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The clarinet is a musical instrument in the woodwind family. The name derives from its original spelling clarionet, meaning little trumpet and refers to its sound in the high register.

Clarinets are made from specially chosen varieties of wood or, in the case of some student instruments, composite material or plastic resin. The instrument uses a single reed which vibrates to generate the instrument's sound. (See Characteristics of the Instrument)

A person who plays the clarinet is called a clarinetist.


Characteristics of the instrument


The clarinet has a distinctive liquid tone, heavily influenced by its wooden body, whose characteristics vary between its three registers: the chalumeau (low), clarion (middle), and altissimo (high). Of all the wind instruments the clarinet has the widest compass, which is showcased in much wind band and orchestral writing. Additionally, improvements made to the fingering systems of the clarinet over time have enabled the instrument to be very agile; there are few restrictions to what it is able to play.


Almost all clarinets are transposing instruments (which means that their music is written at a different pitch to that which it sounds at). The most common varieties of clarinet are the standard B flat and A Soprano instruments. The main written range for these stretches from low E on the third space of the bass clef staff (which sounds as concert D in the case of the Bb clarinet, and concert C# in the case of the A clarinet) to high C, on the 2nd ledger line above the treble clef staff (concert Bb and concert A respectively). Clarinets also have an extended range up to the G above high C called the altissimo register, which is found in more advanced writing. Finally, the most advanced range goes up further beyond that G to grand high C, which is an octave above high C. This last range of notes is generally only used rarely, to achieve particular dramatic or showy effects, and in Dixieland performance.

Construction and acoustics

Professional clarinets are made from African hardwood, often grenadilla or (rarely) Honduran rosewood (student instruments are usually composite or plastic resin, commonly "resonite", an ABS resin). Some parts are sometimes made of ebonite. The instrument uses a single wooden (sometimes "fiber" or plastic) reed which is held in the mouth by the player. Vibrating the reed produces the instrument's sound.

The body is equipped with a complicated set of 17 keys and 6 tone holes which allow the full musical scale to be produced. The most common system of keys was named the Boehm System by its designer Hyacinthe Klosé in honour of the flute designer Theobald Boehm, but it is not the same as the Boehm System used on flutes. The other main system of keys is called the Oehler system and is used only in Germany and Austria (see History).

The hollow bore inside the instrument has an hourglass shape, with its thinnest part at the junction between the upper and lower joint. This hourglass figure is not visible to the naked eye, but helps in the resonance of the sound. The bell is at the bottom of the instrument and flares out to spread the tone evenly.

A clarinetist moves between registers through use of the register key, or speaker key. The fixed reed and fairly uniform diameter of the clarinet give the instrument the configuration of a stopped pipe in which the register key, when pressed, causes the clarinet to produce the note a twelfth higher. This interval corresponds to the third harmonic, whereas most other woodwinds go up to the second harmonic, an octave higher, when the register key is pressed.


The parts that make up a clarinet are as follows (description follows the illustration from left to right):

  • The reed is attached to the mouthpiece by the ligature, and the whole assembly is held in the player’s mouth. The formation of the mouth around the mouthpiece and reed is called the embouchure.
  • Next is the short barrel; this part of the instrument may be extended in order to fine-tune the clarinet. As the pitch of the clarinet is fairly temperature sensitive some instruments have interchangeable barrels whose lengths vary very slightly. Some performers employ a single barrel with a thumbwheel that enables the barrel length to be altered on the fly.
  • The main body of the clarinet is divided into the upper joint whose holes and most keys are operated by the left hand, and the lower joint with holes and most keys operated by the right hand. The left thumb operates both a sound hole and the register key. The cluster of keys in the middle of the illustration are known as the trill keys and are operated by the right hand. These give the player alternative fingerings which make it easy to play ornaments and trills that would otherwise be awkward. The entire weight of the instrument is supported by the right thumb behind the lower joint on what is misleadingly called the thumb-rest.
  • Finally, the flared end is known as the bell.

Usage and repertoire of the clarinet

Classical music

In classical music, clarinets are part of standard orchestral instrumentation, which frequently includes two clarinetists playing individual parts - each player usually equipped with a standard pair of clarinets in Bb and A. A bass clarinet is also used sometimes, particularly in 20th century music.

The clarinet is widely used as a solo instrument. The relatively late invention of the clarinet has bequeathed a considerable repertoire from the Classical, Romantic and Modern periods but few works from the Baroque era.

A number of clarinet concertos have been written to showcase the instrument, with those by Mozart, Crusell and Weber being particularly well known.

Many works of chamber music have also been written for the clarinet. Particularly common combinations are:

Concert bands

In wind bands, clarinets are a particularly central part of the instrumentation. Bands usually include several Bb clarinets, divided into sections each consisting of several instruments playing the same part. Alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets are sometimes used as well.


Clarinets are also commonly found in jazz, especially in its earlier forms such as the Big Band music of the 30s and 40s.

The clarinet was a central instrument in early jazz, peaking in popularity during the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s, when clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman led perhaps the most successful popular music groups of their era.

With the decline of big bands' popularity in the late 1940's, the clarinet faded from its prominent position in jazz, though a few players (Buddy DeFranco, Jimmy Giuffre, Perry Robinson and others) used clarinet in bebop and free jazz. However, the instrument has seen something of a resurgence since the 1980's, with Eddie Daniels , Don Byron and others playing the clarinet in more contemporary contexts.


Clarinets are also feature prominently in much Klezmer music, which requires a very distinctive style of playing from the clarinetist.

