(Single-reeded aerophone with keys)
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Clarinets comprise a family of instruments of differing sizes and pitches. The clarinet family is the largest such woodwind family, with more than a dozen types, ranging from the BB♭ contrabass to the E♭ soprano. The most common clarinet is the B♭ soprano clarinet.
German instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner is generally credited with inventing the clarinet sometime after 1698 by adding a register key to the chalumeau, an earlier single-reed instrument. Over time, additional keywork and the development of airtight pads were added to improve the tone and playability. Today the clarinet is used in classical music, military bands, klezmer, jazz, and other styles. It is a standard fixture of the orchestra and concert band.
The word clarinet may have entered the English language via the French clarinette (the feminine diminutive of Old French clarin), or from Provençal clarin ("oboe"). It is ultimately from the Latin root clarus ("clear"). The word is related to Middle English clarion, a type of trumpet, the name of which derives from the same root.
The earliest mention of the word clarinette as used for the instrument dates to a 1710 order placed by the Duke of Gronsfeld for two of the instrument made by Jacob Denner. The English form clarinet is found as early as 1733, and the now-archaic clarionet appears from 1784 until the early 20th century.
The clarinet's cylindrical bore is the main reason for its distinctive timbre, which varies between the three main registers (the chalumeau, clarion, and altissimo). The A and B♭ clarinets have nearly the same bore and nearly identical tonal quality, although the A typically has a slightly warmer sound. The tone of the E♭ clarinet is brighter and can be heard through loud orchestral textures. The bass clarinet has a characteristically deep, mellow sound, and the alto clarinet sounds similar to the bass, though not as dark.
Clarinets have the largest pitch range of common woodwinds. Nearly all soprano and piccolo clarinets have keywork enabling them to play the E below middle C as their lowest written note (in scientific pitch notation that sounds D3 on a soprano clarinet or C4, i.e. concert middle C, on a piccolo clarinet), though some B♭ clarinets go down to E♭3 to enable them to match the range of the A clarinet. On the B♭ soprano clarinet, the concert pitch of the lowest note is D3, a whole tone lower than the written pitch. Many bass clarinets generally have additional keywork to written C3. Among the less commonly encountered members of the clarinet family, contrabass clarinets may have keywork to written D3, C3, or B2; the basset clarinet and basset horn generally go to low C3. Defining the top end of a clarinet's range is difficult, since many advanced players can produce notes well above the highest notes commonly found in method books. G6 is usually the highest note encountered in classical repertoire, but fingerings as high as A7 exist.
The range of a clarinet can be divided into three distinct registers:
- The lowest register, from low written E to the written B♭ above middle C (B♭4), is known as the chalumeau register (named after the instrument that was the clarinet's immediate predecessor).
- The bridging throat tones, from written G to B♭, are sometimes treated as a separate register
- The middle register is known as the clarion register and spans just over an octave (from written B above middle C (B4) to the C two octaves above middle C (C6)).
- The top or altissimo register consists of the notes above the written C two octaves above middle C (C6).
All three registers have characteristically different sounds. The chalumeau register is rich and dark. The clarion register is brighter and sweet, like a trumpet heard from afar. The altissimo register can be piercing and sometimes shrill.
- The mouthpiece and reed are surrounded by the player's lips, which put light, even pressure on the reed and form an airtight seal. Air is blown past the reed and down the instrument. In the same way a flag flaps in the breeze, the air rushing past the reed causes it to vibrate. As air pressure from the mouth increases, the amount the reed vibrates increases until the reed hits the mouthpiece.
The reed stays pressed against the mouthpiece until either the springiness of the reed forces it to open or a returning pressure wave 'bumps' into the reed and opens it. Each time the reed opens, a puff of air goes through the gap, after which the reed swings shut again. When played loudly, the reed can spend up to 50% of the time shut. The 'puff of air' or compression wave (at around 3% greater pressure than the surrounding air) travels down the cylindrical tube and escapes at the point where the tube opens out. This is either at the closest open hole or at the end of the tube (see diagram: image 1).
