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Bb Clarinet
Fr. Clarinette ; It. Clarinetto ; Ger. Klarinette ; Sp. Clarinete

A clarinet is a type of woodwind instrument. The term, alone, most commonly refers to the Bb clarinet, though an entire family ranging from sopranino to contrabasses exists. The clarinet is usually constructed of grenadilla (African blackwood), though student instruments may be made of a high impact plastic resin. The contrabass clarinet is often constructed entirely of metal and even metal regular clarinets do exist as mere rarities.

Score placement

In orchestral writing, the clarinet should be placed between the oboes and bassoons. The Eb (or D) clarinet is placed above the Bb (or A) clarinets, then any lower-pitched clarinets in order of pitch (basset horn, then alto, then bass, etc.) are placed below. In an orchestra, it will usually be the lower chair players who double on other clarinets, leaving the principle player in his/her area of expertise on the Bb clarinet, especially if solos are called for in the first clarinet. The bass clarinetist is usually a specialist position and does not normally double. Many orchestras also retain a specialist Eb (or D) clarinetist who may double as the third Bb (or A) clarinet in works with larger clarinet sections.

In wind ensemble or concert band writing, the clarinets may be placed either below the oboes or below the bassoons and above the saxophones. The clarinet section is typically the largest section in the ensemble, analogous to the string section of the orchestra. Normally there are at least three separate Bb clarinet parts and a bass clarinet part. In addition, a work may call for Eb soprano, alto, contra-alto, or Bb contrabass clarinet parts as well. Note that, like the piccolo in a wind ensemble, there is typically only one Eb clarinet player (though some famous examples to the contrary exist, such as Gustav Holst's First Suite in Eb), who may double on the first Bb clarinet part for music that does not contain an Eb clarinet part. Typically there are three to six clarinetists per Bb clarinet part (i.e., 3-6 first Bb clarinets, 3-6 second Bb clarinets, and 3-6 third Bb clarinets), zero to two alto clarinets, one to four bass clarinets, zero to two contra-alto clarinets, and zero to two contrabass clarinets.

Timbre and range

The clarinet is probably the woodwind that has the most "schizophrenic" personality. It has four distinct timbral registers, each one quite unique. The following information is specifically regarding the Bb or A clarinet, though the concepts apply to all clarinets. The Bb clarinet is a transposing instrument sounding one whole step lower than written. The A clarinet is a transposing instrument sounding a minor third lower than written.

The lowest register (from written E3 to F4), called the “chalumeau”, for the clarinet's close ancestor, has a deep, rich colour. It is very dark and mysterious. Rapid figurations in this register have a quite spectacular effect.

The throat tones of the “throat register” (from written F#4 to Bb 4) are a little pale and could be characterized as slightly "fuzzy". A professional clarinetist will be able to blend the natural throat tone timbre so as to minimize the difference between the adjacent registers if appropriate to the music. Many composers, however, write music in the throat tone range specifically for its unique tone quality.

Between Bb4 and B4 is the “break”, so called because the player is moving from a nearly open tube with no covered tone holes (Bb4) to a fully closed tube with all fingers covering tones holes (B4). Unless you are specifically writing for a beginner (or are writing a particularly sadistic line that straddles the break incessantly), this should not be an issue. Alternate fingerings for the B4 and C4 do exist, but their intonation varies from instrument to instrument, ranging from a useful blending tool to complete uselessness. Extensive crossing of the break should still be avoided in music intended for young and amateur players.

The next register (from B4 to C6), the “clarino” register, has a bright and almost trumpet-like quality to it. This is not to be understood as meaning that the clarinet only plays loudly in this register. It has quite complete control over dynamics throughout the entirety of its range.

The highest register (from C#6 to C7), or “altissimo” register, loses some of the characteristic qualities of the clarinet, and in soft dynamics may have an almost flute-like quality. This higher register (particularly above G6) is more difficult to control in soft dynamics, and does have a tendency towards shrillness in louder dynamics. In general, all passages above G6 are more difficult to produce and satisfactorily control, and should be written in consultation with a competent professional clarinetist. It should be noted that many notes in this register are played as harmonics of lower notes (e.g. G6 as a harmonic of B5). When a young clarinet players emits a "squeek" they are essentially exciting one of these altissimo register notes accidentally, and such when attempting to play these notes intentionally amateurs tend to produce notes of shrill or "squeeky" nature. This should not be an issue with more accomplished players.

All major and minor second trills are possible on the Boehm clarinet.

Illustration of written range for the soprano Clarinets in C, Bb, and A.

Clarinet in Jazz

From the onset of modern jazz, the clarinet has played a major role. Eventually surpassed by the saxophone as the reed-instrument of choice for jazz, the clarinet was originally one of the leading sounds in the development of jazz. New Orleans/Traditional jazz featured the clarinet with intricate improvised counterlines and as Swing music evolved during the 20's and 30's, the clarinet was often a featured soloist, and generally held the top voice in the woodwind section. The advent of bebop brought the trumpet and the saxophone further into the spotlight, while the clarinet became relegated to a double and background role.

Pioneers like Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, or Benny Goodman solidified the clarinet's position in jazz. Many modern saxophonists also double on the clarinet, but some still make it their primary voice: Don Byron, Phil Nimmons, Jimmy Giuffre for example.

Idiomatic writing

The most common mistake in writing for the clarinet is lack of consideration for the above mentioned "break." When crossing the break the player is leaping from a fundamental of a note higher on the instrument, to a harmonic of a much lower note on the instrument, and this often entails less than ideal fingerings when proper consideration is not taken. Rapid figurations across the break should be avoided, such as a tremolo like figure between written Bb and D, which absolutely necessitate crossing the break. In general, a student should be cautioned when choosing to base any prominent passage around the notes, G#, A, and Bb (or their enharmonics), as these tend to be the weakest and most intractable notes on the instrument.

Trills and tremolos

<music> \meterOff \cadenzaOn \repeat tremolo 8 { a'32 cis } \repeat tremolo 8 { cis! g' } \repeat tremolo 8 { cis,! gis' } </music>

The clarinet is one of the best orchestral and band instruments for tremolo work, having only few limitations throughout its range. Nearly all tremolos of up to an octave are feasible up to high written C. The three figurations at right should be avoided when possible due to their awkward execution. In addition, any tremolos featuring the break notes G#, A, or Bb can be potentially troublesome.

<music> \meterOff \cadenzaOn ees8 ees' ees, ees' \bar "||" cis,[ cis' cis, cis'] </music>

Octave skips, while congenial to conical instruments that overblow at the octave, can however be unnatural for amateur players of the cylindrical clarinet which overblows at a twelfth. Of the many octave skips that can be dreamt of, only the two at right remain as potential hazards for young players and should be avoided especially when used rapidly. Composers should be cautioned in writing all rapid octaves skips if their work is intended for beginners, especially at higher tempi.

C, Bb, or A clarinet?

The Bb and A clarinet represent a matched pair in the orchestra. Before the clarinet's key work was fully developed and modernized, many notes had awkward fingerings or produced an unsatisfactory tone quality. Even today with modern key work and a fully chromatic scale, the clarinet plays best in key center close to it's home key of C major (for example: D, G, C, F, and Bb major and the relative minor keys). To overcome this limitation, clarinetists used a variety of soprano clarinets to make more keys simpler to play in. The C clarinet (a non-transposing instrument) was used for G, C, and F major, while the Bb clarinet would be used for concert F, Bb, or Eb major, and the A clarinet would be used in E, A, or D major.