Groups of clarinets

Groups of clarinets playing together have become increasingly popular among clarinet enthusiasts in recent years. Common forms are:

  • clarinet choir , which features a large number of clarinets playing together, usually involving a range of different members of the clarinet family (see Family of Clarinets). The homogeneity of tone across the different members of the clarinet family produces an effect with some similarities to a human choir.
  • clarinet quartet , for which three Bb sopranos and one Bb bass is a particularly common combination

Clarinet choirs and quartets often play arrangements of both classical and popular music, in addition to a body of literature specially written for a combination of clarinets by composers such as Arnold Cooke , Alfred Uhl, Lucien Caillet and Vaclav Nehlybel .

Family of clarinets

Clarinets come in a range of different sizes. The most common varieties by far are the standard Bb soprano and the A soprano, whose ranges are described above. Clarinets other than the standard B flat and A clarinets are sometimes known as harmony clarinets. However, there are eleven differently-pitched clarinet types, some of which are very rare:

  • Ab Sopranino - Very rare. Used only in Italian marching bands.
  • Eb Sopranino - Used in marching bands, wind ensembles, clarinet choirs and sometimes in orchestras.
  • D Sopranino - Rare. Occasionally used in orchestral writing, but these pieces are usually played on an Eb Sopranino.
  • C Soprano - Rare. Was common enough in the early 19th century so some music by composers such as Beethoven and Schubert is written for it. This is often played on a standard Bb. However, the C clarinet is having somewhat of a resurgence in orchestra and solo literature.
  • Bb Soprano - This is the standard clarinet used for marching band, orchestra and jazz band.
  • A Soprano - Standard orchestral instrument used alongside the Bb Soprano. Orchestral clarinetists always come equipped with a pair of clarinets. The A clarinet offers a slightly richer tone than the Bb, but the instrument's primary advantage is its greater ease of playing in orchestral repertoire written in keys with many sharps.
  • F Alto - This instrument is known as a Basset-horn, and is rarely used.
  • Eb Alto - Used in marching bands in previous centuries but not common anymore in the traditional setting. Used in clarinet choirs and some works for concert band.
  • Bb Bass - An octave below the Bb soprano. Commonly used in concert bands and clarinet choirs. Also fairly common in orchestral writing, especially of the 20th Century. Some marching bands may have marching bass clarinets, but this is rare.
  • EEb Contra-Alto - An octave below the Eb Alto. Fairly common, espically in wind band literature. The lower range of the Contra-Alto (as opposed to the Bb Bass) can match some of the lower range passages written for tuba and double bass.
  • BBb Contra-Bass - An octave below the Bb Bass. Rare, except in large clarinet choirs. Orchestratively, its usage is primarily supplemental, though some works for concert band and orchestra employ distinct passages expressly for this instrument.
  • EEEb Octocontralto - Only three were ever built.
  • BBBb Octocontrabass - Only one was ever built. (The only one that exists is in the personal collection of Mr. George Leblanc)


The clarinet started life as a small instrument called the chalumeau. Not much is known about the first clarinets, but they may have evolved from recorders. The chalumeau had a similar reed to the modern clarinet, but lacked the register key which extends the range to nearly four octaves, so it had a limited range of about one and a half octaves. It also lacked certain chromatics. Like a recorder, it had eight finger holes, and usually had one or two keys for extra notes.

In about 1700, a German instrument maker named Johann Christoph Denner added a register key to the chalumeau and produced the first clarinet. This instrument played well in the middle register with a loud, strident tone, so it was given the name "little trumpet" or clarionet. Early clarinets did not play well in the lower register, so chalumeaus continued to be made to play the low notes and these notes became known as the chalumeau register. As clarinets improved, the chalumeau fell into disuse.

The original Denner clarinets had two keys, but various makers added more to get extra notes. The classical clarinet of Mozart's day would probably have had eight finger holes and five keys.

Clarinets were soon accepted into orchestras. Later models had a mellower tone than the originals. Mozart liked the sound of the clarinet and wrote much music for it, and by the time of Beethoven, the clarinet was a standard fixture in the orchestra.

The next major development in the history of clarinet was the invention of the modern pad. Early clarinets covered the tone holes with felt pads. Because these leaked air, the number of pads had to be kept to a minimum, so the clarinet was severely restricted in what notes could be played with a good tone. In 1812, Ivan Mueller, a Russian-born clarinetist and inventor, developed a new type of pad which was covered in leather or fish bladder. This was completely airtight, so the number of keys could be increased enormously. He designed a new type of clarinet with seven finger holes and thirteen keys. This allowed the clarinet to play in any key with near equal ease. Over the course of the 19th century, many enhancements were made to Mueller's clarinet, such as the Albert system and the Baermann system, all keeping the same basic design. The Mueller clarinet and its derivatives were popular throughout the world.

The final development in the design of the clarinet was introduced by Hyacinthe Klosé in 1839. He devised a different arrangement of keys and finger holes which allow simpler fingering. It was inspired by the Boehm system developed by Theobald Boehm, a flute maker who had invented the system for flutes. Klosé was so impressed by Boehm's invention that he named his own system for clarinets the Boehm system, although it is different from the one used on flutes. This new system was slow to catch on because it meant the player had to relearn how to play the instrument. Gradually, however, it became the standard and today the Boehm system is used everywhere in the world except Germany and Austria. These countries still use a direct descendant of the Mueller clarinet known as the Oehler system clarinet. Also, some contemporary Dixieland and Klezmer players continue to use Albert system clarinets, as the simpler fingering system can allow for easier slurring of notes. At one time the reed was held on using string, but now the practice exists only in Germany and Austria, where the warmer, thicker tone is preferred over that produced with the ligatures that are more popular in the rest of the world.

Famous clarinetists

See clarinetist for a list of some famous clarinet players.


  • Pino, Dr. David The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. Providence: Dover Pubns, 1998, 320 p.; ISBN 0486402703

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04