- More than a 'neutral' amount of air escapes from the instrument, which creates a slight vacuum or rarefaction in the clarinet tube. This rarefaction wave travels back up the tube (image 2).
- The rarefaction is reflected off the sloping end wall of the clarinet mouthpiece. The opening between the reed and the mouthpiece makes very little difference to the reflection of the rarefaction wave. This is because the opening is very small compared to the size of the tube, so almost the entire wave is reflected back down the tube even if the reed is completely open at the time the wave hits (image 3).
- When the rarefaction wave reaches the other (open) end of the tube, air rushes in to fill the slight vacuum. A little more than a 'neutral' amount of air enters the tube and causes a compression wave to travel back up the tube (image 4). Once the compression wave reaches the mouthpiece end of the 'tube', it is reflected again back down the pipe. However at this point, either because the compression wave 'bumped' the reed or because of the natural vibration cycle of the reed, the gap opens and another 'puff' of air is sent down the pipe.
- The original compression wave, now greatly reinforced by the second 'puff' of air, sets off on another two trips down the pipe (travelling four pipe lengths in total) before the cycle is repeated again.
In addition to this primary compression wave, other waves, known as harmonics, are created. Harmonics are caused by factors including the imperfect wobbling and shaking of the reed, the reed sealing the mouthpiece opening for part of the wave cycle (which creates a flattened section of the sound wave), and imperfections (bumps and holes) in the bore. A wide variety of compression waves are created, but only some (primarily the odd harmonics) are reinforced. This in combination with the cut-off frequency (where a significant drop in resonance occurs) results in the characteristic tone of the clarinet.
The bore is cylindrical for most of the tube with an inner bore diameter between 0.575 and 0.585 millimetres (0.0226 and 0.0230 in), but there is a subtle hourglass shape, with the thinnest part below the junction between the upper and lower joint. This hourglass shape, although invisible to the naked eye, helps to correct the pitch and responsiveness of the instrument. The diameter of the bore affects the instrument's sound characteristics. The bell at the bottom of the clarinet flares out to improve the tone and tuning of the lowest notes. The fixed reed and fairly uniform diameter of the clarinet result in an acoustical performance approximating that of a cylindrical stopped pipe. Recorders use a tapered internal bore to overblow at the octave when the thumb/register hole is pinched open, while the clarinet, with its cylindrical bore, overblows at the twelfth.
Most modern clarinets have "undercut" tone holes that improve intonation and sound. Undercutting means chamfering the bottom edge of tone holes inside the bore. Acoustically, this makes the tone hole function as if it were larger, but its main function is to allow the air column to follow the curve up through the tone hole (surface tension) instead of "blowing past" it under the increasingly directional frequencies of the upper registers. Covering or uncovering the tone holes varies the length of the pipe, changing the resonant frequencies of the enclosed air column and hence the pitch. The player moves between the chalumeau and clarion registers through use of the register key; the change from chalumeau register to clarion register is termed "the break". The open register key stops the fundamental frequency from being reinforced, and the reed is forced to vibrate at three times the speed it was originally. This produces a note a twelfth above the original note.
Most woodwind instruments have a second register that begins an octave above the first (with notes at twice the frequency of the lower notes). With the aid of an 'octave' or 'register' key, the notes sound an octave higher as the fingering pattern repeats. These instruments are said to overblow at the octave. The clarinet differs, since it acts as a closed-pipe system. The low chalumeau register plays fundamentals, but the clarion (second) register plays the third harmonics, a perfect twelfth higher than the fundamentals. The clarinet is therefore said to overblow at the twelfth. The first several notes of the altissimo (third) range, aided by the register key and venting with the first left-hand hole, play the fifth harmonics, a perfect twelfth plus a major sixth above the fundamentals. The fifth and seventh harmonics are also available, sounding a further sixth and fourth (a flat, diminished fifth) higher respectively; these are the notes of the altissimo register.
The lip position and pressure, shaping of the vocal tract, choice of reed and mouthpiece, amount of air pressure created, and evenness of the airflow account for most of the player's ability to control the tone of a clarinet. Their vocal tract will be shaped to resonate at frequencies associated with the tone being produced. Vibrato, a pulsating change of pitch, is rare in classical literature; however, certain performers, such as Richard Stoltzman, use vibrato in classical music. Special fingerings and lip-bending may be used to play microtonal intervals. There have also been efforts to create a quarter tone clarinet.
Clarinet bodies have been made from a variety of materials including wood, plastic, hard rubber or Ebonite, metal, and ivory. The vast majority of wooden clarinets are made from blackwood, grenadilla, or, more uncommonly, Honduran rosewood or cocobolo. Historically other woods, particularly boxwood and ebony, were used. Some student clarinets are made of plastic, such as ABS. One of the first such blends of plastic was Resonite, a term originally trademarked by Selmer. The Greenline model by Buffet Crampon is made from a composite of resin and the African blackwood powder left over from the manufacture of wooden clarinets.
Metal soprano clarinets were popular in the late 19th century, particularly for military use. Metal is still used for the bodies of some contra-alto and contrabass clarinets and the necks and bells of nearly all alto and larger clarinets.
Mouthpieces are generally made of hard rubber, although some inexpensive mouthpieces may be made of plastic. Other materials such as glass, wood, ivory, and metal have also been used. Ligatures are often made of metal and tightened using one or more adjustment screws; other materials include plastic or string, or fabric.
The clarinet uses a single reed made from the cane of Arundo donax. Reeds may also be manufactured from synthetic materials. The ligature fastens the reed to the mouthpiece. When air is blown through the opening between the reed and the mouthpiece facing, the reed vibrates and produces the clarinet's sound.
Most players buy manufactured reeds, although many make adjustments to these reeds, and some make their own reeds from cane "blanks". Reeds come in varying degrees of hardness, generally indicated on a scale from one (soft) through five (hard). This numbering system is not standardized—reeds with the same number often vary in hardness across manufacturers and models. Reed and mouthpiece characteristics work together to determine ease of playability and tonal characteristics.
The reed is attached to the mouthpiece by the ligature, and the top half-inch or so of this assembly is held in the player's mouth. In the past, string was used to bind the reed to the mouthpiece. The formation of the mouth around the mouthpiece and reed is called the embouchure. The reed is on the underside of the mouthpiece, pressing against the player's lower lip, while the top teeth normally contact the top of the mouthpiece (some players roll the upper lip under the top teeth to form what is called a 'double-lip' embouchure). Adjustments in the strength and shape of the embouchure change the tone and intonation (tuning). It is not uncommon for players to employ methods to relieve the pressure on the upper teeth and inner lower lip by attaching pads to the top of the mouthpiece or putting (temporary) padding on the front lower teeth, commonly from folded paper.
Next is the short barrel; this part of the instrument may be extended to fine-tune the clarinet. Interchangeable barrels whose lengths vary slightly can be used to adjust tuning. Additional compensation for pitch variation and tuning can be made by pulling out the barrel and thus increasing the instrument's length. On basset horns and lower clarinets, the barrel is normally replaced by a curved metal neck.
The main body of most clarinets is divided into the upper joint, the holes and most keys of which are operated by the left hand, and the lower joint with holes and most keys operated by the right hand. Some clarinets have a single joint. The body of a modern soprano clarinet is equipped with numerous tone holes of which seven are covered with the fingertips, and the rest are opened or closed using a set of 17 keys. The most common system of keys was named the Boehm system by its designer Hyacinthe Klosé after flute designer Theobald Boehm, but it is not the same as the Boehm system used on flutes. The other main system of keys is called the Oehler system and is used mostly in Germany and Austria. The related Albert system is used by some jazz, klezmer, and eastern European folk musicians. The Albert and Oehler systems are both based on the early Mueller system.
The cluster of keys at the bottom of the upper joint (protruding slightly beyond the cork of the joint) are known as the trill keys and are operated by the right hand. The entire weight of the smaller clarinets is supported by the right thumb behind the lower joint on what is called the thumb rest. Larger clarinets are supported with a neck strap or a floor peg.
Finally, the flared end is known as the bell. Contrary to popular belief, the bell does not amplify the sound; rather, it improves the uniformity of the instrument's tone for the lowest notes in each register. For the other notes, the sound is produced almost entirely at the tone holes, and the bell is irrelevant. On basset horns and larger clarinets, the bell curves up and forward and is usually made of metal.
The clarinet has its roots in the early single-reed instruments used in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. The modern clarinet developed from a Baroque instrument called the chalumeau. This instrument was similar to a recorder, but with a single-reed mouthpiece and a cylindrical bore. Lacking a register key, it was played mainly in its fundamental register, with a limited range of about one and a half octaves. It had eight finger holes, like a recorder, and two keys for its two highest notes. At this time, contrary to modern practice, the reed was placed in contact with the upper lip.
Around the turn of the 18th century, the chalumeau was modified by converting one of its keys into a register key to produce the first clarinet. This development is usually attributed to German instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner, though some have suggested his son Jacob Denner was the inventor. Early clarinets did not play well in the lower register, so players continued to play the chalumeau for low notes. As clarinets improved, the chalumeau fell into disuse, and these notes became known as the chalumeau register. Original Denner clarinets had two keys, and could play a chromatic scale, but various makers added more keys to get improved tuning, easier fingerings, and a slightly larger range. The clarinet of the Classical period, as used by Mozart, typically had five keys.
Clarinets were soon accepted into orchestras. Later models had a mellower tone than the originals. Mozart considered its tone the closest in quality to the human voice and wrote numerous pieces for the instrument. By the time of Beethoven (c. 1780–1820), the clarinet was a standard fixture in the orchestra.
The next major development in the history of clarinet was the invention of the modern pad. Because early clarinets used felt pads to cover the tone holes, they leaked air. This required pad-covered holes to be kept to a minimum, restricting the number of notes the clarinet could play with good tone. In 1812, Iwan Müller developed a new type of pad that was covered in leather or fish bladder. It was airtight and let makers increase the number of pad-covered holes. Müller designed a new type of clarinet with seven finger holes and thirteen keys. He referred to this model as "omnitonic" since it was capable of playing in all keys, rather than requiring alternating joints as was common at the time.
Keywork and toneholes
The final development in the modern design of the clarinet used in most of the world today was introduced by Hyacinthe Klosé in 1839. He implemented ring keys that eliminated the need for complicated fingering patterns. It was inspired by the Boehm system developed for flutes by Theobald Boehm. Klosé was so impressed by Boehm's invention that he named his own system for clarinets the Boehm system, although it is different from the one used on flutes. This new system was slow to gain popularity but gradually 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 system clarinet. Some contemporary Dixieland players continue to use Albert system clarinets.
Usage and repertoire
Use of multiple clarinets
The modern orchestral standard of using soprano clarinets in B♭ and A has to do partly with the history of the instrument and partly with acoustics, aesthetics, and economics. Before about 1800, due to the lack of airtight pads, practical woodwinds could have only a few keys to control accidentals (notes outside their diatonic home scales). The low (chalumeau) register of the clarinet spans a twelfth (an octave plus a perfect fifth), so the clarinet needs keys/holes to produce all nineteen notes in this range. This involves more keywork than on instruments that "overblow" at the octave—oboes, flutes, bassoons, and saxophones, for example, which need only twelve notes before overblowing. Clarinets with few keys cannot therefore easily play chromatically, limiting any such instrument to a few closely related keys. For example, an eighteenth-century clarinet in C could be played in F, C, and G (and their relative minors) with good intonation, but with progressive difficulty and poorer intonation as the key moved away from this range. With the invention of the airtight pad, and as key technology improved and more keys were added to woodwinds, the need for clarinets in multiple keys was reduced. However, the use of multiple instruments in different keys persisted, with the three instruments in C, B♭, and A all used as specified by the composer.
