These clarinets cover a wide range of voices and provide a unique, sometimes whimsical voice to pieces. Their smooth, rich tone in lower registers distinguished them from brassier sounds, and each variety creates its own space in music.
Definition of Clarinet
The clarinet family encompasses many voices, including:
Despite this range, they tend to have similar defining characteristics. Clarinets are single-reed woodwind instruments, meaning that the player will affix one reed to the mouthpiece and blow through this to create sound.
Most clarinets are made of wood with cylindrical bores, and they end in a bell of wood or metal. Players change the pitch by opening and closing holes on the body of the instrument, either with pads attached to keys or the player’s fingers.
Almost every clarinet is a transposing instrument, so their music is not written at concert pitch. The player instead transposes the piece to fit their instrument.
Types of Clarinets
The most common varieties of clarinets you will hear include soprano, alto, and bass voices. These types have overcome predecessors that were more difficult to play, paving the way for better tuning and tone in group settings.
The B♭ clarinet is also known as a harmony clarinet, and it serves as the most popular variety for beginner players. Most bands will seat at least 2 B♭ clarinets, but they can have as many as 15 players split into three parts.
These are popular for classical and concert bands, and they fit well with jazz and swing ensembles.
The fingerings at different octaves do not repeat for B♭ clarinets, and they use a register key to raise pitch an octave and a fifth.
The A clarinet is another soprano voice that is slightly longer than the B♭ clarinet. This is also the only common variety that is not pitched to B♭ or E♭. Most who argue for the use of A clarinets claim they have a softer, more delicate sound.
Clarinets are more commonly used by professional players in orchestras and chamber music. They are also used in pieces with plenty of sharps in the key. Players can use the same mouthpiece for A and B♭ clarinets, so they can be a valuable addition to classical pieces that have dramatic key changes.
The E♭ clarinet is smaller than other varieties. It has a higher pitch that can be shrill at times but is also capable of reaching a lower range than the B♭ clarinet. It is also easier to play higher pitches on the E♭ clarinet than the B♭,
E♭ clarinets are used most often in musical pieces with brighter sounds, and they are almost exclusive to collegiate or higher ensembles. Many European scores will call for this instrument by its Italian name (the terzino or terzino in Mib).
Also known as the sopranino in E♭ clarinet, this voice is often used to assist the piccolo. It can be quite difficult to play, and players are likely to tune them often.
Alto Clarinet (E♭)
Alto clarinets typically come pitched to the key of E♭, but there are F varieties in circulation.
These are much larger than other clarinet types and have a lower pitch with a distinctive bend in their shape.
These are similar to the basset horn, but they:
- Are pitched an entire step lower
- Lack the lower extended range
- Have a wider bore
While the alto clarinet is common in concert bands and symphonic bands, you are not likely to hear it in an orchestra. Many players and directors consider them fragile. They can be difficult to play in tune or play with an appropriate tone, and much of the alto range can be split between B♭ or bass clarinet.
Alto clarinets have greater difficulty projecting, but they can thrive in a clarinet choir.
Bass Clarinet (B♭)
Bass clarinets are especially popular with certain composers, such as Wagner, and they produce a rich sound appropriate for orchestras, concert bands, and jazz ensembles.
They appear similar to the alto clarinet because of the bend in their barrel, but bass clarinets are about twice the size. They usually require the player to use a strap to hold them correctly and will have an endpin to support their weight on the floor.
Bass clarinets use similar fingerings to soprano B♭ clarinets, and players usually graduate from the common variety to this deeper voice.
Contrabass and Contra-Alto Clarinets
Contrabass and contra-alto clarinets are some of the largest types of clarinets in the family.
The contrabass contains 10 feet of tubings, and it can measure over seven and a half feet tall. These are not used often, and most pieces reserve them for special effects. They also provide greater depth to clarinet choirs.
The contra-alto has a deep, rich sound, and they are pitched a perfect fifth below the soprano B♭ bass clarinet.
They are used more often in clarinet choirs and joint ensembles with saxophones, but they do not have much work in wind bands or symphony orchestras.
Uncommon Varieties of Clarinets
Many of these uncommon clarinet varieties have been replaced by those listed above, but their rich history encourages many players to seek them out. Beyond this, none of the varieties are exact replacements, and each instrument below has a unique personality.
Basset Clarinet and Basset Horn
The basset clarinet has a more classical use, and it can be pitched in A, C, B♭, or G. Basset clarinets can reach a low C, and they are relied on heavily in pieces by Mozart. They have extra keys that allow them to play lower notes than soprano varieties.
Basset horns are commonly keyed in F, but you can find them in G and D. These are another favorite of Mozart. The basset horn is larger than the basset clarinet.
These two instruments appear similar, but the horn has evolved to a mostly straight form over the years while the basset clarinet retains its crooked shape.
The range of the C clarinet remained a popular choice for scores until the start of the 20th century when they lost favor to the B♭. Before this point, they were a popular choice for composers such as Beethoven and Schubert, forcing clarinetists to switch between A, B♭, and C clarinets.
C clarinets have made a small comeback as recent trends move to revive older pieces and their original instrument intentions. Beginner players are also starting on a simplified C clarinet, called a clarinéo, instead of a recorder in certain areas.
The A♭ clarinet is usually reserved as a feature in any piece, and its high pitch reaches beyond the range of the E. They are barely longer than a foot, making them much smaller than most other clarinet varieties.
These uncommon instruments are pitched a minor seventh higher than B♭ clarinets, and they share the lowest note of E with concert flutes.
They have been referred to as octave clarinets, but the term piccolo clarinet is used in music software like Finale for any A♭ clarinet.
A♭ clarinets appeared often in European wind bands through the middle of the 20th century, and they have regular use in Austrian military bands now. They are also common in clarinet choir arrangements but tend to remain option or cued.
Octo contrabass and Octo-contra-alto Clarinets
It is highly unlikely you will hear either of these clarinets in person, but they have a unique reputation as experiments.
The Octo contrabass clarinet is pitched an octave below the contrabass. This is the largest and longest member of the clarinet family, and it has the lowest reach. The one Octo contrabass ever made stood just over 8 feet tall.
The octo-contra-alto the is second largest clarinet, and it sits pitched one octave below the E♭ contra-alto clarinet.
Both varieties were built by the G. Leblanc corporation, and there is only one example of each at the LeBlanc museum in Paris. They are not in playable condition, but there have been recent renditions of the clarinets of the same pitch in plastic.
The clarinet family has been through several changes to style and tone. While some have become obsolete with time, they have not been forgotten and classical music enthusiasts love to revive their sound.