The Oehler and Boehm are by far the most common clarinet key systems. While some say the sounds are almost indistinguishable, others insist they produce different sounds and prefer one over the other.
I had an interesting conversation with a clarinetist from Austria who narrated how they’ve had to learn the Boehm, also referred to as the French system, after moving to the USA, even after being expert musicians on the Oehler-German system for more than twenty years. From her experience, it was like learning a new instrument; a different sound even, that took her about two months to master.
I will talk about the differences between these two key systems so that you get to know how it is possible to get different sounds from the two clarinets. I will use the Tuyama TKD-287 B flat clarinet (Oehler system) and the Mendini by Cecillio B flat clarinet (Boehm) to illustrate.
What are the differences between Oehler’s clarinet and Boehm’s?
|Clarinet||Tuyama TKD-287 B flat Clarinet||Mendini by Cecillio B flat Clarinet|
|Mouthpiece, read, and ligature||Uses a W5A mouthpiece, which is long and narrow, with a wide bottom. The hard reed is secured using a string ligature.||Uses a 4C mouthpiece, which is slightly shorter and wider. The reed is held using a metal ligature|
|Barrel||56 mm in length, with a wider circumference to fit with the wider mouthpiece bottom.||65mm in length, with a narrower opening to fit on the mouthpiece bottom.|
|Shorter in length, wider opening||Longer in length, narrower opening.|
|Tone hole location||Has 10 keys on the upper joint: a register key, the F/C tone hole without a ring mechanism first to the third hole widely spread, and two pitches and two rings at the bottom.||Has nine on the upper joint: a register key on the underside of the bore, a third key on the left without a ring mechanism, and eight pitches with three rings on the lower joint. The keyholes on are equally spaced.|
|More difficult to finger.||Easier to finger.|
|Body bore||The bore is more cylindrical in design.||The bore tapers slightly towards the bell.|
|Produces brilliant sounds|
|Produces more woody sounds|
|Sound||Soft and Dark.||Bright and Perky.|
|Availability||Check price here||Check price here|
Oehler Clarinet vs. Boehm: How do they compare?
Mouthpiece, reed, and ligature
The mouthpiece of the Oehler clarinet is somewhat longer and the exterior perimeter at the bottom is larger than that of the Boehm. It also has a long table and a more defined concave baffle. The reed is long, hard, and affixed to the mouthpiece using a string ligature because it is deemed to be more sonically transparent compared to a metal or rubber holder, allowing more even pressure on the reed.
Mouthpieces used with Oehler string ligatures have a row of notches and a shoulder on the conical exterior to make it easier to wind the string around them.
Boehm clarinets secure the reed in place using a rubber or metal ligature, which creates a lighter weight on the reed and better resiliency.
It is a draw in the mouthpiece category. Both have well-shaped mouthpieces that use well-secured reeds.
Oehler barrels usually measure between 54mm and 56mm long, with some exceptionally long ones being 60mm. This one has a barrel length of 56 mm. The outer perimeter of the Oehler mouthpiece is 56mm long, with some exceptionally long ones being 60mm. This one has a barrel length of 56 mm. The outer perimeter of the Oehler mouthpiece is wider, so the Oehler barrels have a slightly larger diameter. The barrel is made up of the same material as the rest of the clarinet for this clarinet. Bigger diameters are usually associated with shorter sound waves, which result in a sharper pitch.
The barrel of this Boehm clarinet is 65mm, which is within the normal range of 62mm to 68mm for French players. Barrel length determines whether you will be playing a low or high pitch throughout your complete range.
It is a draw when it comes to barrels, as one has a wider barrel and the other a longer one. Neither has an advantage over the other. The resultant pitch depends on the player.
Tone hole locations
The Oehler clarinet has ten keys on the upper joint. The register key is on the upper left hand, and while the F/C tone hole on the Oehler clarinet lacks a ring mechanism it is fairly close to the register key than on the French clarinet. This clarinet’s third tone hole has a ring control system and is aligned with both the first two holes. Furthermore, the distance between these first three holes on the Oehler clarinet is greater than on the Boehm clarinet, necessitating a wider finger spread. On the right bottom of the Oehler system, there are also two pitches and two rings, just like on the Boehm lower joint. The system’s two rather flat key ends that have a small roll for sliding are among the most noticeable distinguishing features of the German clarinet.