The lower-pitched clarinets sound "mellower" (less bright), and the C clarinet—being the highest and therefore brightest of the three—fell out of favor as the other two could cover its range and their sound was considered better. While the clarinet in C began to fall out of general use around 1850, some composers continued to write C parts after this date, e.g., Bizet's Symphony in C (1855), Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 (1872), Smetana's overture to The Bartered Bride (1866) and Má Vlast (1874), Dvořák's Slavonic Dance Op. 46, No. 1 (1878), Brahms' Symphony No. 4 (1885), Mahler's Symphony No. 6 (1906), and Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (1911).
While technical improvements and an equal-tempered scale reduced the need for two clarinets, the technical difficulty of playing in remote keys persisted, and the A has thus remained a standard orchestral instrument. In addition, by the late 19th century, the orchestral clarinet repertoire contained so much music for clarinet in A that the disuse of this instrument was not practical.
The orchestra frequently includes two players on individual parts—each player is usually equipped with a pair of standard clarinets in B♭ and A, and clarinet parts commonly alternate between the instruments. In the 20th century, composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler employed many different clarinets, including the E♭ or D soprano clarinets, basset horn, bass clarinet, and/or contrabass clarinet. The practice of using different clarinets to achieve tonal variety was common in 20th-century classical music.
In a concert band or wind ensemble, clarinets are an important part of the instrumentation. The E♭ clarinet, B♭ clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, and contra-alto/contrabass clarinet are commonly used in concert bands, which generally have multiple B♭ clarinets; there are commonly three or even four B♭ clarinet parts with two to three players per part.
The clarinet is widely used as a solo instrument. The relatively late evolution of the clarinet (when compared to other orchestral woodwinds) has left solo repertoire from the Classical period and later, but few works from the Baroque era. Many clarinet concertos and clarinet sonatas have been written to showcase the instrument, for example those by Mozart and Weber.
Many works of chamber music have also been written for the clarinet. Common combinations are:
- Clarinet and piano
- Clarinet trio: clarinet, piano, and another instrument (for example, a string instrument)
- Clarinet quartet: three B♭ clarinets and bass clarinet; two B♭ clarinets, alto clarinet, and bass; and other possibilities such as the use of a basset horn, especially in European classical works.
- Clarinet quintet: a clarinet plus a string quartet or, in more contemporary music, a configuration of five clarinets.
- Wind quintet: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.
Groups of clarinets playing together have become increasingly popular among clarinet enthusiasts in recent years. Common forms are:
- Clarinet choir: which features a large number of clarinets playing together, usually involves a range of different members of the clarinet family. The homogeneity of tone across the different members of the clarinet family produces an effect with some similarities to a human choir.
- Clarinet quartet: usually three B♭ sopranos and one B♭ bass, or two B♭, an E♭ alto clarinet, and a B♭ bass clarinet, or sometimes four B♭ sopranos.
The clarinet was originally a central instrument in jazz, beginning with the Dixieland players in the 1910s. It remained a signature instrument of jazz music through much of the big band era into the 1940s. American players Alphonse Picou, Larry Shields, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, and Sidney Bechet were all prominent early jazz clarinet players. Swing performers such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw rose to prominence in the late 1930s.
Beginning in the 1940s, the clarinet faded from its prominent position in jazz. By that time, an interest in Dixieland or traditional New Orleans jazz had revived; Pete Fountain was one of the best known performers in this genre. The clarinet's place in the jazz ensemble was usurped by the saxophone, which projects a more powerful sound and uses a less complicated fingering system. However, the clarinet did not entirely disappear from jazz. Prominent players since the 1950s include Stan Hasselgård, Jimmy Giuffre, Eric Dolphy (on bass clarinet), Perry Robinson, and John Carter. In the US, the prominent players on the instrument since the 1980s have included Eddie Daniels, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Ken Peplowski, and others playing the clarinet in more contemporary contexts.
The clarinet is uncommon, but not unheard of, in rock music. Jerry Martini played clarinet on Sly and the Family Stone's 1968 hit, "Dance to the Music". The Beatles included a trio of clarinets in "When I'm Sixty-Four" from their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. A clarinet is prominently featured in what a Billboard reviewer termed a "Benny Goodman-flavored clarinet solo" in "Breakfast in America", the title song from the Supertramp album of the same name.
