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Woodwind Instruments - An Overview | Unusual Musical Instruments

The clarinet is a musical instrument from the woodwind family. It is one of the four main woodwinds in the orchestra, but is equally at home in a jazz or marching band. The clarinet has a lovely deep, mournful tone in its lower notes, but can also produce very bright cheerful sounds, particularly in its higher notes. The instrument has a huge range of almost four octaves; only the bassoon has a bigger range in the woodwind family. It is also among the most agile of instruments, as players are able to produce very rapid sequences of notes and can easily jump from low to high and back again. Despite this, the clarinet is reasonably easy to pick up as a beginner's instrument.

How It Works

The clarinet is basically a cylindrical tube that is closed at one end. There is a slot in the side at the closed end, to which is strapped a flat, thin piece of wood called a 'reed'. The end of the clarinet is placed in the player's mouth with the reed pressed against the player's lower lip. By blowing, the reed is made to vibrate and the air in the clarinet resonates, producing a note.

The pitch of the note is determined by the length of the tube, which can effectively be varied by opening tone holes along the length of the tube. Some of these are closed directly by the player's fingers, but most are controlled by a daunting-looking mechanism of keys, pads and levers.

The combination of cylindrical tube and closed end gives the clarinet an unusual property: it produces a much deeper tone than would be expected for its size. A clarinet will play an octave lower than a flute or oboe of the same length. It also gives it its distinctive sound, variously described as dark, mellow, mysterious and warm.

The basic range of the clarinet is about one and a half octaves. These low notes are collectively known as the 'low' or 'chalumeau' register. By increasing breath pressure and opening a small hole high up on the tube using a special 'register key', the clarinet can be caused to 'overblow'. The air in the tube switches to a different type of resonance and all the notes go up in pitch by an octave and a half. These new notes are collectively known as the 'middle' or 'clarino' register. By complicated fingering and a further increase in breath pressure, another shift can be produced into the 'high' or 'altissimo' register.

What It's Made Of

Most professional clarinets are made of a hard, black wood called Grenadilla. Beginner instruments are usually made of plastic, and plastic clarinets are also favoured in marching bands, because the sun and rain are not kind to wood. In the early 20th Century, many metal clarinets were made for the same reason, but most were of poor quality and they are no longer made.

There is an eternal debate as to whether the material of construction affects the sound or not. There is no doubt that cheap plastic instruments sound worse than expensive wooden ones, but the difference may be due to the care and attention lavished on the making of the wooden instruments. Plastic models are mass-produced to meet the educational market and therefore quality suffers. Scientific evidence seems to show that a well-made plastic clarinet will sound just as good as a wooden one, but this has not yet been accepted by the players, so manufacturers will continue to make the good clarinets from wood for some time to come.


The clarinet started life as a small instrument called the 'chalumeau' (pronounced 'shall-oo-mo'). Not much is known about these instruments, but they may have evolved from recorders. The chalumeau had the same reed for producing the sound as the clarinet, but since it lacked the register key, it had a limited range of about one and a half octaves. Like a recorder, it had eight finger holes, and usually had one or two keys for extra notes.

In about 1700, a German instrument maker called Johann Christoph Denner added a register key to the chalumeau and produced the first clarinet. This instrument played well in the middle register with a loud strident tone, so it was given the name 'little trumpet' or clarinet. Early clarinets did not play well in the lower register, so chalumeaux continued to be made to play the low notes and these notes became known as the chalumeau register. As clarinets improved, the chalumeau was discontinued and forgotten.

The original Denner clarinets had two keys, but various makers added more to get extra notes. Later models had a mellower tone than the originals. The classical clarinet of Mozart's day would probably have had eight finger holes and five keys, and Mozart himself was very impressed by the sound and wrote some beautiful music for it. By Beethoven's time, the clarinet was a completely standard part of the orchestra.

The next major development in the history of clarinet was the invention of the modern pad. Early clarinets covered the tone holes with felt pads. Because these leaked air, the number of pads had to be kept to a minimum, so the clarinet was severely restricted in what notes could be played with a good tone. In 1812, Iwan Mueller, another German instrument maker, developed a new type of pad, which was covered in leather or fish bladder. This was completely airtight, so the number of keys could be increased enormously. He designed a new type of clarinet with seven finger holes and 13 keys, which allowed the clarinet to play in any key with equal ease. Over the course of the 19th Century, many enhancements were made to Mueller's clarinet, such as the Albert system and the Baermann system, all keeping the same basic design. The Mueller clarinet and its derivatives were popular throughout the world.

The final development in the design of the clarinet was done by Hyacinthe Klosé in 1839. He devised a different arrangement of keys and finger holes, which allow simpler fingering. He named his system the Boehm system as a tribute to Theobald Boehm, a flute maker who had inspired him. This new system was slow to catch on because it meant the player had to relearn how to play the instrument. Gradually, however, it became the standard and today the Boehm system is used everywhere in the world except Germany and Austria. These countries still use a direct descendant of the Mueller clarinet known as the Oehler.

Music for Clarinet

Some great clarinet works include:

  • Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (K626). This work was one of the last that Mozart wrote. Written for his friend, the clarinettist Anton Stadler, it contains some of the most sublime music ever written. The beautiful slow movement was played by Robert Redford on a wind-up gramophone in the film Out of Africa.
  • Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, for clarinet and string quartet.
  • Weber's two Clarinet Concertos.
  • Brahms' Clarinet Quintet for clarinet and string quartet.
  • Brahms' Clarinet Sonatas Op 120 - Two sonatas for clarinet and piano.

Outside of the classical world, the clarinet still plays an important role in marching bands and in Dixieland jazz. Another place it can be heard is in klezmer music, the music of the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Some Performers of Note

The clarinet has produced a number of great performers over the years. The following are of note:

  • Anton Stadler - in the 18th Century. A friend of Mozart, both Mozart's Concerto and Clarinet Quintet were written for him.
  • Jack Brymer - in the 20th Century. English clarinettist, worked under Sir Thomas Beecham and wrote some good books about the clarinet and about playing in the orchestra.
  • Benny Goodman - a jazz player (King of Swing) who was equally comfortable playing the classical repertoire. He commissioned works from many modern composers including Stravinsky and Bartok.
  • Michael Collins - a modern English player. He has recorded an arrangement for clarinet of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.
  • Emma Johnson - a popular young English player.

The Clarinet Family

The normal clarinet is called a B flat soprano. There are a number of other types, both bigger and smaller. The main ones are:

  • The A Soprano, used in orchestras alongside the B flat.
  • The Alto clarinet, which looks like a saxophone, and is used in marching bands.
  • The Bass clarinet, also like a saxophone, used in marching bands and orchestras.

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