The clarinet family much resembles the Von Trapp family in organization and range, as well as sheer size - there are five types of clarinet regularly in use in orchestras today.

Clarinet in Bb, Clarinet in A

Written as transposing instruments and notated in treble clef, these clarinets dominate the upper register of the clarinet's normal duties in the orchestra. The Bb clarinet is the most often used (in military bands, wind bands, and orchestras alike) and as such is beginning to do away with the demand for the A clarinet in some cases. The level of virtuosity inherant in most clarinet players today makes it possible for them to just carry around a Bb and then transpose the parts which either are still in A or slip into it when the composer calls for the player to double. The clarinet in A will always be around and available because of the great body of literature that has been composed specifcally for its more melodic tone quality, but it is less likely to see players constantly switching back and forth between the two during a performance today than it would have been in the 1960's.

Clarinet in C

Although Beethoven (as well Schubert, Bizet, Liszt and others) wrote for the C clarinet in his first and fifth symphonies, it has had to struggle to stay along side its transposing brethren. The C clarinet was used much in the way the Bb and A were, in regards to the tonality of a piece, so pretty much anything until 1860 in C or C minor would probably have a part written for C clarinet. The clarinet itself has a more individual, brusque quality than the other clarinets which makes it good for literalism and melodic development. Players will usually just transpose the part these days, if it isn't already transposed.

Clarinet in D, Clarinet in Eb

The Eb or "little" clarinet has a long history and an assured future. Its size and timbre are totally unique and yet in demand. The shrill biting quality it sports made it invaluable in opera pits and wind bands, and as such it made its way into the symphony orchestra. For being a secondary instrument there is an enormous amount of literature for the Eb.
The D however has not enjoyed the same success. Wagner and Mahler and Germans in general seemed to be fond of it, and Strauss even invokes it in his famous Till Eulenspiegel. Two possible reasons for its departure from the mainstream could be the lack of literature and the fact that it sounds remarkably similar to the Bb.

Of note, there are also much smaller clarinets in F and high Ab but these are usually found today in European military bands where the instruments have been passed on through generations of players. Also, Mozart wrote for a B natural clarinet in Cosi fan tutte in his original score, but this instrument, if it actually existed, has not been seen for a few hundred years. The standard versions of Mozart's score today replace the B natural clarinet with a part for the A clarinet.

The generally accepted written ranges for these instruments is E3 to G7 or G#7 with some adventurous (or ignorant) composers writing even the high A7. The disadvantage in writing for the clarinet in this extremely high register is that the tone becomes distorted and overly-penetrating while the intonation goes all to hell. It might be playable but it is not advisable.
A clarinet is a woodwind instrument with a single reed. Modern clarinets are most often black and made of either plastic or wood, although I've seen transparent and even red and yellow ones (oh, the horror!). A clarinet has a straight bore, in stead of a conical one like any other woodwind instrument.

Because of the straight bore, a clarinet does not overblow at the octave, but rather at the 12th. Or, in simpler terms: woodwind instruments have a speaker key. When you blow a certain note and add the speaker key, you get the same note, only one octave higher. When you do the same thing on a clarinet, however, the note you get is not an octave higher, but an interval of a 12th higher. This feature gives the clarinet its larger register.

Evolution of the clarinet

The clarinet's predecessor was the chalumeau, also known as the shawm. The chalumeau was the first true single reed instrument. It appeared somewhere in the 1600's. It had two keys, its range was low and it wasn't very flexible. It looked like a small wooden trumpet, with tone holes and a reed.

Exactly when and where the first 'real' clarinet was made isn't very clear, as it's hard to make the distinction between an early clarinet and the chalumeau. It is widely accepted, however, that the first clarinet was made somewhere around the year 1700 by a German instrument maker called Johann Christoph Denner, from Nuremburg. He is said to have been the first person to improve the speaker key and is therfore credited with being the inventor of the clarinet.

In 1690 Denner made an 'improved' chalumeau with seven tone holes and two keys. Somewhere around 1700 he placed the keys in such a way that the instrument could be overblown at the 12th instead of at the octave. Denner also gave the instrument a separate mouthpiece and the bell (the flared bit at the end). Around 1710, Jacob Denner, the son of Johann, made a clarinet with the keys at positions that allowed a clearer upper register, which was also slightly easier to tune. Around 1740 a third key was added, enabling the clarinet to play the third line b-natural.

The clarinet became a popular instrument during the 18th century because of its versatility and large range. More and more composers began to write music for it and this in turn led to more improvements in the instrument itself, to make chromatic playing and tuning possible. By 1778 a clarinet with five keys had appeared and most clarinet players in orchestras were 'real' clarinet players, in stead of oboists with a second job. The five keyed clarinet remained the main clarinet used in orchestras and solo music literature, until the early 19th century, when Ivan Muller's made significant innovations to the clarinet.