The popular Brazilian music style of choro uses the clarinet, as does Albanian saze and Greek koumpaneia folk music, and Bulgarian wedding music. In Turkish folk music, the Albert system clarinet in G is often used, commonly called a "Turkish clarinet".
|A♭ clarinet (Piccolo clarinet in A♭)||A♭||Now rare, although it was once frequently used in wind ensembles, especially in Spain and Italy.|
|E♭ clarinet (Sopranino or piccolo clarinet in E♭)||E♭||It has a characteristically "hard and biting" tone and is used to great effect in the classical orchestra whenever a brighter, or sometimes more comical, sound is called for.|
|D clarinet (Sopranino or piccolo clarinet in D)||D||This instrument was largely replaced by the F and later the E♭ clarinet. Though a few early pieces were written for it, its repertoire is now very limited in Western music. Nonetheless, Stravinsky included both the D and E♭ clarinets in his instrumentation for The Rite of Spring.|
|C clarinet (Soprano clarinet in C)||C||Although this clarinet was very common in the instrument's earliest period, its use began to dwindle, and by the second decade of the twentieth century, it had become practically obsolete and disappeared from the orchestra. From the time of Mozart, many composers began to preference the mellower, lower-pitched instruments, and the timbre of the C instrument may have been considered too bright. To avoid having to carry an extra instrument that required another reed and mouthpiece, orchestral players preferred to play parts for this instrument on their B♭ clarinets, transposing up a tone.|
|B♭ clarinet (Soprano clarinet in B♭)||B♭||The most common type of clarinet and used in most styles of music. It was commonly used in early jazz and swing. Usually, the generic term "clarinet" on its own refers to this instrument.|
|A clarinet (Soprano clarinet in A)||A||It is frequently used in orchestral and chamber music, especially of the nineteenth century.|
|Basset clarinet||A||Clarinet in A extended to a low C; used primarily to play Classical-era music. Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was written for this instrument. Basset clarinets in C and B♭ also exist.|
|Basset horn||F||Similar in appearance to the alto, but differs in that it is pitched in F and has a narrower bore on most models. Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was originally sketched out as a concerto for basset horn in G. Little material for this instrument has been published.|
|Alto clarinet||E♭||Sometimes referred to as the tenor clarinet in Europe, it is used in military and concert bands, and occasionally, if rarely, in orchestras. The alto clarinet in F was used in military bands during the early 19th century and was a choice instrument of Iwan Müller. However, it fell out of use, and if called for, is commonly substituted with the basset horn.|
|Bass clarinet||B♭||Developed in the late 18th century, it began featuring in orchestral music in the 1830s after its redesign by Adolphe Sax. Since then, it has become a mainstay of the modern orchestra. It is used in concert bands and enjoys, along with the B♭ clarinet, a considerable role in jazz, especially through jazz musician Eric Dolphy. The bass clarinet in A, which had a vogue among certain composers from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, is now so rare as to usually be considered obsolete.|
|E♭ contrabass clarinet (also called Contra-alto or Contralto clarinet)||EE♭||Used in wind ensembles and occasionally for cinematic scores.|
|Contrabass clarinet (also called double-bass clarinet)||BB♭||Used in clarinet ensembles, concert bands, and sometimes in orchestras. Arnold Schoenberg calls for a contrabass clarinet in A in his Five Pieces for Orchestra, but no such instrument ever existed.|
|Subcontrabass clarinet (also called octocontralto clarinet clarinet or octocontrabass clarinet)||EEE♭ or BBB♭||A largely experimental instrument with little repertoire. Three versions in EEE♭ (an octave below the contra-alto clarinet) were made, and a version in BBB♭ (an octave below the contrabass clarinet) was built by Leblanc in 1939.|
- List of clarinet concerti
- List of clarinetists
- List of clarinet makers
- Double clarinet
- International Clarinet Association
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