What is a Clarinet? Top 10 FAQ Answered

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what is a clarinet

The clarinet is a versatile instrument in bands, orchestras, and jazz ensembles. It is also a solo instrument.

In the concert band, it takes the place of the string section. In the orchestra, the clarinet usually appears in pairs and plays both lyrical and technical passages. Many jazz clarinetists also play saxophone and flute especially those who play in pit ensembles for stage shows. Some even play oboe and bassoon too.

Still, the clarinet is a crucial member to any ensemble in which it takes part. Its unique timbre and overtones give it its characteristic sound, which can be expressive and loving as well as fiery and thrilling.

The clarinet comes in many sizes. From the tiny Ab sopranino to the gigantic sub-contrabass, each version uses the same basic fingering patterns.

All use a single reed held onto the mouthpiece by a contraption called a ligature. Some of these have screws while others are simply bands of string or other elastic material. Some even just use bare string that fits into grooves in the mouthpiece.

What is a Clarinet and More Frequently Asked Questions

1. What Is a Clarinet?

As stated, the clarinet is an instrument closed at one end by a single reed. The most common clarinet is the Bb clarinet. When its five pieces are fully assembled, it measures some 60 cm, or 23.6 inches, in length. The clarinet has a cylindrical bore that only flares somewhat at the bell. For this reason, the clarinet cannot produce even numbered overtones. That is why it produces an octave and a fifth when the player presses the register key. This necessitates the changing of fingerings to produce octaves, which is in contrast to saxophones. Saxophones have conical bores, and they can produce the even-numbered overtones. Whereas the clarinetist must switch as many as seven fingers to achieve an octave above certain notes, the saxophonist merely has to press the octave key.

Clarinets are made from a variety of materials, including wood, resin, and even metal. Metal clarinets are sometimes fashioned in a single piece and don’t require assembly or disassembly. Wooden clarinets are made from blackwood, grenadilla wood, boxwood, rosewood, and cocobolo. Grenadilla wood is incredibly hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that using a chainsaw would break the blade. It must be hewn by an axe, and teams of cutters alternate because the wood dulls the axe after a few chops. Cocobolo and boxwood are softer woods and produce markedly different tone quality than grenadilla wood. Boxwood was used extensively when the clarinet was created because European instrument makers were either unaware of grenadilla wood, or they lacked the proper tools to work it. Grenadilla must be spun on a lathe with the hardest metal cutting attachments to add the toneholes. While the lathe has been around since ancient times, the alloys necessary to cut grenadilla have not.

When it comes to the larger clarinets, like the alto, bass, and contrabass, the materials are the same a lot of the time. Many contrabass clarinets, however, are still fashioned from metal because of their curved construction. Some contrabass clarinets are straight, but they are prone to bent keys because of the need to disassemble the instrument for storage. Without disassembly, the case would be nearly 3 meters long, making it unwieldy. Metal contrabass clarinets coil that 3-meter length into something much more manageable.

The reeds are usually made from the outside layers of bamboo. They are cut and beveled to fit squarely and snugly against the flat part of the mouthpiece. The player blows air through the aperture created by the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. The vibration of the reed sets the air inside the bore to vibrating, and these vibrations are what produce the tone.

Some reeds are created from synthetic materials. Historically, these artificial reeds have been godawful, but lately, companies like Legere are producing top-quality synthetic reeds. These reeds, though not indestructible, last far longer than cane reeds. Many players, even top pros, are using Legere reeds these days, and they’re achieving at least the same results as players who cling to their natural cane.

2. Who Invented the Clarinet?

The man who invented the clarinet was named Johann Christoph Denner. He was born on August 13, 1655, in the city of Leipzig. Both he and his father, Heinrich, were instrument makers. The elder Denner was famous for crafting beautiful hunting horns and signaling whistles. Being a horn tuner as well as a craftsman, Heinrich Denner had a keen ear and was famous for his workmanship in Saxony.

He passed on this keen ear to his son, who would change the historical development of the orchestra. Johann Christoph also had children who would become famous instrument makers. Their names were Jakob Denner and Johann David Denner. In addition to making improvements to their father’s instruments, notably the clarinet, the sons crafted bassoons, flutes, flagolets, recorders, and even oboes.

Johann David mostly worked with the double-reed counterparts to the clarinet: the oboe and the bassoon. His elder brother worked with the clarinet and the instruments that didn’t use reeds. He was also a very fine performer and played his brother’s oboes to great effect.

