On single-reed instruments such as the clarinet and saxophone the mouthpiece is that part of the instrument to which the reed is attached. Its function is to provide an opening through which air enters the instrument and one end of an air chamber to be set into vibration by the interaction between the air stream and the reed.
Single-reed instrument mouthpieces are basically wedge-shaped, with the reed being placed against the surface (the table) closest to the player's bottom lip. Here, the player's breath causes the reed to vibrate, which in turn sets the column of air contained within the instrument into vibration. The top half to three quarters of the table is an opening into the inside of the mouthpiece.
As with the brass instruments, the shape of the interior of the mouthpiece can greatly affect the sound of the instrument. Mouthpieces with large, a rounded chamber will produce a quite different sound from one with a small or square chamber.
The distance between the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed is known as the tip opening.
The facing (or lay) is a curved section that leaves the flat table and continues to the tip of the mouthpiece. The facing may be short, medium, or long, depending on the radius of curvature. The length of a facing is defined as the distance from the tip of the mouthpiece to the point where the reed and mouthpiece meet.
Different facing lengths have different response properties. Mouthpieces with short facings are often made with wider tip openings (a combination favored by many jazz players) and are usually played with softer reeds. This arrangement makes it easier to play loudly, but soft playing is relatively difficult. Mouthpieces with long facings are commonly made with narrower tip openings (a combination favored by most classical players) and are usually played with somewhat harder reeds. This arrangement makes it easier to play softly but can limit the volume attainable when a player tries to play loudly. A medium facing provides some of the advantages of both arrangements.
The facing has little effect on tone, which is more affected by the design of the mouthpiece's chamber (interior space).
The single reed is held tightly against the mouthpiece by a ligature. Ligatures can be made of metal, plastic, naugahyde, masking tape or string. Some players (including many German clarinetists) prefer string or a shoelace, which is wrapped around the reed and the mouthpiece, to commercially manufactured ligatures.
The clarinet mouthpiece is narrow inside and typically has a square or rectangular cross section from the baffle through the throat. The bottom of the mouthpiece is formed with a tenon that is ringed with cork. If the tenon cork becomes worn or shrinks, the mouthpiece tenon will no longer fit snugly in the socket of the instrument; when this occurs, the tenon cork is replaced by an instrument repairer.
Today, as is the case with the saxophone mouthpiece, the reed is placed against the surface (the table) closest to the player's bottom lip. However, this was not always so: The earliest clarinetists would often place the reed on top of the mouthpiece.
Bernhard Henrik Crusell was one of the first clarinetists of note to consistently place the reed against the bottom lip.
Of particular note is Reginald Kell who was known for using a "double embouchure". This is a technique popular in the UK up to the 1960's, whereby the reed is placed against the lower lip, which covers the lower teeth —as in the single embouchure— and additionally, the upper lip is tucked in between top of the mouthpiece and the upper teeth. This technique has been revived lately both in the UK and the US.
Interestingly, some clarinetists in Madagascar today still play with the reed on top as can be heard on the CD "Bémiray: Polyphonies des Hauts-plateaux" recorded on the music label Silex.
Clarinet mouthpieces are available in hundreds of styles from dozens of manufacturers around the world. Mouthpieces are often named after famous performers who contribute to their designs. Popular mouthpiece makers include Selmer, Vandoren, and the Woodwind Company (presently owned by Leblanc).
Differently sized clarinets (sopranino, soprano, alto, bass, and contrabass), each require a different size of mouthpiece. One exception is B and A soprano clarinets, and in some cases C soprano clarinets; as they are so close in size that players typically use the same mouthpiece on both.
The saxophone mouthpiece is outwardly similar to that of the clarinet, but it has no tenon. Instead, the saxophone's neck has a ring of cork glued to it, and the mouthpiece fits firmly onto the neck cork.
Saxophone mouthpieces are available in hundreds of styles from dozens of manufacturers around the world. Mouthpieces are often named after famous performers who contribute to their designs. Popular mouthpiece makers include Meyer, Selmer, Vandoren, Otto Link, Berg Larsen, Dukoff, Dave Guadala and Yamaha.
When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, he specified the shape of the interior of the instrument's mouthpiece as being large and round. All saxophone mouthpieces were made in this style until the 1930s, when the advent of big-band jazz made saxophonists experiment with different shapes of mouthpieces to get a louder and edgier sound.
Between 1940 and 1960, it became common for classical saxophonists to use narrow-chamber mouthpieces, based on those designed for jazz use. These mouthpieces give the instrument a brighter and edgier sound (more high partials) than the traditional shape as designed by Sax.
One saxophone player and teacher, Sigurd Raschèr, spoke out against this change in mouthpiece design. He believed that when used in classical music, the saxophone should sound as its inventor, Adolphe Sax, had intended, and that the gradual change to narrower and "brighter" sounding mouthpieces was a distortion of Sax's tonal concept. Whenever he taught or lectured to saxophone players, Raschèr emphasized that the modern mouthpieces were not what Sax had intended, and the sound they produce, while useful to a jazz player who requires a loud piercing sound, was not appropriate for use in classical music. His students and other disciples felt that the desirable tone for a classical saxophone was a softer, rounder sound - a sound that can only be produced by a mouthpiece with a large, rounded interior (often referred to as an "excavated chamber"). His steadfast and irascible insistence in this area, while nearly all the world's classical saxophonists were moving to narrower mouthpieces (along with saxophones with a non-parabolically expanding bore) and a brighter tone, resulted in quarrels with, and alienation from, the majority of the classical saxophone world.
By 1970, narrow-chambered mouthpieces had become nearly universally popular, and mouthpiece manufacturers ceased production of large-chambered mouthpieces. This lack of supply meant that adherents to Raschèr's opinion had difficulty finding mouthpieces that would produce the tone they desired. For a period of time the only large-chambered mouthpieces were ones that had been manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s, leading Raschèr followers to search pawn shops and other sources of old instruments.
Raschèr responded to this lack of supply by engaging a manufacturer to make a "Sigurd Raschèr brand" mouthpiece, which was simply a virtual duplication of the mouthpieces that had been readily available from American saxophone manufacturers Buescher and Conn in the 1920s. The Raschèr mouthpiece is still manufactured today, among hundreds of other more modern designs.
Clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces have been made out of hard (vulcanized) rubber, brass or other metal, crystal, glass, plastic, and wood. Today, the most common material for professional clarinet and (classical) saxophone mouthpieces is hard rubber. Jazz saxophone mouthpieces are made out of hard rubber or metal. There is some debate over whether the material affects the tone, or whether tone is shaped only by the internal shape and dimensions of the mouthpiece. With mouthpieces of any material, the tip, table, or facing can be ruined if it is scratched or worn down.
On a capped double-reed instrument the function of the mouthpiece is simply to provide a chamber within which the reed can vibrate, with a hole through which air can be blown.
On a fipple flute the mouthpiece, or fipple, provides a shaped passageway for air to be blown against an edge, producing turbulent flow which excites the resonant vibrational modes of the air column.