10 Need-to-Know Facts About the Clarinet

By Carolyn Walter

1. The clarinet has unique acoustics.

Among the canon of typical modern orchestral woodwinds, clarinets are the only reed instruments with cylindrical bores; meaning that the empty space inside the instrument remains the same diameter through the whole length of the tube.  Related reed instruments including saxophones, oboes, English horns and bassoons are all conical-bored; they are  narrow at the top end, widening out to a much larger bell opening.  The sound of a conical instrument, like a sax or bassoon is composed, of both odd and even harmonics, which is why normal fingerings overblow one octave higher for these instruments. As the clarinet is basically a cylindrical pipe closed on only one end (the mouthpiece as it is being played), the wavelength produced changes, and the even-numbered harmonics will not be present in the sound.  This means that lowest notes on your clarinet will overblow at the twelfth – a low E becomes a middle-register B natural when the register key is applied, etc.

2. Each register of the clarinet’s range has its own name.

The lowest notes on your clarinet are known as the Chalumeau register, named after an ancestral version of the clarinet (see fact #3).  Middle G-natural, G-sharp, A, A-flat and B-flat are known as throat tones.  The clarion (or clarino) register, named for its trumpet-like characteristics,  spans from the first overblown fingering, a middle-of-the-staff B natural, up to a C natural above the staff.  Notes higher than this C natural are known as the altissimo register (Italian for “extremely high”).  Notes in this highest register often have a large variety of alternate fingerings available.

Clarinet_register

Clarinet register

3. The clarinet descended from a French instrument known as the Chalumeau (or Chalumeax).

This cylindrical instrument typically had eight open tone holes, much like a recorder, but was played with a mouthpiece and separate single reed, much like a modern clarinet.  Chalumeau were popular primarily during the 17th and 18th centuries; they were most often played in the lower register, because it was very difficult to overblow.  Changes in the instrument’s design, including the addition of the prototypical register key addressed this issue, expanding the range of the instrument greatly and leading to the evolution of the first true clarinets.

Clarinet_Chalumeau

Chalumeau

4. More than one fingering system exists for the clarinet.

Most of us are aware of what is known as the Boehm fingering system – the standard system for most modern clarinets – adapted from a very similar system for the modern flute.  However, the Öhler system, which has a greater number of tone holes and keys (up to 27 total), is still used in Germany and Austria.  Clarinets keyed in this system often have a smaller bore and narrower mouthpiece as well.  The Albert system, which is related to the Öhler system but employs fewer keys and has more open holes, was popular up until around the 1950s.  Although new Albert system models are no longer produced, the style of instrument is still frequently used in Eastern European music, Klezmer and Dixieland jazz. The Rubank Elementary Clarinet Method, a classic staple for beginner clarinetists, still contains an Albert system fingering chart, along with the fingerings for a typical modern Boehm model.

The Rubank Elementary Method

The Rubank Elementary Method

5.The modern bass clarinet owes its design to Adolphe Sax, who revolutionized its design before going on to invent the saxophone.

In 1838, at the age of 24, Sax revolutionized the instrument by using a straight-bodied design and implementing multiple register vents/keys, better tone hole sizing and placement, and the characteristic upturned metal bell we still see today.

6. The smallest clarinet

The smallest commercially-available clarinet is pitched in Ab, a minor 7th above the standard Bb instrument.  While not very common, the Ab piccolo clarinet  is available to special-order from the LeBlanc company in France.  The Vandoren company produces miniscule reeds and mouthpieces for the instrument.

E-flat, A-flat and B-flat clarinets (from left to right)

A-flat. E-flat and B-flat clarinets (from left to right)

7.  Largest clarinets

The largest clarinets (relatively) commonly produced and played are contrabass instruments; these sound an octave below the Bb bass clarinet.  Due to their gargantuan proportions, some versions of the instrument are made of metal and coiled into curves (“paperclip” design).  However, some manufacturers opt for an extremely long design, the majority of the body constructed of rosewood or plastic.

8. Even larger clarinets (sub-contrabass)!

Though never in widespread production, three octocontralto clarinets have been produced by the G. Leblanc corporation of France. These instruments sound two octaves below the modern alto clarinet.  Even more incredibly, a single “octocontrabass” was produced by the LeBlanc company, sounding one octave below the contrabass clarinet.

Clarinet_family

Clarinet family

9. Clarinets are pitched in keys other than Bb and Eb.

You may already be aware of the Eb alto and Eb soprano clarinets.  If so, you may also know about A clarinets, a common staple of orchestral and solo literature, which are pitched just a half step lower than the Bb.  C clarinets (pitched a whole step above the Bb clarinet) are also called for often in orchestral literature.  While many players just transpose the music and play it on their Bb instrument, true C concert-pitch clarinets are still produced by several manufactures including Buffet Crampon of Paris.  Klezmer players often use C clarinets as well.  A basset horn is an instrument closely resembling the Eb alto clarinet, but pitched in F.  A favorite of Mozart’s, this instrument is still produced by some modern instrument manufacturers including Selmer and Buffet.

10. Celebrity clarinetists:

A lot of us know the names of legendary clarinet players such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Eddie Daniels, Richard Stoltzman, Carrie Bell, etc. However, lots of people famous for unrelated reasons play, or played, the clarinet in school, including Jimmy Kimmel, Julia Roberts, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Alan Greenspan.

We hope you have enjoyed our list of factoids relating to the clarinet.  As this list is far from exhaustive, we invite you to share your favorite reed-related trivia in the comments section below.

Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.

1 Response to “10 Need-to-Know Facts About the Clarinet”


  1. 1 blivett May 9, 2014 at 6:09 am

    Very interesting. Was an attempt ever made to construct a “clarinet” with a square section rather than round, as was successfully done this century for the bassoon?


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