Unfortunately, their clarinet-creating father died very young on April 20, 1707, and never saw his sons realize their full potential. He was their inspiration, however. What Johann Christoph did was to take a known instrument, the chalumeau, which had no keys, and add two keys to it.

The first key was a register key, which was played with the thumb and caused the instrument to overblow at the 12th. That gave the performer much greater flexibility than before and created a whole new octave of notes to play. The second key was added so that the player could create the notes between the highest note without the register key and the lowest note with it. Both sons kept improving the instrument throughout their lives.

3. When Was the Clarinet Invented?

Johann Christoph Denner first altered the chalumeau in roughly 1690. At that time, the player played with the reed under the top lip rather than on the underside of the mouthpiece. Over the next 10 years or so, Johann Christoph played around with the improved chalumeau, adding a key here and a key there. Still, in his lifetime, he never really got the clarinet to a recognizable point. His sons, however, refined it more and more, and by 1710, the improved chalumeau began being called the clarinet. The older term disappeared quickly.

The name clarinet comes from the Italian “clarino,” which is a “little trumpet.” Indeed, with their small bores and undoubtedly soft reeds, they sounded a little bit like a trumpet. When manufacturing techniques for the wooden mouthpieces improved, and the ligatures improved as well, players noticed that if they switched the reed facing from the top to the bottom of the embouchure, they could produce a more pleasing tone than ever before even with a small bore and a boxwood body.

From the period between 1710 and the time Mozart composed his clarinet quintet, K.581, and his clarinet concerto, K.622, for Anton Stadler, the clarinet remained largely unchanged. It was a six-keyed instrument and was usually pitched in A. As with many orchestras at the time, the tuning of the instrument varied by the maker and fell between 415 and 440 cycles per second.

In 1751, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son, Johann Christian Bach, introduced the clarinet to London the year after his father’s death. During that time, when people in London talked about “Bach,” they were talking about Johann Christian and not “Papa.” A little more than a decade later, when Mozart came to London on tour with his father, Leopold, he met Johann Christian Bach. Undoubtedly, Mozart heard the clarinet being played in the many concerts he both attended and played while in London. He studied with Johann Christian Bach for nearly a year, learning composition, theory, and keyboarding on the harpsichord.

Mozart was just 8 years old at the time, and Johann Christian Bach was 29 years old. Bach became sort of a “Big Brother” to Mozart, such as from Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Mozart was alone in a strange city with no friends, and the friendship between the student and master was both fast and lasting. In 1782, when Johann Christian Bach died, Mozart was despondent and remarked, “What a loss to the musical world!”

Mozart acknowledged the influence Johann Christian Bach had on him. He based many of his harpsichord and piano works on that influence. And, in turn, the Denners’ most famous instrument had an influence on him. Indeed, many clarinetists believe his concerto to be the pinnacle of the form.

4. Where Was the Clarinet Invented?

The clarinet was created in Germany. Johann Christoph Denner, after all, lived in Leipzig. His sons lived in Germany after their father was dead too. When it comes to orchestral wind instruments, woodwind or brass, the clarinet is the youngest of them. The oboe dates to ancient times as the shawm, and the brass instruments, not requiring sophisticated woodworking techniques with metals that had not been invented yet, existed nearly as far back.

The clarinet’s rise from humble beginnings in 1690 to a solo instrument that demanded the utmost musicianship from its players leads directly through Mannheim. The orchestra that came together in 1720, numbering more than 50 musicians, was like nothing the world had ever seen. During the early Baroque period, ensembles numbered five or six musicians, perhaps as high as 10. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, composed the year after the founding of the Mannheim orchestra, only required 17, and that was thought to be a lot.

Clarinetists were included in the Mannheim orchestra, although they were much like the trumpets of the time, which did not have valves, and they played parts that weren’t lyrical or soloistic. Once Johann Stamitz took over the orchestra in 1741, it began to develop into the premier ensemble of its type in the world. Stamitz did what were daring things, such as the famous Mannheim crescendo. Before 1741, almost all pieces had what are known as terrace dynamics. Music was loud and then suddenly soft. The opposite was also true. Stamitz had the idea to have the orchestra get louder gradually.

