Clarinet: Definition & Facts

This article gives you definitions and facts as an overview. Further chapters will be going more into details.

Definition: Clarinet

The clarinet (German: Klarinette, French: clarinette, Italian: clarinetto, also clarino) is a woodwind instrument with a single reed like a saxophone and a cylindrical body like organ pipes. It has got at least 11 tone holes and a speaker tone hole. Because we have 10 fingers there must be at least 2 keys to be able to close all tone holes. Today's clarinets have about 20 tone holes including those for half tones and trills and about 29 keys - many for intonation improvements and easier alternative fingering.

Unlike other woodwinds clarinets have three very distinctly sounding registers, it is nearly as if they were three different instruments. You play the higher register by opening the speaker tone hole or by overblowing. The lowest register is called chalumeau-register, and it has a dark sound, the middle register - called clarinet register - resembles a female voice and the top register is rather neutral and a bit sharp. You find a detailled discussion in the chapters on sound and acoustics.

Clarinets can play a range of over 4 octaves. This is more than most other wood wind or wind instruments can do. They produce tones in their lowest register that are of the same hight as an instrument with a conical body of twice the length of a clarinet would produce.

Other woodwinds need only 7 tone holes plus a speaker key to play all possible music, if you don't use advanced models with tone holes for half tones. A simple school kid's recorder for example plays C, D, E, F, G, A, B - that are 7 notes on the C scale. Then you open the speaker key and finger the C again and it comes out as c (one octave above the low C), and from there you continue the scale.

When overblowing a clarinet, it doesn't go up an octave which is the eighth note but to the twelfth, meaning one and a half octaves. So to play continuous scales you need to have tone holes for the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh note on your scales. The twelfth then is played by overblowing tone 1 and so on. You will need keys and pads for at least 2 of the tone holes because you can only cover 10 tone of them with your 10 fingers, even on a small instrument the size of a recorder.

The overblowing into the twelfth makes playing a clarinet a bit more difficult to learn: In all other woodwinds you use the same fingering for a C in the lower register as you do in the higher register, except that you open the speaker hole or overblow. With a clarinet that is different: The C in the lower register becomes a g in the middle register.

When are similar instruments *not* clarinets?

There are many instruments that have characteristics in common with the clarinet: the use of a single reed mouthpiece, but also having a cylindrical tube. The more similar these other instruments are to the clarinet, the more similar they will sound. Acoustically the closest relatives are other ducked/closed pipes like the organ or the harmonica: their pipes are cylindrical and they have a single tongue, but they do not have tone holes for different pitches in each pipe, the organ has many pipes of different lengths instead.

There are instruments that use a single reed like the saxophone does. But the saxophone does not have a cylindrical body, rather it has a funnel-shaped one, i.e. one that gets wider and wider towards the bottom. The result is that the instrument jumps into the octave when overblown and other overtone series are supported much more strongly with resonance - as a result, such instruments also sound significantly different.

Even if an instrument has all above properties, that are: a single reed and a cylindrical body and tone holes/keys, that does not make it a clarinet: A chalumeau, an arghul or the Zummarah are not clarinets because they would also jump into the 12th tone of the scale, but due to the lack of keys they cannot play a whole scale and thus cannot play music in the Western 8-note scale system.

Scientific classification

In scientific classification by the internationally accepted Hornbostel-Sachs-systematic clarinets belong to class 422.211.2:
4 Aerophone (wind instruments)
2 . proper wind instruments (you blow air through, unlike the bull-roarer)
2 .. Reed aerophones
2 ... Single reed instruments (Chalumeau-type-instruments, not double reeds like oboe)
1 .... closing reed pipes - clarinet types
1 ..... with regular cylindrical tube/bore
2 ...... and tone holes

How the clarinet's sound is created

When you blow into the clarinet's mouthpiece, the air flows through the gap between the mouthpieces lay and the thin reed tip into the clarinet. Because the reed's elastic tip is pressed by higher pressure in your mouth towards the mouthpieces surface it does bend there and reduces the air flow until it nearly completely blocks the air flowing through that gap. Then the tip of the reed swings back and opens the gap again. This repeats very quickly so the reed is swinging. It creates a pulsed stream of air through the bore with a high frequency. This causes pressure waves through the instrument's bore travelling to the opening, the bell. The time the wave takes depends on the length of the bore. When all tone holes are closed the column is long and the tone is low, when more and more are opened, the column gets shorter and the pitch higher, similar to shortening guitar strings. The player's lips dampen the reed and prevent the instrument from croaking or squeaking.

It is the cylindrical bore, in which the column of air swings, which results in the instrument's sound and acoustical characteristics. Details are discussed in the chapter on sound. Practically the clarinet's acoustics cause a wave of air pressure and its reflections to travel through the air column four times: First a pressure wave down the bore and out of the bell or a tone hole. This leaves a bore with lower pressure and the reaction is a "negative" wave going back to the tip of the mouthpiece where it is reflected, travelling again to the bell where it goes out. The surrounding air then sends a positive wave back into the instrument running up to the mouthpiece's tip, where it meets a new pressure wave out of the mouth. This happens about 200 - 5000 times per second, and as soon as a resonance is established, we hear a tone. The reed swings in exactly the frequencies the resonance of the body support (and its higher mathematical multiples). All other frequencies die away.

This description is simplified, for more details and a better understanding look under the clarinet's sound.

Tone range, dynamics and articulation

The clarinet's tone range (or compass) is wider than that of all other wind instruments. All clarinets play the E (E3 - some go lower) and most players can reach a high c7, that means nearly 4 octaves. A bass clarinet for example can easily play everything that is possible on an Alto Sax, on a Tenor Sax and can even play a note or two lower than a Baritone Sax.

The clarinet's dynamic (loudness) ranges from practically inaudible ppp to a hurting fff (only brass and saxophones can play louder). Other woodwinds usually will have serious difficulties beginning a phrase in ppp, not so the clarinet (to be fair, saxophone players can do that, too).

Both in sound and articulation / playing techniques the clarinet is one of the most flexible instruments at all. It displays many characteristics you find in the human voice. It shows quite different sounds in the different registers - (high, medium, low) more characteristic than any other wind instrument. You can play virtually all forms of articulation with a clarinet - extremely short staccato, a perfect legato (binding of notes), vibrato when it is needed, even a glissando (that is changing the pitch from one tone to another without having to interrupt).

In result the clarinet is a popular instrument for us all: composers, arrangers and players, professionals and amateurs alike, playing in all kinds of ensembles.

Material and looks

The most common material for the body is black or blackened wood (mostly grenadill, an African hard wood). The keys are normally silver-coated metal keys, rings and levers, composed of steel or a copper alloy, soldered together with silver and covered galvanic with a thin silver coat. Simple clarinets use cast parts, more expensive ones use forged ones. Sometimes nickel is used for covering instead of silver. It slides better and does not tarnish, however nickel may cause allergies.

While black wood and silver is the classical style, you will sometimes see shiny golden metal clarinets (very popular in Turkey and the East, the design resembles a straight and very slim soprano saxophone). There are also cheap plastics bodies (usually from ABS, better ones are made from hard rubber). These could come in any colour. And then there are very expensive, sophisticated compound materials (hardwood dust + epoxy resin + carbon fibers) that never crack and otherwise have the exact features of natural wood.

From a distance the A- and B-flat clarinets as well as the smaller E-flat clarinet look somewhat similar to an oboe, which is also black, slim and has got silver keys. But in contrast to the oboe the clarinet has got a wide mouthpiece with a reed, while the oboe has got a thin, straw-like double reed.

Some people believe in the superiority of real wood and hand forged keys, but serious scientific tests (both with an audio-spectrometer and human audiences) show no significant correlation between material and sound quality. There is rather a correlation in between effort spent in building and maintaining the instrument and its acoustical quality, and therefore expensive grenadill instruments are usually but not always better than cheap ABS ones.

The clarinet family

When talking about "the common" clarinet in general we usually refer to the A- or B flat (soprano) clarinet which you see in the picture on the top left of this page. It is about 66 cm long, about twice as high as a recorder. Besides these well known instruments there is a whole clarinet family ranging from the short and high sounding E flat clarinet, about half the size of a B flat clarinet down to the very big and low sounding contrabass clarinet, which is about 2,70 meter (approximately 8.86 feet) long.

Besides the members of the clarinet family look quite differently, they all consist of the same 5 major parts, see also here.

Apart from their size and form of the clarinets (straight or with S-bows, or bent like a paperclip) and the different ways to accommodate some very long keys on the instruments, the clarinet types in that family do not differ much as far as playing technique is regarded. A player can use almost all of the fingerings he is accustomed to (large hands required) on any instrument size after getting used to it. There are only a few exceptions. To make it practically very simple to swap between instrument types, the notes for all clarinet types, even the lowest, are written in treble clef. Sometimes for bass and contrabass clarinets there is a down-arrow and an 8 or 8(2) printed next to the clef, indicating that the instrument sounds one or two octaves lower.