By comparison, the Boehm clarinet has nine on the upper joint. The register key is on the underside of the bore, and the third hole is placed near the left side and doesn’t have a ring mechanism. At the lower joint, the Boehm model has eight pitches with three rings. The four pitches on the right side are controlled by the right pinky finger. The two pitches on the higher left side are controlled using the left pinky finger. The key holes in the Boehm system are equally spaced.
The Boehm system wins. The tone holes are well spread and easier to manage.
The bore of the Boehm clarinet tapers slightly further towards the bell. The upper joint is also slightly enlarged, tapering towards the bell. The purpose of this design is to bring the notes closely to pitch.
The narrower, more cylindrical design of Oehler clarinets improves note clarity, especially on the low end. However, it also reduces the brilliance, leading to a more dark and woodier tone.
It is a draw when it comes to bore. Each system is uniquely entertaining but not necessarily better than the other.
The tone of the Boehm clarinet is much more open than that of its predecessor. Because of advancements in keywork, this clarinet relies less on fingerings, allowing for a higher number of open holes and a livelier tone. In general, the Boehm system creates a sharper, lighter sound that is far more flexible than the Oehler system.
Because of the advancements that continue to be seen with the German system clarinets, some people say they can no longer distinguish between a Boehm and an Oehler sound. There is even a Reform-Boehm system that carries the Oehler sound but uses the Boehm fingering system. A good number of musicians favor the Oehler clarinet for its intonation. On a much harder reed, the German system creates a darker sound. Fork and cross-fingerings create a higher number of closed holes, resulting in a distinct color that can have a rather dull tone.
While both have some strong characters, the Boehm flexible is more appealing, and therefore wins in the sound category.
Oehler Clarinet vs. Boehm: Are they redundant?
Oehler’s Clarinet Overview
This system was developed in the early 1900s by Oskar Oehler and closely resembles the systems used by renowned composers like Mozart, Weber, Beethoven, and Brahms. It is a refinement of Carl Baermann and Georg Ottensteiner’s 1860 German clarinet and is also known as the “German” system. It is common in Germany and Austria, but not elsewhere. The Oehler clarinet is still used by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra today. Even though fingering the Oehler clarinet is difficult compared to the Boehm clarinet, these orchestras place a high value on its traditional sound.
- More traditional and authentic sounds.
- Produces rich, deep tones.
- Good clarity and intonation.
- Wide selection of music to play
- Oehler clarinets are rare and costly.
- Not easy to learn.
Boehm Clarinet overview
Theobald Boehm, who restructured the fingering system on the flute in the mid-1800s, was the inspiration for the Clarinet Boehm system. His work and design were picked up by clarinetist Hyacinthe Klosé, who, along with instrument maker August Buffet Jeune, modified the Boehm design to fit the clarinet.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Boehm system has evolved very little. While there are a few variants, those clarinets are uncommon, and just about every Boehm clarinet has the same key configuration. Today, there is a wider range of Boehm clarinets available at all price points and skill levels. The Boehm system is used on most clarinets in North America and Western Europe.
- Easy to learn
- It’s easy to maintain due to parts availability.
- Has reduced keywork, making it easier to play.
- Produces a bright sound.
- Professional instruments can be expensive.
Verdict: So, which one is better? Oehler Clarinet vs. Boehm?
The Boehm clarinet system is the winner. It offers a bright sound that is favored by most players and listeners and is quite flexible. It is also much easier to learn. There is a much larger selection of Boehm clarinets and parts on the market, and a large proportion of instruction materials are written for Boehm instruments. Advanced Boehm clarinettists have more job opportunities than Oehler clarinettists.
Which of the Boehm and Oehler is more difficult to learn?
The Oehler fingering system is more complicated and therefore more difficult to learn compared to the Boehm system.
Can I transition to a Boehm system if I play an Oehler system or vice versa?
Yes, you can, but it requires significant training and practice.