Audiences were thrilled, and people came from all over to hear this unheard-of phenomenon. By this time, the clarinet was outfitted with six keys and could play all manner of lyrical and technical passages. Also, the clarinet’s single reed and cylindrical bore enable it to play softer than any other instrument, and its part in the Mannheim crescendo was prominent.

Other instruments went through changes at the same time as the clarinet. Trumpets were given keys similar to those on the clarinet, and they could then play lyrical and technical passages in the lower registers rather than having to rely on the overtone series. Sakbuts got slides and became trombones. Oboes got more keys. Stringed instrument makers began winding their catgut strings with copper and other softer metals. In the beginning, they did this with the G string, and as technology improved, they began winding other strings too. Steel and synthetics came in during the very late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Because Mannheim was in Germany, these innovations all came about in that country. Johann Stamitz’s elder son, Karl, became a famous composer and wrote quite a few clarinet concertos. They were not the equal of Mozart’s masterwork, but they are delightful, airy pieces that bring good cheer to any audience. The Mannheim orchestra’s prominence only lasted about 40 years. After that, it merged with the Munich court orchestra because the Elector Count of Mannheim succeeded to the throne of Bavaria in 1778, and he took his orchestra with him.

5. Why Was the Clarinet Invented?

The clarinet was invented because the chalumeau was limited in range to a single octave. Other instruments were already capable of playing notes over at least two octaves. Stringed and fretted instruments could play three or more octaves. The collection of instruments left over from the Renaissance, such as krummhorns, cornamuses, and such, were limited in range too. Even recorders had a limited range, although they came in a great array of sizes so that there could be a great range.

Having a single wind instrument that could cover a range of three-and-a-half octaves, play lyrically, play technically, and be easily portable was something that seemed impossible. This instrument could take the place of a group of recorders and achieve the same kind of sound. Johann Christoph Denner made the first attempt to tackle the problem. At the time, “Papa” Bach was only 5 years old!

Mozart composed his concerto roughly 100 years after Johann Christoph Denner first put a couple of keys on the chalumeau. Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert all wrote wonderful pieces for the clarinet. Interestingly, all three made their greatest contributions to the clarinet literature late in their lives. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has the most complicated symphonic parts for the clarinet that Beethoven wrote. Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas, Op. 120 Nos. 1 and 2, are acknowledged masterworks of great beauty, poise, and power. Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” or “The Shepherd on the Rock,” was the final piece he composed. Mozart only composed four more items after the Clarinet Concerto.

Since the time of Mozart, the clarinet has gone through ever more changes. Keys were added. Mouthpieces became easier to make and customize largely because of improvements in materials. Reeds have become better and more uniform in performance. Clarinetists will tell you that their relationships with reeds are definitely “love-hate,” but those reeds are quantum leaps ahead of what Stadler had when he played Mozart’s concerto for the first time!

6. How Long Is a Clarinet?

As stated previously, clarinets come in many sizes. The smallest is the Ab sopranino clarinet, which is barely 31 cm long. It will actually fit into the bell of a contrabass clarinet. Anyone with average hand size will find it impossible to play because the holes would be only about half the size of a person’s fingertips. Not many composers write for this instrument, but both Verdi and Bartok did. It’s also a frequent member of a clarinet choir, particularly when it comes to Italian music and arrangements.

The Eb clarinet is about 50 cm long, but it can vary depending on the manufacturer. Some make their Eb clarinets with bigger internal bores, and these will be necessarily shorter than their small-bore cousins. Unlike the Ab clarinet, which is rare, the Eb clarinet plays in a great many composers’ music. Berlioz, for example, composed the “Symphonie Fantastique” with the Eb clarinet in the first clarinet part during the movement “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Ralph Vaughan Williams gave the melody to the Eb clarinet in his composition “Sea Songs.” The “eefer,” as it’s sometimes called, has the lead in the section marked “Portsmouth.”

The workhorse of the clarinet family is the Bb clarinet. It forms the crux of a concert band and is equally at home as one of the lead woodwinds in an orchestra. There are many chamber music pieces that include the Bb clarinet. Beethoven, for example, included two in his Op. 71 Sextet for two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons. Mozart and Brahms both composed pieces that included a string quartet plus a clarinet.

M.L Lake created famous concert band arrangements of classical overtures by von Suppe, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and others. The clarinet section, which is usually split into three parts, stands in for the upper strings. The players must have fabulous technique to conquer the parts. Marching bands include Bb clarinets, too, and great march composers like Sousa, Alford, Husadel, Teike, and Elliott have made good use of their sound and technique. The Bb clarinet is about 60 cm long.

