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