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Encyclopedia > Clarinets
A bass clarinet, which sounds an octave lower than the more common Bb soprano clarinet.
A bass clarinet, which sounds an octave lower than the more common Bb soprano clarinet.

The clarinet (sometimes historically spelled clarionet) is a musical instrument in the woodwind family. A person who plays the clarinet is called a clarinetist.

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, such as the mouthpiece are sometimes made of ebonite. The instrument uses a single reed which is held in the mouth by the player. Vibrating the reed produces the instrument's sound.

The body of the instrument is mostly of uniform diameter until the bell is reached. The body is equipped with a complicated set of keys and 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. 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.

The clarinet has a written range spanning from low E on the third space of the bass clef staff (concert D on the Bb clarinet, concert C# on the A clarinet) to the high C, on the space above the fifth ledger line above the treble clef staff (concert B flat on the Bb clarinet, concert A on the A clarinet). It also has an extended range up to the G above high C. This top range is not used very commonly, and many professional players have difficulty getting these notes.

Clarinets come in a range of different sizes, each size giving a corresponding pitch. The most common by far are the standard Bb soprano and the A, but the full list of different sizes amounts to eleven different instruments:

  • Ab Sopranino - Very rare. Used only in Italian marching bands
  • Eb Sopranino - Used in Marching Bands
  • 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 Beethoven written for it. This may be played on a standard Bb.
  • Bb Soprano - This is the standard clarinet used for marching band, orchestra and jazz band.
  • A Soprano - Standard orchestral instrument used with the Bb Soprano. Orchestral clarinetists always come equipped with a pair of clarinets.
  • F Alto - this instrument is known as a Basset-horn
  • Eb Alto - used in Marching band
  • Bb Bass - an octave below the Bb soprano. Fairly normal in orchestra and standard in marching band
  • Eb Contra-Alto - an octave below the Eb alto. Rare.
  • Bb Contra-Bass - an octave below the Bb Bass. Very Rare.

Clarinets other than the B flat and A are usually known as harmony clarinets.

The fixed reed and the uniform diameter give the instrument a configuration of a stopped pipe where use of the register key produces the note a twelfth higher. (This is the third harmonic, as compared to most other woodwinds, for which changing register produces the second harmonic, an octave.)

Clarinets are part of the normal orchestral instrumentation, with two clarinetists playing instruments in Bb or A the most common use, and in wind bands, where sections consisting of several Bb clarinets split onto separate parts as well as alto, bass, and sometimes contrabass clarinets are used. Clarinets are also often found in jazz.




(Read this left-to-right along the illustration.)

The reed is attached to the mouthpiece by the ligature. The position of the mouthpiece assembly in the player's mouth is called the embouchure (also, and more importantly, the formation of the mouth around the mouthpiece and reed).

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.

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. 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.


The clarinet started life as a small instrument called the chalumeau. Not much is known about these instruments, but they may have evolved from recorders. The chalumeau had a similar reed for producing the sound as the 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 called 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 clarinet. Early clarinets did not play well in the lower register, so chalumeaux 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. By the time of Beethoven, the clarinet was a completely standard part of 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 done 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.

Clarinet in jazz

The clarinet was a central instrument in early jazz, peaking in popularity during the big band era of the 1930's and 1940's, when clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman led perhaps the most successful popular music groups of their era. Many youngsters were inspired to play clarinet, similar to The Beatles a generation later, who inspired many to perform rock music.

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.

The instrument has seen something of a resurgence since the 1980's, with Eddie Daniels, Don Byron and others playing clarinet in more contemporary contexts.

Famous clarinetists

Following is 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

  • B flat clarinet fingering chart (http://www.woodwind.org/clarinet/Study/FingeringCharts/bbfinger.html)
  • Comprehensive list of clarinets (http://hem.passagen.se/eriahl/clarinet.htm)
  • Clarinet acoustics (http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/clarinetacoustics.html)

  Results from FactBites:
Encyclopedia4U - Clarinet - Encyclopedia Article (971 words)
The clarinet (sometimes historically spelled clarionet) is a musical instrument in the woodwind family.
The clarinet was invented in Nuremberg, Germany on January 14, 1690.
Clarinets are usually pitched in the key of B flat or A, although there are other harmony clarinets in the keys of C, Eb, D, and Ab.
Clarinet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (3750 words)
The tone of the Eâ™­ clarinet is quite a bit brighter than any other member of the widely-used clarinet family and is known for its distinctive ability to cut through even loud orchestral textures; this effect was utilized by such 20th century composers such as Mahler, Copland, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.
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.
The latter and the clarinet in G often occurred as clarinette d'amour in the mid-18th century.
  More results at FactBites »



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