The clarinet (sometimes historically spelled clarionet) is a musical instrument in the woodwind family. A person who plays the clarinet is called a clarinetist.
The clarinet was invented in Nurnberg, Germany on January 14, 1690.
Professional clarinets are made from African hardwood, often grenadilla or (rarely) Honduran rosewood (student instruments are usually plastic). The instrument uses a single reed which is held in the mouth by the player. Vibrating the reed produces the instrument's sound.
The body of the instrument is mostly of uniform diameter until the bell is reached. The body is equipped with a complicated set of keys and holes (see Boehm System) which allow the full musical scale to be produced.
Clarinets are usually pitched in the key of B flat or A, although there are other harmony clarinets in the keys of C, Eb, D, and Ab. There are also instruments known as basset horns in F, bass clarinets pitched one octave below the Bb soprano, Alto clarinets in Eb, Contra-alto clarinets in EEb (one octave below the alto clarinet), and the huge contrabass clarinet in BBb (one octave below the bass clarinet).
The fixed reed and the uniform diameter give the instrument a configuration of a stopped pipe where use of the register key produces a one twelfth pitch interval.
Clarinets are part of the normal orchestral make up. They are common in jazz and wind bands.
The clarinet started life as a small instrument called the chalumeau. Not much is known about these instruments, but they may have evolved from recorders. The chalumeau had the same reed for producing the sound as the clarinet, but lacked the register key which extends the range to nearly four octaves, so it had a limited range of about one and a half octaves. Like a recorder, it had eight finger holes, and usually had one or two keys for extra notes.
In about 1700, a German instrument maker called Johann Christoph Denner added a register key to the chalumeau and produced the first clarinet. This instrument played well in the middle register with a loud strident tone, so it was given the name "little trumpet" or clarinet. Early clarinets did not play well in the lower register, so chalumeaux continued to be made to play the low notes and these notes became known as the chalumeau register. As clarinets improved, the chalumeau fell into disuse.
The original Denner clarinets had two keys, but various makers added more to get extra notes. The classical clarinet of Mozart's day would probably have had eight finger holes and five keys.
Clarinets were soon accepted into orchestras. Later models had a mellower tone than the originals. Mozart liked the sound of the clarinet and wrote much music for it. By the time of Beethoven, the clarinet was a completely standard part of the orchestra.
The next major development in the history of clarinet was the invention of the modern pad. Early clarinets covered the tone holes with felt pads. Because these leaked air, the number of pads had to be kept to a minimum, so the clarinet was severely restricted in what notes could be played with a good tone. In 1812, Iwan Mueller, another German instrument maker, developed a new type of pad which was covered in leather or fish bladder. This was completely airtight, so the number of keys could be increased enormously. He designed a new type of clarinet with seven finger holes and thirteen keys. This allowed the clarinet to play in any key with equal ease. Over the course of the 19th century, many enhancements were made to Mueller's clarinet, such as the Albert system and the Baermann system, all keeping the same basic design. The Mueller clarinet and its derivatives were popular throughout the world.
The final development in the design of the clarinet was done by Hyacinthe Klosé in 1839. He devised a different arrangement of keys and finger holes which allow simpler fingering. He named his system the Boehm system as a tribute to Theobald Boehm, a flute maker who had inspired him. This new system was slow to catch on because it meant the player had to relearn how to play the instrument. Gradually, however, it 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.
Before you play
When possible, avoid touching the keys when you are putting your clarinet together. When joining the upper and lower joints, you must press the rings of the top joint. Do this carefully so you do not bend any keys. the joints of the clarinet should twist together easily. If you have any difficulty, grease each of the tenon corks.
Tuning & Playing
The clarinet is tuned by adjusting the length of the instrument. To lower the pitch, lengthen the instrument by pulling the barrel out slightly, leaving a small gap between the barrel and the upper joint. To raise the pitch, push the barrel in (and young players may also need to firm up their embouchure). Lower register notes can be tuned by pulling out or pushing in between the lower and upper joints.
Moisture left in the clarinet after playing with cause pads to deteriorate. Swab the inside of the clarinet after playing. Use a cloth to wipe off moisture and finger marks. Remove the reed from the mouthpiece and place it in a reed guard. This will extend the life of the reed. Swab out the mouthpiece. Under each key is a pad that seals the tone hole when the key closes. If pads stick, they are dirty. To clean the pads, place a clean cloth (or dollar bill) under the pad, close the key, and pull the cloth through.