Eventually, as the key work of the clarinet family improved and the instrument became fully chromatic, the C clarinet fell into disuse, as its tone quality was found to be inferior to the Bb clarinet (usually due to the instrument not being scaled correctly). To this day, however, the Bb and the A clarinet are used as a pair in the orchestra. The Bb clarinet is more fluent in "flat" keys, while the A clarinet is more adept in "sharp" keys. The A clarinet also has a slightly darker tone quality than the Bb clarinet, though the difference can be subjective, and varies between individual clarinets and clarinetists. It should be noted that more music written today is written specifically for the Bb clarinet rather than the A clarinet, regardless of key. Clarinetists will also sometimes transpose music written for Bb clarinet to the A clarinet (or vice versa) if the passage has easier fingerings in the other key, regardless of the composer's instruction. It is also worth noting that composers have in the past taken advantage of low concert Db offered by the A clarinet, using is a sort of extension of the Bb clarinet downwards to a low Eb. Dvorak wrote a passage as short as eight notes in the Largo his New World Symphony that demanded the A clarinet for its lowest semitone before immediately asking the player to switch back to the Bb clarinet. Some Bb clarinets today are equipped with an additional low Eb key making it possible to for a clarinetist to play such lower passages without the need of switching instruments. However, these such instruments are not in widespread use and their availability should not be counted on.

Note that the A clarinet is not used in the wind ensemble or concert band; the Bb clarinet is standard.

Auxiliary instruments

Eb or D sopranino clarinet

The sopranino clarinets in Eb and D are smaller, higher-pitched cousins of the standard Bb and A soprano clarinets (sopranino being the diminutive for soprano). In a perfect world, the Eb and D clarinets would be used in the orchestra in much the same way the Bb and A clarinets are used; the Eb is suited for flat keys and the D clarinet is suited for sharp keys, a logical and seemingly beneficial arrangement. In practice, however, the D clarinet is rarely if ever available (few clarinetists have ever seen a D clarinet, let alone played one), despite many important solos written specifically for it (Strauss, Stravinski). It is assumed and expected that all music written for the D clarinet will be performed instead on the Eb clarinet.

The timbre of the sopranino clarinets is an exaggeration of the soprano clarinets; the chalumeau register sounds slightly pale and not quite as rich or mysterious, and the throat tones are thinner. The bright clarino register is where the Eb clarinet begins to shine as a separate voice, and the altissimo register is commanding and can be shrill at loud dynamics.

The Eb clarinet has a perky, bright, and blatant sound that is agile and assertive, particularly in the upper half of its range. It is a tiring instrument to play due to the extreme amount of control required to keep the instrument in tune, as well as to maintain the firm embouchure required to make the reed vibrate. While in theory the written upper range is to C7, the practical upper limit would be Ab6 or A6 for a professional clarinetist.

The Eb and D clarinets are both rare examples of transposing instruments that sound higher than they are written; most transposing instruments sound lower than written. The Eb clarinet sounds a minor third higher than written and the D clarinet sounds a major second higher than written.

Illustration of written range for the sopranino Clarinets in Eb and D.

Eb alto clarinet

Eb alto clarinet.

The Eb Alto Clarinet is an uncommonly encountered lower auxiliary clarinet, and sounds a major sixth lower than written. The timbre of the alto clarinet is warm, dark, and rather unassertive and blends exceptionally well with other instruments. The chalumeau register is richer and blends more readily into the throat tones than any of the soprano clarinets. The clarino register is clear and even, and the altissimo register (though infrequently used) is bright yet reserved.

Rarely, if ever, found in the orchestra (the basset horn in F being used instead), the Eb alto clarinet is most commonly found in the band, where it is often used to fill out background harmony or thicken the timbre of the clarinet section. The alto has fallen victim of the tendency for composers to rely on it's rareness rather on it's availability. Although professional models can be as flawless as soprano and bass clarinets, student and intermediate model alto clarinets can be poorly constructed, resulting in poor intonation and a lifeless tone. This has driven the alto clarinet out of many high schools and even some collegiate ensembles and as a result less literature has been written specifically for it. The alto instead is often employed only to double other instruments in cases of poor and unimaginative orchestration despite its ability for independence and distinct voice among the other clarinets.