In 1812 Ivan Muller invented a clarinet with 13 keys. This clarinet remained popular until the late 1800's. Around 1839-1843 the Böhm fingering system, that was originally invented for the flute, was adapted for the clarinet. This intricate system with its many keys and springs is the one most common today, although other fingering systems are in use, such as the Albert and Auler (mostly in Germany.) The basic idea of the Böhm system was to place the holes in acoustically logical places in stead of placing them for anatomical comfort. Although the earlier systems were better with regard to tonal quality, the Böhm system made for an instrument that was tunable and stable. The Böhm system is in use on the flute, oboe, saxophone and in a hybrid version on the bassoon. The Böhm clarinet has 17 keys and 6 rings.

The sound of German clarinets is rather different from French clarinets. It is a darker, denser sound. The difference is in the bore, though the key system probably also has some influence over the difference in sound quality. Oehler's clarinet, for example, has 22 keys, five rings and finger plate. With these additional keys and mechanisms, the tone and pitch of certain notes is dramatically improved. The drawback is that the technique required is far more complex.

Music written for clarinet

As said before, if one does not count the chalumeau as a proper clarinet, the clarinet became popular first during the late 1600's.
Much literature for the clarinet was written during the Romantic period. Because the clarinet was still in its infant stages through the Baroque and much of the Classic periods, it did not become important in literature until the early 19th century. There were many improvements to be made on the clarinet before it could perform the demands that players and composers desired.

By 1740, Vivaldi had written three concerti grossi for two clarinets and two oboes and Handel wrote an overture for two clarinets and corno di caccia in the same decade.
Mozart wrote his Concerto and Quintet for the five keyed clarinet, that appeared around 1778. Beethoven's symphonies were probably played on 5 keyed clarinets until a decade after he died. Ludwig von Beethoven's (1770-1827) early symphonies were often written for clarinet in C, a higher instrument with a tone more like that of the modern E-flat clarinet than of the B-flat clarinet. The clarinets in these symphonies are not used for major solos but rather for harmonic support and do not feature many chromatic passages. It is in the fourth symphony (1806) that the clarinet becomes important in Beethoven's music.
For clarinet literature, Carl Maria von Weber was very important. He wrote many concertos and concertinos, all containing highly difficult and technical passages.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a very important figure in chamber music for the clarinet in the 19th century. He wrote two sonatas, a trio and a quintet for the clarinet.

Sources:,,, ackerman1.html

Unconventional Clarinet Technique

The history of the clarinet has been amply described in other writeups, but it's worth noting that there are several unconventional ways to play the clarinet which still result in interesting sounds. Apparently someone named Phillip R. Rehfeldt wrote a book, New Directions for Clarinet, about this at some point, but I learned these tricks by experimenting with friends in high school band.

Slide (Glissando)

Rather than actually playing distinct notes, the clarinet can make a noise that starts at one pitch, and ends at another higher or lower pitch, hitting every pitch in between smoothly. It's actually possible to go from high to low and back again repeatedly, which sounds amazingly like a siren. This kind of pitch-bending is much more common on instruments like the guitar, either by bending the strings or by using a slide, but this is still a relatively common technique in jazz. The solo at the beginning of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue has a great example of this. Note: it's really hard to get a smooth glissando from the low register into the high register, but it's possible. (I never managed to do it, but my friend could.)

Related to this is the fact that by controlling the embouchure, a clarinet player can play most notes on the clarinet without actually using the correct fingering. With enough practice, it's actually possible to play complete songs without changing fingerings at all. It's not so hard to do with Mary Had a Little Lamb, but I've had the privilege of hearing a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner played in this manner. Not something I'd want to inflict on other people myself (only because it's so difficult to play on pitch, not because I don't like the song...), but worth hearing if only for the novelty of it all.


There are a few different techniques for getting multiple sounds out of the clarinet at one time. Some people are apparently capable of singing or humming while playing the clarinet (although I haven't heard either of those...)

The easiest technique is something that any beginning clarinet player has actually done, although usually not on purpose. Typically, when a clarinet squeaks or squawks, what you hear is the note the player intends to play, and then a frequency that they don't intend to play. With enough practice, it's possible to do this on purpose, and even control which two pitches are simultaneously generated.

Without a mouthpiece

There are even some methods of playing the clarinet which involve removing the mouthpiece. For one thing, simply using using the fingerings with enough force will generate a pitch as the fingertip slaps over the hole, but a much louder tone can get generated by slapping the hole where the mouthpiece should go with the palm of the hand. That makes it a bit hard to play with both hands, though, so it greatly reduces the range.

Alternatively, it's possible to still blow air through the clarinet without a mouthpiece. Using the same sort of embouchure as when playing a trumpet or other brass instrument, the player can put his lips to the barrel of the clarinet, and play.

Clar"i*net` (?), n. [F. clarinette, dim. of clarine, from L. clarus. See Clear, and cf. Clarion.] Mus.

A wind instrument, blown by a single reed, of richer and fuller tone than the oboe, which has a double reed. It is the leading instrument in a military band. [Often improperly called clarionet.]


© Webster 1913.

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