The clarinet is a musical instrument in the woodwind family. The name derives from adding the suffix -et meaning little to the Italian word clarino meaning trumpet, as the first clarinets had a strident tone similar to that of a trumpet.

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, as a result of the shape of the bore, whose characteristics vary between its three registers: the chalumeau (low), clarion or clarino (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. The Bass Clarinet has a very deep and loud tone. It is often only used in large orchestras and bands rather than small ensembles.


Almost all clarinets are transposing instruments; meaning that the sounding and written pitches differ. 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 staff (which sounds as concert D in the case of the B♭ clarinet, and concert C♯ in the case of the A clarinet) to high G on the 4th ledger line above the treble staff (concert F and concert E respectively).* The lowest range is called the chalumeau register, the next few notes the throat tones, the next "over the break" notes are the clarion register, and the range from high C (with two ledger lines) to the G above that is called the altissimo register. The altissimo range is required for high school music and beyond, and sometimes earlier. 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.

*Kennan, Kent and Grantham, Donald, 1990. The Technique of Orchestration (4th ed.), pp. 86–91. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. (ISBN 0139003665)

Construction and acoustics

Professional clarinets are usually made from African hardwood, often grenadilla or (rarely) Honduran rosewood. One major manufacturer makes professional clarinets from a composite mixture of plastic resin and wood chips — such instruments are less affected by humidity, but are heavier than the equivalent wood instrument. 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 seven tone holes (six front, one back) and 17 keys which allow the full musical scale to be produced. The most common system of keys was named the Boehm System by its designer [[Hyacinthe Klos靝 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 a basically cylindrical shape, being roughly the same diameter for most of the length of the tube. There is a subtle 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, with the reed on the underside of the mouthpiece, pressing against the player's bottom lip. 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 (except in the case of the E♭ clarinet) 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 pair of standard clarinets in B flat 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 B♭ 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 1930s and 1940s.

The clarinet was a central instrument in early jazz starting in the 1910s and remaining popular through the big band era into the 1940s. Larry Shields, Ted Lewis, Jimmie Noone and Sidney Bechet were influential in early jazz. The B flat soprano was the most common, but a few early jazz musicians such as Louis Nelson Deslile and Alcide Nunez prefered the C soprano, and many New Orleans jazz brass bands have used E flat sopranino.

Swing 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 1940s, 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 1980s, with Eddie Daniels, Don Byron and others playing the clarinet in more contemporary contexts. The instrument remains common in such styles as Dixieland.


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 B♭ sopranos and one B♭ 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 B♭ soprano and the A soprano, whose ranges are described above, followed by the B♭ Bass and the E♭ Sopranino. Clarinets other than the standard B flat and A clarinets are sometimes known as harmony clarinets. However, there are many differently-pitched clarinet types, some of which are very rare:

  • A♭ Sopranino - Very rare. Used only in Italian marching bands.
  • E♭ Sopranino - Fairly common. Also affectionately called the "Eefer". Used in marching bands, wind ensembles, clarinet choirs and sometimes in orchestras to increase the upper range of the clarinet choir.
  • D Sopranino - Rare. Occasionally used in orchestral writing, but these pieces are usually played on an E♭ 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 B♭. However, the C clarinet is having somewhat of a resurgence in orchestra and solo literature.
  • B♭ Soprano - This is the standard clarinet used for marching band, orchestra and jazz band.
  • A Soprano - Standard orchestral instrument used alongside the B♭ Soprano. Orchestral clarinetists always come equipped with a pair of clarinets. The A clarinet offers a slightly richer tone than the B♭, but the instrument's primary advantage is its greater ease of playing in orchestral repertoire written in keys with many sharps.
  • A Basset - The basset clarinet was written for by Mozart and others. It is essentially a soprano clarinet with a range extension to low C (written).
  • G Soprano - Also called a "Turkish Clarinet". It has a much deeper timbre than the soprano and is capable of microtones. It is primarily used in ethnic music.
  • F Basset Horn - This instrument was written for by Mozart often; his friend Anton Stadler was an accomplished player. It is not common in wind band or orchestral music. It differs from the alto in that it has a range to low C and a smaller bore designed to be played with a soprano mouthpiece. In appearance, the basset horn is most often distinguished from the alto by the low C extension.
  • F Alto - While the F Alto shares some design features of the basset horn and looks like a small bass clarinet, the alto has a range only to low E♭ (written) and presents a larger bore than the basset horn. Some examples of extended range (to written low C) alto clarinets in F are presently manufactured.
  • E♭ Alto - Used in marching bands in previous centuries but not as common anymore in the traditional setting. Used in clarinet choirs and some works for concert band. There is a limited solo repertiore.
  • B♭ Bass - An octave below the B♭ 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, as the instrument does not have the projection to make it significant in that genre.
  • EE♭ Contra-Alto - An octave below the E♭ Alto. Fairly common, especially in wind band literature. Sometimes called the "EE♭ Contra-bass". The lower range of the Contra-Alto (as opposed to the B♭ Bass Clarinet) can match some of the lower range passages written for bassoon, tuba and double bass. Its popularity among players rests in the ease with which one transposes parts for bassoon, tuba, and bass.
  • BB♭ Contra-Bass - An octave below the B♭ Bass. Rare, except in large clarinet choirs and wind ensembles. Orchestratively, its usage is primarily supplemental, though some works for concert band and orchestra employ distinct passages expressly for this instrument; the bassoon is sometimes substituted.
  • EEE♭ Octocontralto - Only three were ever built.
  • BBB♭ 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 this instrument, but it may have evolved from the recorder. 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 clarinetto meaning "little trumpet" (from clarino + -etto). 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 Klos靝 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. Klos頷as 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

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