The A clarinet is 66 cm long, and it exists to provide clarinetists relief from sharp keys while playing in the orchestra. Band keys favor lots of flats because there are multiple Bb instruments playing in them. Orchestra keys usually contain many sharps because the stringed instruments have strings tuned to sharp keys. A clarinets, being pitched a minor third lower than concert pitch, allow clarinetists to play in flats rather than sharps.

The alto clarinet has a bad reputation. Some people have remarked that it is the “hermaphrodite of the clarinet family.” Outside of older band music and clarinet choirs, you don’t find alto clarinets much anymore. They are 109 cm long and are pitched in Eb. They are a natural outgrowth of the basset horn, which was usually pitched in G.

The bass clarinet is about 130 cm long, counting the curved neck and bell sections. Some models that go to a low written C are longer, perhaps 136-140 cm long. A bass clarinet outfitted with a low C plays the same range as the bassoon, which is quite interesting because a bassoon’s entire length is nearly 2.5 meters. How the two instruments could be of such disparate length yet still produce the same range of notes has baffled instrument makers for decades. It’s possible that the bassoon, closed by a double reed at the end of a very narrow lead pipe called a bocal, needs the extra length whereas the clarinet, closed by a single reed on a large mouthpiece, does not.

The contrabass clarinet is a bit longer than the bassoon at 2.7 meters. The contra-alto clarinet, which is almost exclusively a clarinet choir instrument, is a bit shorter at 2.3 meters. These instruments sound an octave lower than the bass clarinet and the bassoon and are the equivalent of the contra bassoon. They almost never appear in orchestral music, but many composers use them to great effect in band works.

7. How Many Keys Does a Clarinet Have?

As we’ve already seen, Johann Christoph Denner’s clarinet had only two keys. Mozart’s clarinet had six. Today, most standard clarinets have 17 keys and seven rings. The rings under the right hand all move together when one of them is pressed. The two rings on the front of the clarinet under the left hand only both close when the player presses both. When the player presses with only the index finger of the left hand, only the first ring is depressed. The left thumb covers the seventh ring.

In most cases, the keys and rings are pressed in combination to produce the different notes. Sometimes, players will add additional keys, cover additional holes, or even open other keys that aren’t part of the “standard” fingering for each not. They do this to correct intonation or to create a better, more pleasing sound. Sometimes, the tonal color of alternate fingerings is more desirable than the tonal color of the standard fingerings. This is especially true in the register known as the altissimo. These are the notes above the note created by pressing the thumb’s register key and only covering the thumb hole. This is a concert Bb, which is a C on the clarinet. In the parlance, this is called “high C.” Another C exists an octave higher, but it’s known as “double-high C.”

A scholar of the Chinese martial philosopher named Sun Tzu once remarked that ancient Chinese was largely a point of view. Altissimo notes on clarinet are the same way. In many cases, there are more than a dozen possible fingerings for each of these altissimo notes. Some are stable in pitch. Others are slightly out-of-tune but are much more stable when it comes to actually producing the tone. The player then uses additional or lesser lip pressure to bring the note in tune. Which the player chooses is governed by whether the note in question is sharp or flat.

Players must studiously practice technique because you need scads of it to be successful as a clarinetist. You have three-and-a-half octaves of notes available to you, and many composers, notably Stravinsky, von Weber, Corigliano, and Mozart, give you quite a few of them to play in rapid succession.

Some clarinets come with extra keys that are designed to make certain note transitions easier than they are on the standard clarinet. Some of these keys make small tuning sacrifices in the name of smoother technique, so a player should weigh this consideration carefully before purchasing a clarinet with the extra keys.

8. How Many Notes Can a Clarinet Play?

From the clarinet’s low E to the “double-high C” encompasses 44 notes. The pianist has 88 keys, one per note, to play 88 notes, but the clarinetist must use 10 fingers in several combinations to achieve all 44. The design of the keys is such that scales, arpeggios, and all manner of other technical wizardry is fluid for the player. Of course, some compromises exist, and certain keys just don’t “lie well” on the instrument.

Most players are right-handed, so left hand-intensive keys like Db major, D major, and Eb major present some “twisty” technical issues as the player changes registers from chalumeau to clarion. The clarion register comprises the same fingerings as the chalumeau register but with the register key pressed. Between these two registers lies the “throat tone register.” These are fingerings using either no fingers at all or just one or two. They are notorious for being thin sounding, out-of-tune, and downright persnickety to play.