History: Developed or invented?

The first real clarinet was built about 1700 by Denner in Nuremberg, so it is a rather new wind instrument compared to strings and other wind instruments like trumpets, trombones, horns, oboes or flutes. Flutes for example date back some incredible twenty five thousand years - that is the age of the oldest one found today. There are old clarinet predecessors, the closest was a woodwind instrument called chalumeau (French, pronounced "shalumoh" from Greek: Kalamos = tube), a small recorder-like shepherd's instrument. It could only be played in the lowest register and was hardly ever good in tune. There were other single reed / cylindrical body instruments before the clarinet, but they were all *not* clarinets. They all had in common that you could and can not play full scales (8 notes for an octave and then continue with the next) on those instruments, let alone play the complex pieces Mozart wrote for the first instruments in 1750. It was known that the type of instrument had potential, but it just could not be built to be sufficient for the professional player.

The reasons for this are discussed in detail in the chapter history.

Compared to the chalumeau, Denners clarinet could be played in a range of over 3 octaves, and it was rather well in tune. It became an immediate success, because it closed the gap that still existed between woodwinds and brass and in the next generation it already could be used in the most demanding professional music.

Around 1750 Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto (KV 632), which is still one of the most popular works for clarinet today. Since about 1800 the clarinet has been an indispensable instrument alongside the oboe, bassoon and flute. It became the leading solo instrument in folk, dance, entertainment and military music, as well as later in jazz, together with the trumpet.

Since 1930 there have been hardly any technical and acoustical improvements to the instrument. The German Oehler systems and French Boehm systems, which have been in existence for almost 100 years now, are still largely unchanged today as the standard for professionals and amateurs.

From classical music to jazz:
Types of ensembles that employ clarinets

You can find clarinet players in all types of ensembles. The number of clarinet players per ensemble varies widely, as much as the skills needed and the chance to join one of these ensembles (which is of course directly dependent on the number of clarinets needed). We will discuss these questions in an own chapter: the clarinet in the orchestra. Below we briefly discuss a number of the more popular ensemble types that employ clarinets:

You find clarinets in all types of ensembles.

You do not find clarinets in original versions of baroque music (Bach, Händel, Vivaldi) because clarinets were invented later. However, there often are arrangements employing clarinets anyway.

Diversity of national styles

There is a diversity of national styles and quite different ideas of how a clarinet should sound, with the German and French schools being the most prominent (the English and North American in between, but leaning more towards the French). At least in the question which instrument type to use, today the French school is clearly dominating the world, except for Germany and Austria and the East, where the the local types are used.

Many musicians in Jazz, Klezmer and Oriental music play on the simple Albert System ("simple system"), derived from the German system about 1850, which makes sliding, extreme vibrato up to "howling", "crying" or "sobbing" and glissando possible, which you need for those styles. An audience that grew up with a German clarinet style would not necessarily recognize those instruments' sound as clarinet sound at all. The other way round it is also true.

An instrument for you or your kids?

Clarinets are not extremely expensive - you get "decent" new instruments as well as a better but used ones starting from about 500 Euros (a little more than 500 US$). Neither is the clarinet large or difficult to carry about (compared to a tuba, a harp or a baritone saxophone). The instrument case fits into an ordinary backpack, that you can carry while cycling. Just discuss logistics with a bassoonist, a tuba-player or a drummer!

A child of 10 to 12 can start to learn playing the clarinet as soon as his or her adult teeth are there and the hands are big enough. Nearly all musical schools will have a teacher for clarinets. Depending on your ambition and time spent practising (an hour per day and 4-6 days a week would be good) you can learn enough in two years to be able to play in a beginners' orchestra or band. And unlike other instrumentalists a clarinet player will almost always be welcome in an orchestra or band all over the world. If your ambition is to become a professional player, 2 hours per day would be better for a beginner, plus learning to play the piano and some theory, of course. But still this isn't much compared to what the children of ambitious violinists that are expected to play the violine as well have to do starting on their third birthday...

From my point of view the most important aspect is that you will always have a wide variety of music to chose from and that clarinets are usually welcome to join bands and playing in an orchestra or band is fun. The balance in between the time spent practising and the fun you have is much better than with most other instruments. I play it for 40 years now and I did not regret it one day!