Illustration of written range for the Eb Alto Clarinet.

Bb bass clarinet

Bb bass clarinet with low C, played by Marcus Miller in a jazz performance.

Much more commonly encountered than the alto clarinet, the bass clarinet is a favorite of composers and audiences alike, often identified with it's frequent descending figures featured in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. One octave below the standard Bb clarinet, the chalumeau register of the bass is dark and can be almost comically sinister, while the throat tones, like the Eb Alto Clarinet, are less "fuzzy" and more direct than the throat tones of the soprano clarinets. The clarino range has a diffused, almost falsetto-like quality, while the altissimo register (though very rarely used) is particularly centered and focused. Though the Bass Clarinet is nearly as agile as the Alto or Bb Clarinet, it is rarely used in such a capacity in the band or orchestra, focusing more on bass line or background material.

As the clarinet section of the wind band can be seen as homologous to the orchestral string section, the bass clarinet often functions in the role of the cello section, and indeed as many as eight bass clarinets can be found in larger groups, though most ensembles include at most two.

The Bass Clarinet has a dark and mellow timbre in the lower half of its range that blends well with both the Euphonium and Tuba in the same ranges. Its upper range lacks carrying power and would benefit from a carefully considered accompaniment. Especially in its lowest octave, the Bass Clarinet is an effective solo instrument in either a serious or humorous vein.

Although some models of bass clarinet include an extension to low written C, this is not considered standard equipment, only being present on about half of the professional-quality instruments currently made (and not available at all on student or intermediate instruments). Therefore, the composer should always indicate an ossia passage (or ossia notes) for Bass Clarinets without the extension, otherwise the player may simply play the written notes an octave higher (which is not always appropriate). If a section is to be played only by Bass Clarinets with the extension, a helpful indication such as tacet if no low C extension would be appropriate (followed of course by a2 or all when the remainder of the section is to return to playing). Note that the conductor may override your indication and request that the remaining Bass Clarinets play it one octave higher (hence, why it is important to indicate an ossia passage) regardless of how carefully considered the notation is.

The Bass Clarinet is considered a standard member of the Band and though it is not usually cross-cued for solo passages, occasionally it may be cued for support. The Bassoon is frequently encountered supporting the Bass Clarinet, though the timbres of the two instruments are not particularly complementary, and doubling of the line by both is usually aurally unsatisfying. A higher Bass Clarinet line may be enhanced by adding the Eb Alto Clarinet or Bb Clarinets (usually the 3rd Clarinets), while a lower part may be strengthened by adding the Eb Contra-alto Clarinet, Baritone Saxophone, or Tuba.

Illustration of written range of the Bb Bass Clarinet.

Eb contra-alto and Bb contrabass clarinets

BBb contrabass clarinets in straight (left) and paperclip (right) models.
Illustration of written range for the Eb Contra-alto Clarinet.
Illustration of written range for the Bb Contrabass Clarinet.

Basset horn in F

Illustration of playing range for the basset horn.

Fingering systems

Bb (left) and A clarinets in the the Oehler system.

Multiple fingering schemes have been used by the clarinet and a small variety are in use today. The instrument pictured at the top of this article is a French clarinet in the Boehm system, which is by far the most common across the world and is typically the only type of clarinet found in use in the United States today. The two instruments at right are in the Oehler (Öhler) system, which is the preferred instrument in several regions, notably Germany, where the French clarinet is often shunned and heavily discouraged. Other than fingering, few differences do exist between these systems that have led to this clarinetical segregation. First, French clarinets have a characteristic light tone, which is considered too bright by the Germans, who characterize their instruments as dark. In addition, the Oehler systems yields a sharper clarinet. Players of the French Boehm clarinet will have little if any success playing their instrument up to pitch in German orchestras and the two systems are never mixed in any section.

Also exist are the Albert, simple system, Mueller, and other systems.

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass