Apologies if the question is too silly (my profile might explain why I don't know the answer).

I am writing a piece and at some point I want a clarinet to hold a note until the performer runs out of air (diminuendo). Now, how many bars is it reasonable to ask in the score?

I write music mainly for my own enjoyment and the computer (Sibelius) plays it for me. It seem to be that Sibelius can hold a clarinet note indefinitely, but I prefer if the scores I write are actually playable.

Moreover, what is the right thing to write on the score? A text saying 'play until run out of air' and have the corresponding diminuendo? Since I don't know how many bars is too much I am not sure where to end the diminuendo sign and to put the ppp.

Thank you.

  • 1
    Actually playing till you run out of air is not good, your sound goes all tacky towards the end.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 23, 2015 at 7:32
  • @RedSonja Why was the clarinet designed like that?
    – Vighnesh
    Oct 14, 2023 at 13:05
  • Ah, you need to learn to play a reed instrument to understand. The clarinet is the way it is so it will have the sexiest sound on the planet (when played correctly). I may be prejudiced.
    – RedSonja
    Oct 16, 2023 at 12:35

5 Answers 5


My response will be in part influenced by the information I gathered from reading your profile.

My first suggestion to you is to strongly encourage you to learn an instrument. If you're serious about writing music and about having it played by live performers, having a working knowledge of the instruments is important. It is paramount to be technically proficient on at least 1 instrument in order to understand how sound is produced and general performance characteristics.

Before I answer your question, I want to clarify that the term diminuendo also known as decrescendo means to gradually decrease in volume, not to "hold until you run out of air." In considering the answer to your question, there are many variables to consider:

  1. The proficiency of the performer (professional / college / high school / etc. different levels will be able to provide different amounts of breath support.)

  2. The range you are asking the performer to play in.

  3. The tempo of the music.

  4. The dynamic of the pitch in question.

  5. The time signature being used.

  6. The context of the note (whether it is the held note at the beginning / end of a phrase or if it is stand-alone, etc.)

  7. Whether or not the performer can circular breathe.

As you can see, it is impossible to give a simple answer to this question, as the length is contingent upon the variables I outlined above. Sibelius will be able to hold the note indefinitely because it is a computer and therefore does not need to breathe.

Having a dynamic of "ppp" is different than having the performer physically play until they run out of air - the composer will find different sounds for each of these.

I believe your real question is something to the effect of "what is the clearest way to notate a performer holding a note until they run out of breath?" To which my simple answer would be: it depends on the context of the piece.

That said, in a general sense, a clear way to notate that would be to have a fermata over the note in question with a diminuendo ending not in a dynamic, but with "n" which stands for "nothing." You could also put a note above the staff saying "fade until nothing" in which case the performer would automatically adjust as necessary.

Hope that helps.

  • Thank you very much! I learned from you about circular breathing. Didn't know that was possible. I just read the Wikipedia article. And the, probably useful, notation "n". Haven't learned that one before. Feb 7, 2013 at 3:50
  • About learning an instrument. I imagine piano and violin are the typical, but I am very very old to learn any of these. Is there some other instrument that is relatively simpler to learn and that is also meaningful for composing music. I could write this in a separate question to have more space for a response. Well, I am doing it. Feb 7, 2013 at 4:49
  • Not a problem Franklin VP - glad to help. I posted an answer to your other question that I hope you find helpful. Cheers. Feb 7, 2013 at 7:29
  • 1
    @RedSonja Yes, you can circular breath on almost any instrument. Haven't tried flute personally, but I could imagine it would be very difficult. Clarinet definitely works. Jun 23, 2015 at 7:13
  • 1
    @RedSonja circular breathing on a piano haha
    – user45266
    Nov 19, 2018 at 5:16

With a fast enough tempo, it could be quite a few! :-)

Necessarily, you would need to time it out at your score's tempo to find a number, but the clarinet in general has a lot of resistance compared to other wind instruments, so the amount of airflow is relatively small.

Depending on the range of the instrument in which this note occurs, a good clarinetist that's prepared for it could probably sustain 30 seconds or more, but it is more difficult to achieve a measured decrescendo while doing the same thing.

That said, I wouldn't notate this with a set number of bars. I would have the bar with the sustained clarinet repeat, tying the note in the bar to itself, OR use a fermata symbol without repeats. I would also include a written instruction to hold for as long as possible and decresc. to silence, or al niente.

You could notate the dynamic either with a written decresc. al niente or the regular decrescendo hairpin with an italic lowercase n at the right side point.

  • Well met NReilingh, it appears we have the same thinking. Feb 7, 2013 at 3:41
  • Right. I forgot to say the tempo. Right now the metronome mark is an eigth-note=100 (I don't know how to say that properly). Feb 7, 2013 at 3:43

I can generally hold a note for 16 counts at quarter note = 60. It leaves me huffing though. I've known other players who can do more and most young players can do far less.

  • Count means beat? Feb 15, 2013 at 3:16
  • 1
    Yes. And in this case it also means seconds :) Feb 16, 2013 at 5:32

There is a technique known as circular breathing ( do a google search ) that in principle allows a clarinet player to sustain a note indefinitely.

example: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=clarinet+round+breathing&view=detail&mid=95E560FB96E1939AD71495E560FB96E1939AD714&FORM=VIRE


The clarinet can technically hold for ever/a very long time, you just need enough breath to sustain the note. There is no barrier that cuts off the note after 20 counts, and no reason that if it can hold for 17 beats that it can't hold 170.

  • This is like saying "there's no reason people can't step over the English Channel, they just need to have long enough legs." Jan 3, 2023 at 21:47

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