They had to be added because of the clarinet’s inability to produce octaves using the same fingerings and just adding the register key. Clarinetists work tirelessly to master these notes, using alternate fingerings to improve their sound and pitch.

Then, there is the “break.” The Bb played on the middle line of the staff uses just two fingers. The next note in the chromatic scale, namely B-natural, calls for all eight fingers and the thumb to be pressed onto either keys or tone hole rings. Moving from open G, which uses no fingers, A, or Ab to B-natural involves the same kind of massive finger switch. Fortunately, clarinetists have a solution.

It is common practice to leave the fingers of the right hand pressed on the lower joint’s rings and holes while producing these throat tones. This has the added benefit of making the notes sound much more resonant than they would otherwise. It also makes it easier to cross “the break” because the player doesn’t have to put all fingers down at once. Some of the notes wind up being flat, however, and the player must exert lip pressure upon the reed to bring up the pitch. It must be stressed that this is lip pressure and not jaw pressure. Jaw pressure would stifle the vibration of the reed and produce weak tone.

9. How Much Does a Clarinet Cost?

Clarinets cost different amounts of money. Student models of Bb clarinets, made of resin, normally cost a few hundred dollars, perhaps as much as $1,000. Wooden student models, or those made of composite materials, could cost roughly double that. Professional-grade instruments cost double that much again. Premium instruments, such as those made by Wurlitzer, could cost as much as 6,000 euros each. Wurlitzer flies to Tanzania to cut the tree when they receive an order. Their custom-made clarinets are among the best in the world. A clarinets of all qualities cost half again as much as Bb clarinets.

Professionals usually buy matched pairs of Bb and A clarinets so that they have both for their orchestra gigs. Matched pairs have the advantage of being tuned to the same pitch level. For example, the player may ask for a pair to be crafted based on the pitch of A441, or 441 cycles per second rather than A440. Some orchestras require their players to play at A444 or even higher. Ensembles that use period instruments might play much lower pitches, sometimes as low as A415.

The smaller and larger clarinets tend to cost more. A full, low-C bass clarinet made by Buffet Crampon could be as much as $15,000. Professional contrabass clarinets cost as much as small houses, although they’re not nearly as much as the top-end bassoons. Professional Eb clarinets run between $8,000 and $10,000. An Ab clarinet, because of the intricate work necessary to make such tiny keys, could cost double what an Eb clarinet costs.

Even student models of these clarinets are sizable investments. Student bass clarinets cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on whether or not they have a low-C, are fashioned of resin or composite, or have additional extras that come with it, such as extra necks of different lengths, pegs, straps, or stands. It’s also a very good idea to insure any instrument you buy so that it can be replaced in the event of some disaster.

10. Where to Buy a Clarinet?

There are many reputable places to buy clarinets. Most music stores have at least good-quality student models for sale. To buy professional-quality instruments, it’s a good idea to go with someone who is known in the business. In the United States, places like Fred Weiner’s in New York and Lisa’s Clarinet Shop in Chicago are both good options. It’s also good to buy from the manufacturer directly. Buffet Crampon maintains a presence in the U.S. even though it’s a French company. So do Selmer and LeBlanc, and Backun is just across the border in Canada. Wurlitzer is in Germany. Yamaha is Japanese, but they are omnipresent in the U.S., too, and offer student, intermediate, and professional-grade horns.

Do not, under any circumstances, buy instruments from Amazon or any other mass retailer. Brands like Mendini, and others that come with white gloves for “cleanliness,” have a terrible reputation among instrumentalists and teachers. Many repair shops won’t even repair them because they so easily break. A high-quality instrument will last a lifetime. Those cheaply made instruments might last a month or two and then need replacing. The old adage of, “You get what you pay for,” is true for clarinets.


The clarinet is the youngest member of the woodwind family. It has undergone quite a few transformations over the years. Today, it is a facile, lyrical, and beautiful instrument that can produce tenderness and power in equal quantities. Like all instruments, it is not easy to play. Mastering it is rewarding in and of itself, however. The clarinet originated in Germany, but many countries have companies that make fine clarinets. Bands and orchestras wouldn’t be the same without them.

No matter what, though, you should play for enjoyment and fulfillment. Music is its own reward, so we wish you good luck!

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