At first glance, there isn’t much difference between an oboe and a clarinet.
In most cases, professional models of each are made from various kind of wood, usually grenadilla.
They both have many keys, and they both use reeds to produce their tones.
In reality, however, they are very different instruments with very different histories.
Facts on Oboe vs Clarinet
The precursors to the modern oboe include the sorna from Persia and the aulo from Greece. These were very simple instruments with just a few holes. The aulo also had a drone pipe attached to it and was much like a bagpipe chanter. Both of these instruments are thousands of years old.
In the 12th century, wind musicians in the Middle East refined these earlier instruments and created the shawm. The shawm became the first instrument used en masse in military bands when the Janissaries used it to bolster troop morale in the field. These Christian slave soldiers to the Sultans would often march with 20 or 30 shawms into battle, as well, striking fear into their enemies.
Although more advanced than either the aulo or the sorna, the shawm had no keys like a modern oboe. Shawm players also did not put their lips directly on the double reed. There was an intervening piece of wood called a pirouette where the player would blow.
Five centuries after the development of the shawm, some unknown instrument maker added a single key to the shawm, doubling its range. About 80 years later, a French instrument maker named Martin Hotteterre designed what he called the hautbois, which is the first instrument that fully resembles the modern oboe. He removed the pirouette from the equation and added keys to give the players more facility. For the first time, players had a formidable range of more than two full octaves.
Even from its earliest beginnings, the instrument had a conical bore, which means that it started small at the top and flared gradually outward throughout its length. The conical bore meant that the addition of a register key could produce octaves using the same fingerings.
There are two chief schools of oboe building today: the Viennese and the French. The fingering systems are much the same, but the Viennese differs from the French when it comes to certain notes in the middle range of the instrument. The Viennese oboe uses what are called “long fingerings,” which use many fingers to cover many holes to produce the notes. Conversely, the French oboe uses a single whisper key and only a few fingers to produce the same notes.
The tone of the two oboe styles differs too. The French oboe has a more piercing, brighter sound than the Viennese, which is darker and blends more easily with the other woodwind instruments.
Unlike the oboe and its earliest versions, which were known in 500 BCE, the clarinet is a mere youngster.
Johann Denner, a German instrument maker, took the chalumeau and added two keys to it to create the first clarinet. The chalumeau itself hadn’t been invented very long before the clarinet.
Both the clarinet and the chalumeau used a single reed attached to a mouthpiece. This is the chief difference between the oboe and the two newer instruments. Both the woodworking techniques and the necessary tools for making the mouthpieces didn’t exist before the period near the turn of the 18th century.
Although the exact date of the emergence of both the chalumeau and the clarinet is not known, it’s nearly universally accepted as being between 1680 and 1700.
The second major difference between the oboe and the clarinet is the shape of the bore. The clarinet is a cylinder instead of a cone. Aside from the bell, which is flared, it is the same diameter inside for its entire length.
This creates a unique situation among woodwind instruments. The physics of a cylinder that is closed by a single reed are such that the clarinet cannot produce even-numbered overtones.
It is therefore necessary for the clarinetist to change fingerings to produce octaves. This means that the timbre of every note’s octave will be different than the original note. The clarinetist produces a 12th by depressing the register key. For example, if the player plays a C and depresses the register key, the resulting note will be the G above the C octave.
This idiosyncrasy is what gives the clarinet its distinctive and unique tone. It also means that the clarinet has the largest range of any of the woodwind instruments; three-and-a-half octaves. It also has an incredible dynamic range, able not only to cut through an entire orchestra but also to play incredibly softly and mysteriously even in the highest of registers, which rival the flute.
The clarinet also has two chief fingering systems: the Oehler system and the Boehm system.
The Oehler system is used in Germany and Austria, and it very much resembles that of the oboe. In fact, many of the necessary alternate fingerings used for certain musical passages are the same.
The Boehm system is used almost everywhere else. It, too, has alternate fingerings, but unlike those required in the Oehler system, without which certain passages would be impossible, those in the Boehm system are for convenience’ sake.
The differences between the two instruments make them indispensable in the orchestra. The color that each brings to a performance gives composers great flexibility in expressing themselves.
The two instruments blend magnificently, particularly when it’s a Viennese oboe.
The darker color of the Viennese oboe matches the prevalence of the sevenths in the overtone series produced by the clarinet.
Charles Dalmas is a professional Clarinetist with over 20 years of experience and holds a Master's degree in Music Performance and Music Education from Crane School of Music. He also has a Bachelor's of Science in Music from SUNY New Paltz. He is the Music Director of Sarnia Sea Cadets and also the former Principal Clarinetist in the International Symphony Orchestra.