Technically Speaking: Pinky keys

Those pinky keys! Why do they give us so much trouble?

I have some tips for both students and teachers to help remember and/or instruct quickly and efficiently.

First and foremost: STUDENTS, Know what your clarinet sounds like and feels like. Experiment. Just wiggle your pinkies around on the keys and get used to the feel and sound of them.

Let’s start with the right hand pinky stack.Lower Pinky Stack

You should notice that this is the view similar to what you would have if you were holding the clarinet in playing position. I’ve numbered the keys for reference purposes.

Key 1: Ab/Eb
Key 2: F/C
Key 3: F#/C#
Key 4: E/B

These are the standard for the key names. If you use enharmonic names, it gets to be a bit confusing, as you end up with G#/D# and Gb/Db. (Please, no!)

One of the quick tricks I use with students is,
“E for end/B for bottom,” which is referring to Key 4, of course.

Another helpful memory trick:
the even number keys (or far-away keys) do not have an accidental (# or b) in the name, whereas the odd number keys (or close keys) do have an accidental in the name. This at least eliminates two of the keys from question.

Teachers may like using a teaching trick I stole from someone else:
Refer to the keys based on location and reference to the human body when the clarinet is in playing position.

IMG_0412Keys 1 & 2 are upstairs
Keys 3 & 4 are downstairs

In reference to the body,
Keys 1 & 3 are Nose
Keys 2 & 4 are Toes

So, in short
Key 1 is upstairs nose
Key 2 is upstairs toes
Key 3 is downstairs nose
Key 4 is downstairs toes


Students can write the abbreviations in their music as indicated on the photo for a quick, easy, pencil and time friendly fingering reference. This reference has been the most successful in my teaching experience.

The Left-Hand Key Stack

Once the right hand key stack is learned, the left one is easy.

First, students should know that unless they have four keys in the stack, they do not have a second Ab/Eb key.

Otherwise, a simple visual/feel check is all that is needed to match up the key functions.

You may already know that when you press the downstairs right hand pinky keys, the left hand “buddy” keys move.

Conversely, the same will happen when the left hand pinky keys are depressed, but you will notice that the right hand F/C (#2, DN) moves with all three left hand keys (it is supposed to).

Pay attention to these simple mechanics of the instrument!


When instructing, Teachers may find it helpful to refer to the keys as indicated in the diagram.  Again, the view is similar to what you would experience if you were holding the clarinet in playing position.

I don’t worry about trying to explain any further to my own students. In other words, I don’t verbally connect the LH and RH pinky stacks. If the Students pay attention to the instrument, it will sink in faster.

Also, notice that the key labeled “no buddy” is the C# key, which indeed, stands alone in its duties.


Quick Summary

Key 1: Ab/Eb   upstairs nose
Key 2: C/F       upstairs toes
Key 3: F#/C# downstairs nose
Key 4: E/B      downstairs toes

Nose keys: accidentals
Toes keys: natural

E for end/B for bottom

As always, practice with patience and perseverance.


Comments and questions are invited!




4 thoughts on “Technically Speaking: Pinky keys

  1. I must admit, I’ve never thought of playing the clarinet. But you have a very nice lesson here on playing. I like the sound of a clarinet, but the only instrument I’ve ever played is the guitar. That was when I was teenager. go figure huh? I think those “pinky keys” would be difficult though. I like your approach to teaching. Thanks for the great article.

  2. Very clever method to make it easier for people to learn to play the clarinet, I imagine it is difficult at first remembering where all those keys are and which ones are for what notes.

    I play the harmonic and guitar, I just love playing music its is so relaxing for me and even is a good relaxation technique before bed for me.

    How long does it take a student on average to learn all the keys to play the clarinet?

    1. Like any instrument, you work on the most comfortable and practical range first, then expand. Many students achieve full range on the clarinet sometime in their third year of playing, but that varies from student to student (depending on practice habits). One is certainly capable of playing any note on the clarinet as soon as the embouchure (lip formation around the mouthpiece) is well developed, usually at least a year.

      Memorizing fingerings comes gradually with practice and it’s a process, just like any other technical aspect of learning an instrument. I’m sure you can relate.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *