Guide to the Chalumeau

The Chalumeau is a single-reed woodwind instrument that was introduced during the late baroque and early classical periods. It has eight tone holes, seven of which are located in the front, and one is in the back where the thumb is placed. It also has a broad mouthpiece with one heteroglot reed that is made of a cane. The chalumeau is considered to be the ancestor of the modern-day clarinet. In this article, we are going to learn more about the history of the chalumeau.


According to studies, the word chalumeau was first seen in writing during the 1630s, but other experts believe that the word may have been in use since the early 12th century. Several French dictionaries defined chalumeau as several types of idioglot reed-pipes with tone holes during the sixteenth century. It was until the seventeenth to the eighteenth century when the heteroglot style reed was adopted. Experts believe that these single-pipe instruments have evolved from the earlier multi-pipe instruments after the drone tube was abandoned.

Chalumeau was first used in France and Germany during the late 17th century, and it was in the 1700s when the instrument became popular in the European musical scene. During this time, a famous instrument maker from Nuremberg named Johann Christoph Denner made some innovations to the chalumeau and developed it into the Baroque clarinet.

The chalumeau’s unique feature is that it has two keys wherein cover tone holes are drilled diametrically to each other. These two holes’ position limits the musician from overblowing and limiting the instrument’s range to only twelve notes. Several chalumeau sizes were made to counteract the limited range, and it ranges from bass to soprano.

For about 20 years, the chalumeau and the clarinet became distinguishable because of the several structural improvements from the mouthpiece to the holes’ size and the instruments’ length and increasing the octaves. During this time, the clarinet is still evolving; that is why it is still cannot be tuned across the range of the instrument. That is why the chalumeau was still used in the lower music range. After some years, the clarinet’s keys were developed to allow better intonation throughout its range. Eventually, the clarinet’s key work matched what the chalumeau can do, making the latter unnecessary. This is because the chalumeau’s limited range and strength made it impractical compared to the clarinet. That is why by the 1800, the chalumeau was discontinued, and the clarinet became a popular musical instrument in the European musical scene.

The Chalumeau’s Tone and Timbre

The chalumeau’s sound is lower than you might expect. This is because it has an acoustic nature of a cylindrical stopped pipe. Aside from that, the chalumeau has an intimate and cantabile-like characteristic, unlike the trumpet-like sound of the Baroque clarinet. Aside from that, the chalumeau’s sound is similar to the sound of speaking.

Today, there are about ten original chalumeau in existence. However, modern makers produce this instrument’s replicas. Most of the original chalumeau ae made of boxwood, and all of these feature two keys are placed on the opposite of each other. The mouthpieces usually have a reed on top so that it will have a vibrating effect when played.