What is a Clarinet?

What is a clarinet, and why should anyone want to play the one? If your impression of the instrument is that it looks like those recorders you had to play in grade school, and it sounds too much like sick birds squawking, then you need to rethink your ideas.

Things you need to know about the Clarinet

Definition

The clarinet is a single-reed member of the woodwind family of instruments. It has four body parts, a reed, and a ligature – the piece that holds the reed in place. The instrumentis a member of the clarinet family – a group of similar instruments including the piccolo, the soprano, the alto, the bass, and the contrabass clarinets, and the basset horn.

Construction

While some student models may be made of plastic, better models of clarinets are primarily made of Grenadilla or African Blackwood (same thing, different names). Manufacturers like this wood for instruments because it is easy to use in the manufacturing process, there is less waste, and this wood does not tend to crack easily, as other woods do.

Name

Where did they get the name “clarinet” from? The word comes from the Italian word “clarinetto” which means “little trumpet.” Why name a woodwind instrument after the trumpet, a brass instrument? From a distance the sound of the instrument was similar to the sound of a trumpet.

Sound

What does a clarinet sound like? “Squeaks” is not the right answer! The instrument has a rich sound throughout all its registers, meaning it has a nice sound whether it is playing low notes, high notes, or the notes in between. Some have said that the sound is sweet and expressive, “emotion melted in love.” (Chr. Fr. D. Schubart)

The instrument’s sound is made by vibrations of the reed against the mouthpiece. The player inserts the end of the mouthpiece and reed into his mouth. As the player blows air, the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece and produces the sound.

Registers

The clarinet is the only instrument which has a specific name for each of its different registers.

      Lowest Register – Claumeau (based on an early version of the instrument which only produced good sound in the low notes.

      Middle Register – Clarion or Clarino (contains the “throat tones” – G, G♯, A♭, A, B♭)

      Highest Register – Altissimo (extremely high)

Important Dates in the Life History of the Clarinet

  • 3000 B.C. – Memet or Chalumeau in use in ancient Egypt
  • 1690 – marks the “invention” of the clarinet
  • 1716 – earliest known written music for the instrument
  • 1720 – addition of a short bell to the bottom of the instrument
  • 1780 – by this time the instrument was in use in most large orchestras
  • 1800-1850 – development of the “modern” clarinet – like the ones we see in use today
  • 1812 – improved keypads which caused less air leaks and fewer squeaks; 13 keys on the instrument
  • 1843 – Boehm key system (similar to the one designed for flutes) adapted for the instrument; made fingering much easier

Important People in the Development of the Clarinet

People involved in the development of the instrument

  • Johann Christoph Denner – credited with the invention of the instrument, added two keys, which increased the range by over two octaves, improved the mouthpiece, improved the shape of the bell
  • Hyacinth Klosé – created a model of the instrument called Klosé-Buffet still widely used today, with 17 keys
  • Theobald Boehm – German mathematician and flute maker, discovered the perfect arrangement of tone holes for the instrument.
  • Estienne Roger of Amsterdam – music publisher, published earliest known music for clarinet
  • Auguste Buffet – added the “needle springs” to the instrument’s key system, helped to patent the Boehm system for the clarinet
  • Iwan Müller – clarinet player, developed leak-proof keypads, changed playing position of reed so it rested on the lower lip
  • Adolfe Sax – inventor of the saxophone, did work on improving bass clarinets

Early composers who wrote music for the clarinet

  • J. C. Bach – first composer to introduce the instrument to the London music scene
  • Antonio Vivaldi – wrote three concertos for clarinet around the 1730s
  • Georg Friedrich Handel – Along with Vivaldi, wrote some of the first music to use this instrument
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – composed several challenging pieces for this instrument

Interesting Information about the Clarinet

  • The clarinet was the last instrument to be included in a standard symphony orchestra.
  • The Baroque-era instrument was made so either hand could be in the lower position.
  • The most popular clarinet today is tuned in B♭. That means that the notes sound one step lower than the notes that are written. In order to play a “concert B♭,” a B-flat instrument must play a C.
  • This is the only beginning woodwind instrument whose keys do not cover the entire hole. The main reason clarinets squeak is because air leaks from the hole.
  • Clarinet reeds are rated in terms of strength: 1-5. The lower the number, the softer the reed. Most beginners start with a #2 reed.
  • The most famous period for this instrument was the big band jazz era – the 1940s.
  • George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most popular solos for the instrument.

Looking for more information about this fascinating instrument? Check these sites.

https://www.vsl.co.at/en/Clarinet_in_Bb/History

http://www.1st-clarinet-music.com/Articles/clarinet-sound.htm

https://www.niu.edu/gbarrett/resources/history.shtml

https://www.Britannica.com/art/clarinet

Want to read about different instruments? Check out our posts about other instruments.

Viola – The Unsung Hero of the Orchestra

Have you ever heard of a viola? Do you play viola? Are you tired of always having to explain to people what a viola is, and how it is not just a larger violin? Let’s take a look at the this instrument today – the unsung hero of the orchestra.

Did You Know?

The viola was developed about the same time as the violin – in the first half of the 1500s, in northern Italy.

Once upon a time (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the viola section consisted of three different kinds of violas. They were different sizes, had different ranges, and played different parts – alto, higher tenor, and lower tenor. By 1750 the lower tenor viola morphed into the cello of today. The higher tenor disappeared from the scene, and the alto tenor became the viola in use today.

Violas use the same four strings that the cellos use – C, G, D, A. But no, you cannot just put cello strings on a viola.

Unlike violins and cellos, there is no standard size for a full-size viola. Full-size violas can be anywhere from 14 to 17 inches long. Choosing the right size is a matter of the size, strength, and preference of each individual violist.

Stradivarius violas are worth more than Stradivari violins. There were not as many violists as violinists, so not as many violas were made. Fewer great violas = greater value!

What does a viola sound like? How would you describe its sound? People have described the sound as being mellow, rich, dark, intense, melancholy, and chocolatey. And who doesn’t like chocolate! Does that make violas the favorite candy of the orchestra world?

Making the Viola Popular

The poor viola was never as popular as the violin. Part of the reason for that was that there wasn’t much music written for solo viola. Nobody knew how great the instrument could sound on its own! The first known viola sonatas were written in England in 1770 by William Flackton. He thought it was a shame that very little solo music was written for the great sound of the viola, so he wrote some himself.

Two other people who helped to focus the spotlight on the this instrument were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Lionel Tertis (1876-1075), known as the “father of viola playing”, was one of the first internationally famous violists. He performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and he also taught viola. He wrote and arranged several pieces for the instrument. In 1980 the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was formed in his honor.

William Primrose lived from 1904 to 1982. He started as a violin soloist, but later switched over to viola. He has been called a 20th century virtuoso. (That means he was really good!) He also devoted time to teaching and writing viola technique books. The Primrose International Viola Competition began in 1979 – the first international music competition for viola.  

What’s the Difference between a Viola and a Violin?

In many ways the two instruments are quite similar. But there are some important differences you should know.

Similarities Differences
Both instruments are held the same way Violas are larger than violins
They are very similar
in the way they look
The strings are different – Violins use G, D, A, E for strings, while violas have C, G, D, A
Both are members of
the string family
Range of viola is lower than that of violin
Both are played with a bow Size of violins is standardized, but not violas
  Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a
violin

Starring Role for Viola – Supporting Actor

The viola does not usually get the lead role in an orchestra, a string quartet, or any chamber music group. Its main role is as a supporting sound. The viola part may never stand out, but if it were missing, everyone would know! Usually the instrument plays counter-melodies or harmonies. If you are familiar with choir voices, the viola part would be comparable to the alto part. Not usually the melody, but still very important.

Violists are a Step Above

Violists are a special group of people. They are unique! Many people claim that it takes more skill to play viola well than violin. Why would that be?

Violas are larger, so the fingers must spread out more on the fingerboard when playing. This requires greater technical skill.

The viola is heavier than a violin, so it takes more effort and strength to play the instrument. Even the bow is heavier than a violin bow, so a violist needs more strength in both arms and shoulders. (Daily arm workout, anyone?)

Viola strings are thicker than violin strings. In order to get a great sound, the violist must use more bow speed and more weight on the bow.

Not only that, viola players must know how to read alto clef! (Superior intelligence required?) How many violinists do you know who can read both treble clef and alto clef?

There are far fewer violists than there are violinists. Viola players rule! Your importance is underrated. Great demand for great viola players!

Violas are not just super-sized violins. They are unique instruments that have a special sound and play an important role in any orchestra or chamber group. No other instrument has a sound compared to chocolate! Love your viola and love your violist!

If you want to read more about violas, check out these links.

Read Here

And Here

Also Here

And Here

And if you want to read about some other instruments, you can read about Flutes, Violins, Trumpets, and Marimba.

What is a Marimba?

Do you know what a marimba is? Do you know the difference between a marimba and a xylophone?

Do you know what a marimba is? Do you know what it looks like? What makes a marimba different from a xylophone? And who invented the marimba? Where did it come from? Let’s explore and find out about the marimba.

What is the Marimba?

Family Connections

The marimba is a member of the percussion family. All the instruments of the percussion family must be “hit”or “struck” to produce the sound. Drums, triangles, cymbals, even pianos are percussion instruments. The sound of a marimba is produced by hitting the tone plates with mallets.

Marimbas are close relatives to the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the glockenspiel. They are all like cousins. All of these have tuned bars arranged like a keyboard. The players of these instruments use mallets to strike the tone plates. You need to be able to read music to play these instruments. Marimbas and xylophones are usually made with bars of wood, while vibraphones and glockenspiels are made with metal bars.

