Orchestration and Arranging Wiki
A Clarinet
Other Names None
Range E3 - C7+
Clefs Treble
Transposition Usually Sounds one tone lower than written (in B flat)

The clarinet is a type of woodwind instrument. The name derives from adding the suffix -et (meaning little) to the Italian word clarino (meaning a type of trumpet designed for high-register playing), as the first clarinets had a strident tone similar to that of a trumpet. The instrument has an approximately cylindrical bore, and uses a single reed.

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 (extremely rare) BBB♭ octo-contrabass to the A♭ soprano (piccolo clarinet). Of these, many are rare or obsolete (there is only one BBB♭ octo-contrabass clarinet in existence, for example), and music written for them is usually played on the common types. The unmodified word clarinet usually refers to the B♭ soprano clarinet, by far the most common clarinet. A person who plays the clarinet is called a clarinetist or clarinettist. Johann Christoph Denner invented the clarinet in Germany around the turn of the 18th century by adding a register key to the earlier chalumeau. Over time, additional keywork and airtight pads were added to improve tone and playability. Today, the clarinet is used in jazz and classical ensembles, in chamber groups, and as a solo instrument.

Pitch Range[]

Clarinets have the largest pitch range of common woodwinds. The intricate key organization that makes this range possible can make the playability of some passages awkward. The bottom of the clarinet’s written range is defined by the keywork on each instrument, standard keywork schemes allow a low E on the common B♭ clarinet. The lowest concert pitch depends on the transposition of the instrument in question. Nearly all soprano and piccolo clarinets have keywork enabling them to play the E below middle C (E3 in scientific pitch notation) as their lowest written note, 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. Most alto and bass clarinets have an extra key to allow a (written) E♭3. Modern professional-quality bass clarinets generally have additional keywork to written C3. Among the less commonly encountered members of the clarinet family, contra-alto and contrabass clarinets may have keywork to written E♭3, D3, or C3; 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. The G two octaves above G4 is usually the highest note clarinetists encounter in classical repertoire. The C above that (C7 i.e. resting on the fifth ledger line above the treble staff) is attainable by advanced players and is shown on many fingering charts,[8] and fingerings as high as G7 exist.

A Clarinet


The the clarinet is a B flat instrument meaning that it's written A sounds as a G. Consequently, ensembles with a large number of Bb, Eb or F transposing instruments (Concert Bands, Jazz Bands) will tune to a Bb rather than A. In classical settings clarinettists will tune to a concert A, although this tone can be less stable (played as a B natural). Variations in cane and other construction materials, the age of the reed, and differences in scrape and length will all affect the pitch of the instrument. Weather conditions such as temperature and humidity will also affect the pitch. Skilled clarinettists adjust their embouchure to compensate for these factors. Subtle manipulation of embouchure and air pressure allows the player to express timbre and dynamics.

Timbre and Tone[]

The range of a clarinet can be divided into three distinct registers. The lowest register, consisting of the notes up 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 middle register is termed the clarino (sometimes clarion) register and spans just over an octave (from written B above middle C (B4) to the C two octaves above middle C (C6)); it is the dominant range for most members of the clarinet family. The top or altissimo register consists of the notes above the written C two octaves above middle C (C6). Unlike other woodwinds, all three registers have characteristically different sounds. The chalumeau register is rich and dark. The clarino register is brighter and sweet, like a trumpet heard from afar ("clarino" means trumpet). The altissimo register can be piercing and sometimes shrill.


Bass Clarinet[]

Bass Clarinet
File:Bass Clarinet.jpg
A Bass Clarinet
Other Names
Range D2-D5 written pitch, C1-C4 Sounding
Clefs Treble
Transposition In B flat: sounds a ninth lower than written

The bass clarinet is a musical instrument of the clarinet family. Like the more common soprano B♭ clarinet, it is usually pitched in B♭ (meaning it is a transposing instrument on which a written C sounds as B♭), but it plays notes an octave below the soprano B♭ clarinet. Bass clarinets in other keys, notably C and A, also exist, but are very rare (in contrast to the regular A clarinet, which is quite common in classical music). Bass clarinets regularly perform in symphony orchestras, wind ensembles, occasionally in marching bands, and play an occasional solo role in contemporary music and jazz in particular.

Orchestral music for bass clarinet is written using one of two systems:

  1. Conventional treble clef in B♭. This sounds an octave and a major second lower than written and therefore uses the same fingerings as the soprano clarinet, and is by far the more common of the two.
  2. Bass clef in B♭. This sounds a major second (tone, or whole step) lower than written. The player must, of course, be able to read bass clef. For music written in bass clef, higher passages may be written in treble clef to avoid the use of excessive ledger lines, but this should not be confused with system (1), in which notes sound an octave lower than in system (2). Unlike music for the bassoon, the tenor clef is not used for higher passages.

Other Variants[]

  • Clarinet in A
  • Clarinet in Eb


Quartertones and Microtones[]

Intervals smaller than a semitone. Notation methods vary, but these examples are typical of quartertones and raised & lowered inflections. Quartertones and microtones are produced by using 'fake' fingerings and/or by adjusting the embouchure.


Playing chords - more than one note at a time. Write the bottom note of the chord and the word 'chord' above. Occasionally composers write all the notes of the chord that they wish to hear and/or provide a fingering diagram. There are many possible multiphonics on the various clarinet types however instruments and players vary in the multiphonics they can find.

Key Clicks[]

Rattling instrument keys. Notated by x-shaped noteheads and verbal instruction. This effect is not particularly loud.

Air Notes[]

Blowing air through the instrument without deliberately sounding a pitch. Written with verbal instruction in the music.

Flutter Tonguing[]

Flutter-tonguing is one of the oldest and most widely-used extended techniques. Clarinettists should be familiar with and be able to execute the two different types: one produced by rolling the tongue; the other by vibrating the throat. Composers notate flutter-tonguing in one of two ways: through use of three slashes through a note stem, or by writing “flatterzunge” (or flatt.). Composers are more and more commonly choosing to specify the type of flutter-tonguing to be used in a given passage, indicating “rrrr” for the throat version. The technique has many uses beyond the mere “special effect.”

Singing while playing[]

Singing while playing is sometimes used by oboists as low note tone-exercise, although is occasionally used in oboe repertoire. It produces a coarse, almost grinding sound, sometimes used to imitate animal effects or create artificial harmony/polyphony. When written, it should be notated on the same staff, in different noteheads. (Since there is no standard notation, different composers do what is easiest for them in terms of notation).

Pitch Bends[]

Needs completion.


In classical music, clarinets are part of standard orchestral instrumentation, which frequently includes two clarinetists playing individual parts — each player is usually equipped with a pair of standard clarinets in B♭ and A (see above) and clarinet parts commonly alternate between B♭ and A instruments several times over the course of a piece or even, less commonly, of a movement (e.g. 1st movement Brahms 3rd symphony).[38] Clarinet sections grew larger during the last few decades of the 19th century, often employing a third clarinetist, an E♭ or a bass clarinet. In the 20th century, composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Olivier Messiaen enlarged the clarinet section on occasion to up to nine players, employing many different clarinets including the E♭ or D soprano clarinets, basset horn, alto clarinet, bass clarinet and/or contrabass clarinet. This practice of using a variety of clarinets to achieve coloristic variety was common in 20th century music and continues today. However, many clarinetists and conductors prefer to play parts originally written for obscure instruments on B♭ or E♭ clarinets, which are often of better quality and more prevalent and accessible. 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 have been written to showcase the instrument, with the concerti by Mozart, Copland and Weber being well known. Many works of chamber music have also been written for the clarinet. Common combinations are:

  • Clarinet and piano (including clarinet sonatas)
  • Clarinet, piano and another instrument (for example, string instrument or voice)
  • Clarinet quartet: various combinations including four B♭ clarinets, 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, generally made up of a clarinet plus a string quartet.
  • Wind quintet, consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.
  • Trio d'anches, or trio of reeds consists of oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.
  • Wind octet, consists of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns.

Concert bands[]

In wind bands, clarinets are a central part of the instrumentation, occupying the same space (and often playing the same notes) in bands that the strings do in orchestras. Bands usually include several B♭ clarinets, divided into sections each consisting of two or three clarinetists playing the same part. There is almost always an E♭ clarinet part and a bass clarinet part, usually doubled. Alto, contra-alto, and contrabass clarinets are sometimes used as well, and, rarely, a piccolo A♭ clarinet.


The clarinet was a central instrument in early jazz starting in the 1910s and remained popular in the United States through the big band era into the 1940s. Larry Shields, Ted Lewis, Jimmie Noone and Sidney Bechet were influential in early jazz. The B♭ soprano was the most common instrument, but a few early jazz musicians such as Louis Nelson Delisle and Alcide Nunez preferred the C soprano, and many New Orleans jazz brass bands have used E♭ soprano. Swing clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman led successful and popular big bands and smaller groups from the 1930s onward. With the decline of the big bands' popularity in the late 1940s, the clarinet faded from its prominent position in jazz, though a few players (John Carter, Buddy DeFranco, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Giuffre, Perry Robinson, Theo Jorgensmann and others) used clarinet in bebop and free jazz. 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. During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain underwent a surge in the popularity of traditional jazz. During this period, a British clarinetist named Acker Bilk became popular, founding his own ensemble in 1956. In the U.S., the instrument has seen something of a resurgence since the 1980s, with Eddie Daniels, Don Byron, and Marty Ehrlich and others playing the clarinet in more contemporary contexts. The instrument remains common in Dixieland music; Pete Fountain is one of the best known performers in this genre. Bob Wilber, active since the 1950s, is a more eclectic jazz clarinetist, playing in several classic jazz styles. Filmmaker Woody Allen is a notable jazz clarinet enthusiast, and performs New Orleans-style jazz regularly with his quartet in New York. Jean-Christian Michel, French composer and clarinetist has initiated a jazz-classical cross-over on the clarinet with the drummer Kenny Clarke. See also Gilad Atzmon whose 21st century jazz style has been described as bebop/hard bop, with forays into free jazz and swing, influenced by Arabic music. In Canada, John Malmstrom performs in various mid-20th-century styles as well as writes original jazz compositions featuring clarinet and saxophone.

Other genres[]

  • Clarinets also feature prominently in klezmer music, which entails a distinctive style of playing. The use of quarter-tones requires a different embouchure. Some klezmer musicians prefer Albert system clarinets.
  • The popular Brazilian music styles of choro and samba use the clarinet.
  • The clarinet is prominent in Bulgarian wedding music, an offshoot of Roma/Romani traditional music.
  • In Moravian dulcimer bands, the clarinet is usually the only wind instrument among string instruments.
  • In the Republic of Macedonia, old-town folk music -called chalgija ("чалгија"), the clarinet has the most important role in wedding music; clarinet solos mark the high point of dancing euphoria. One of the most renowned Macedonian clarinet players is Tale Ognenovski, who gained worldwide fame for his virtuosity.
  • In Greece the clarinet (usually referred to as "κλαρίνο" - "clarino") is prominent in traditional music, especially in central, northwest and northern Greece (Thessaly, Epirus and Macedonia). The double-reed zurna was the dominant woodwind instrument before the clarinet arrived in the country, although many Greeks regard the clarinet as a native instrument. Traditional dance music, wedding music and laments include a clarinet soloist and quite often improvisations.
  • The instrument is equally famous in Turkey, especially the soprano clarinet in G. The soprano clarinet crossed via Turkey to Arabic music, where it is widely used in Arabic pop, especially if the intention of the arranger is to imitate the Turkish style.
  • Also in Turkish folk music, a clarinet-like woodwind instrument, the sipsi, is used. However, it's far more rare than the soprano clarinet and is mainly limited to folk music of the Aegean Region.

Groups of clarinets[]

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 (see Extended family of clarinets). 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.