or even how the tongue is moving about subconsciously.  Finding the simplest way of training and discipline in the use of the tongue is not a difficult task when the clear aim is to intensify overtones. Low E to C below the staff requires the tongue to be forward and low (at the level of the bottom front teeth). Above middle C the tongue can move upward, following the line of the reed, until about B or C above the staff. (At this point the sides of the tongue can find somewhat of an anchor between the inner sides of the molars and from there the top of the tongue can sensitively move closer to the roof of the mouth as needed for the proper intensification) In the altissimo register the tongue can effectively move in front of the tip of the reed. Everyone's physiology is different. Some tongues are bigger, longer and thicker than others. One needs to experiment to find what positions are best for each individual to enhance the overtones. A student of Ralph McLane, Dominic Fera, said in an interview that McLanes tongue was large so he had to keep it “far forward” in the mouth (10)

When hearing overtones becomes natural other clarinet functions become simple because there is a single simple aim. Choosing reeds becomes more focused and directed because hearing overtones is the aim. Reeds can be chosen for their ability to produce a stronger 12th and reeds can also be  worked to voice a stronger 17th.

David Weber told me that McLane did not like the sound on his recording of the Ravel "Introduction and Allegro". On the other hand, Donald Montanaro, who heard McLane live, felt the Miascowski Symphony # 21 recording was the closest to hearing him in person. Listening carefully you can hear the lack of overtones (color) in the Ravel and the abundance of them in the Miascowski.

Ravel "Introduction & Allegro"

Miascowski Symphony #21

Benefits of understanding the augmentation of the 12th overtone in clarinet sound: (If heard by the player as a fine round “ping” within the tone)

1- The 12th is the center of the sound. The stronger the 12th, the more solid the architectural structure or overtone series of the sound. 

2- Intonation can be better as a result of a more whole and centered sound structure.

3- Tone becomes smooth and round as a result of the complete harmonic structure of the tone, (the stronger major chords spelled out by the overtones) smoothing out any sharp edgy, bright sounds created by weak lower overtones.

4- Other major overtones in the series are intensified, the 17th or third of the chord and 19th, the 5th again, which creates a more colorful sound (“rich in overtones” to quote McLane)

5- Connection between notes becomes smoother, easier and more secure as result of strong overtone architecture of sounds

6- Choosing and working on reeds becomes more deliberate and focused since the aim is to hear the overtone of the 12th. Once the overtones have been recognized it will be easier choose a reed that corresponds to your concept of color.

7- Searching for mouthpieces and instruments becomes easier when you know exactly what you are looking for in equipment.

“There are no secrets….only the effort required to understand.”

Roger Burrows.



1) Gregory Barrett "Development of the Clarinet”

2) Wikipedia "Hyacynthe Klose”

2a) notes from John Mohler interview

3) Keith Stein “Art of Clarinet Playing”, Ralph McLane notes  from John Mohler interview

4) Dissertation Langdon pp

5) The word “Intensity” here does not mean loudness of sound, but rather an enhancement of the overtones through voicing at any dynamic.

6) Dissertation Langdon

7) notes from John Mohler interview

7a) Pedagogical and performances of Ralph McLane, Alan D. LaFave 1998 pp 105 interview with Dominic Fera

8) Keith Stein “Art of Clarinet Playing”

9) The Double Lip Embouchure in Clarinet Playing, Victor Battipaglia.  pp 74

10)Pedagogical and performances of Ralph McLane, Alan D. LaFave 1998 pp 108 interview with Dominic Fera