What Does a Marimba Look Like?

Marimbas are large instruments. They have two rows of wooden bars, or tone plates, arranged like a keyboard. One row of bars is slightly raised behind the other row of bars. A large frame supports the tone plates, and then a full stand holds the frame. Here is a picture.

This is a picture of a marimba.
Here is a picture of a marimba. Notice the resonator tubes under the tone plates.

Underneath each wooden bar is a long tube that acts as a resonator. Each tube is open on the top and closed on the bottom. The lower notes on a marimba require longer resonator tubes, and the higher notes need smaller, or shorter tubes.

Sometimes you will see a marimba with a nice-looking arch in the resonators. This is just for looks – the tubes are closed, or blocked, inside at the appropriate length.

How do You Play a Marimba?

You play a marimba the same way you play a keyboard. Sort of. The person playing reads notes on a page of music. The tone plates on the instrument are arranged like the keys on a piano. Instead of using fingers on a keyboard, a marimba player uses mallets to strike the tone plates on the instrument.

Since we have two hands, you might think a marimba player uses two mallets. And, you might be wrong. A good player often uses two or more mallets PER HAND! That means playing with 4 or 6 mallets! That calls for some good coordination!

What Does a Marimba Sound Like?

A marimba produces a deep, rich, mellow sound. It is softer and darker than the sound of a xylophone. This sound blends well with other instruments. Because of the resonators under each tone plate, the sound can resonate up to 2 or 3 seconds. The length, thickness, and density of each tone plate determines the pitch, or how high or low it sounds.

How Do You Tune a Marimba?

Very Carefully! Actually, you don’t really tune a marimba. Over time, though, some of the tone plates do get out of tune. Usually, the marimba player takes the tone plates off his instrument, packs them up, and ships them off to a professional who will work with them to get them all back in tune with each other. Usually that involves carefully reshaping of the wood on a tone plate. Not really a job for most of us! From what I read it costs between $50 – $100 per octave for tuning. (Most marimbas are over four to five octaves.)

How Much Does a Marimba Cost?

A good marimba will cost at least $10,000 to $20,000. A lot, right!? The best tone plates are made from Honduran Rosewood. Problem – those trees are now on the endangered species list. That may drive up the price for good marimbas even more.

Where Do Marimbas Come From?

Most music historians seem to think that marimbas originated in Africa, but some say there is evidence of marimbas in Asia as well. Originally pieces of wood were arranged over a hole in the ground. Then people used sticks to strike the pieces of wood. The hole acted as a resonator to amplify the sound. Later the pieces of wood were elevated, and a hollow gourd was hung under each wooden piece to act as the resonator.

Marimba = “Wood that Sings”

The word marimba in the Bantu language of Central Africa means “wood that sings.” The Zulu tribe of South Africa has a legend of a goddess named Marimba who makes and plays an instrument of wooden bars with gourds underneath the bars.

Marimbas and Central America

Most likely the marimba came across to Central America with African slaves. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

The Central American marimba maker, Sebastian Hurtado started arranging the bars of the instrument like the keys of a piano, including an additional row of keys for sharps and flats.

Over time people replaced the hanging resonator gourds with wooden tubes. By the early 1900s instrument makers started using metal tubes for the resonators. And by 1920 an American company began making marimbas.

But Who Knew about Marimbas?

But even by the 1920s not many people knew about the marimba. And not many composers were writing music for the instrument. If you loved the marimba, and wanted more people to know about it, what would you do?

A man named Clair Omar Musser had an idea. Musser both played and taught the marimba, but he wanted more people to know about the instrument. So he assembled groups of marimba players together and put on concerts around the country. Sometimes he used more than 100 marimba players together in a concert. He even had his group perform at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Here is a link to some more information about Musser.

And Who Wrote Music for Marimbas?

Because of these performances many more people became interested in the marimba. And composers started to write music for the instrument. One of the earliest compositions for the marimba was the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, written by Darius Milhaud in 1947. You can listen to it here. If you watch this video, pay attention to how the tone bars are arranged on the instrument. Also, watch for when the player changes his mallets, and listen to how the sound changes with the different mallets.

By the 1950s orchestras were beginning to use marimbas as part of the percussion section. Other composers who started to write music for and including marimba include Leos Janacek, Carl Orff, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, Clair Omar Musser, and Olivier Messiaen. Notice how I did not mention composers like Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven? The marimba was not a part of the orchestra then. All the people who wrote for this instrument lived (or still live) in the last 100 years or less.

If you find this information about the marimba fascinating, you might want to check out this video – It gives a brief introduction to the glockenspiel, the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the marimba. The presenter in the video talks about the difference between the four instruments, and also explains how they work.

Are you interested in other instruments? Check out some of out other posts about instruments.

Violin

Flute

Trumpet

Do you know the difference between a marimba and a xylophone? Do you know what a marimba is?