You can hear the clarinet in many different types of clarinets in all sorts of music, from classical to jazz, marching band to rock, Broadway to klezmer. The first iteration of the modern day clarinet was invented around the year 1700. Its predecessor was the chalumeau.
When people talk about the clarinet, the word “clarinet” by itself always refers to the Bb clarinet. However, there are several different types of clarinets. The number and types of clarinets a typical clarinet player owns depends on the types of music he or she plays. A jazz player may own a Bb clarinet and a bass clarinet; an orchestral player will probably own at least a Bb clarinet, an A clarinet, and an Eb clarinet.
The purpose of this article is to familiarize you with the different types of clarinets for a few different reasons: so you can understand each of the clarinets’ unique applications, so you can recognize the different types of clarinets by seeing them and by hearing them, and so you can pick out which clarinet is right for your specific needs.
The Most Common Types of Clarinets
There are several types of clarinets. Since its original development in the early eighteenth century, there have been numerous changes made, including extra and rearranged keys (including a register key), modern leather pads, etc. Over time, clarinets phased in and out, some becoming rare or completely obsolete today.
Most modern clarinets are either Bb or Eb transposing instruments. This means that, on a Bb instrument, when you play C, the note sounding is a concert Bb. Likewise, on an Eb instrument, when you play C, the note sounding is a concert Eb. The exception is the A clarinet. It’s still used in orchestras today. On an A clarinet, when you play C, the note sounding is a concert A.
All clarinets have the same basic fingerings, making it easy to switch between the different types. Some have a few extra keys (bass clarinet goes lower than Bb clarinet). The register key on a clarinet raises the note by a twelfth (octave and a fifth). This means the same fingering in one octave versus another octave produces a different note.
The most common types of clarinets are the Bb clarinet, the bass clarinet, the A clarinet, the Eb clarinet, the contrabass clarinet, the contra-alto clarinet, and the alto clarinet.
The Bb clarinet, or soprano clarinet in Bb, is a Bb instrument, obviously. As stated earlier, it is the most popular in the clarinet family. It’s used in all styles of music.
The bass clarinet is a Bb instrument. It’s the second most popular clarinet. It’s also used in many styles of music.
The A clarinet, or soprano clarinet in A, is an A transposing instrument. It’s the only common clarinet that is not in Bb or Eb. It’s slightly larger than the Bb clarinet. It’s used in certain classical music situations as an alternative to the Bb clarinet. It has a slightly different timbre.
The Eb clarinet, or sopranino clarinet in Eb, is an Eb transposing instrument. It’s the highest pitched of the commonly utilized clarinets. It’s used in some orchestral and band repertoire.
The contrabass clarinet is a Bb instrument. It’s the lowest pitched of the commonly used clarinets, one octave lower than the bass clarinet. It can be used in orchestras, bands, and small chamber ensembles.
The contra-alto clarinet is an Eb instrument. It is sometimes used in orchestras, bands, and small chamber ensembles.
The alto clarinet is an Eb instrument. It is sometimes used in bands, small chamber ensembles, and rarely in orchestras.
Other Types of Clarinets
In addition to the main types of clarinets, there are several other kinds. They are not as common, though, and most have become completely obsolete. It is very rare that you will hear any of these.
Piccolo Clarinet, D Clarinet, C Clarinet, Basset Clarinet, Basset Horn, Octo-Contrabass, etc.:
These clarinets have varying degrees of use and popularity, but none of them are utilized as often as the more common clarinets listed above. With the exception of the octo-contrabass, none of these clarinets are pitched in Bb or Eb. That’s most likely why they’ve become obsolete: they’re not practical. Somehow the A clarinet made it through the cracks.
There are other “clarinets” in existence. The chalumeau was the clarinet’s predecessor. There are diatonic instruments similar to the clarinet, as well as an experimental quarter-tone clarinet.
Wind synthesizers, such as the EWI, in addition to others, are not clarinets. However, their fingerings can be set to clarinet fingerings, making it easy for a clarinet player to play them.
The Clarinet’s Main Applications
Clarinets are used in all types of music. Each clarinet has its own unique sound and, therefore, its own applications. The clarinet is traditionally used in classical music: orchestras, symphonic and concert bands, marching bands, chamber ensembles, etc. It is used as both an ensemble and solo instrument. Because it has a history that extends back to the 1700s, the clarinet is used in traditional as well as contemporary classical repertoire. The clarinet was a very popular instrument in jazz from the 1910s to the 1940s. It was used in New Orleans music, but became extremely popular during the big band era. Names such as Benny Goodman and Woody Herman are still household names. Duke Ellington used the clarinet a bunch. Even today, playing the clarinet is an essential part of being a versatile jazz saxophone player. During the free jazz movement, Eric Dolphy was a well-known bass clarinet player. More modern jazz players, such as Bob Mintzer, play the bass clarinet as well. The clarinet has also been used in pop and rock music by bands and musicians such as the Beatles, Billy Joel, Van Halen, etc. The clarinet is also used often in traditional music of many different cultures. It is an essential part of klezmer music.
There are many types of clarinets in existence, each exuding its own unique qualities. There are some commonly used ones and some that have become completely obsolete over time. The more you become familiar with each clarinet, the more you’ll become aware of their distinct tonal qualities and applications. Each clarinet is very different. You should be able to identify each one by looks as well as by listening to recordings. If you’re new to the clarinet, it’s advised that you start with the very common Bb clarinet. It’s the best one to learn first and it will be the one you use the most by far. After that, you can determine which other clarinets will suit your individual needs.