Bass Clarinet vs Clarinet (Differences Broken Down!)

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  • Discover the main differences between clarinet and bass clarinet
  • Which one is bigger? Which one is cheaper? Which one is easier to play?
  • Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each one 

Numerous instruments are included in the family of woodwinds instruments. These are grouped together because of the way they produce their sound, which is by splitting the player’s air stream on a sharp edge, such as a reed.

Here’s a list of the instruments that make up the woodwind family, ordered according to their tessitura, from the highest pitch to the lowest:

  1. Piccolo
  2. Flute
  3. Oboe
  4. English Horn (Cor Anglais)
  5. Alto Clarinet
  6. Clarinet
  7. E-flat Clarinet
  8. Bass Clarinet
  9. Bassoon
  10. Contrabassoon

Within the woodwind family, the clarinet family has two members that stand out: the clarinet (in B-flat, also known as soprano clarinet), and the bass clarinet (although it is a little less well known).

In this article, we’ll go through the main differences between these two instruments, regarding size, sound, mode of sound production, price, and repertoire, among other things.

Main Similarities And Differences Between The Clarinet And The Bass Clarinet

Size & Sound

First of all, the most noticeable difference is the size. While the clarinet is approximately 60 cm (23.6 inches) long, the bass clarinet can measure 110 cm (43 inches), i.e. almost twice as long.

This has an impact on weight, as the bass clarinet will be significantly heavier, which also results in some discomfort when carrying it (whether walking, in a car, or on public transport).

This key difference in size will have implications on the sound. The bass clarinet sound will be lower since it has a lower register than the B flat clarinet.

The range of the clarinet generally ranges from a concert D3 up to Bb6, while the bass clarinet plays exactly one octave below the clarinet. This brings the bass clarinet closer to instruments such as the bassoon or the cello, of the string family.

It is important to clarify that both are transposing instruments (that is, when they read a C, the resulting sound is a B-flat).

Mechanics

In essence, the way of producing sound is the same, since both have a closed tube with a single beating reed, on which the performer must blow.

In this sense, there is another key difference, which also affects its difficulty level. This is the fact that the bass clarinet is twice the size of the B-flat clarinet, meaning that the player must use much more air to produce the same amount of sound.

On the other hand, the fingerings are almost identical, so many musicians start with the clarinet (since it is cheaper and, in the sense we just mentioned, a bit easier) and, taking advantage of the similarity in the fingerings, then play the bass clarinet.

Price

Predictably (as it happens in the string families, for example) the larger instrument is more expensive than the smaller one.

In this case, you can get a B-flat clarinet, at least decent enough to start lessons and get a good sound, for around $500 to $1,200. A professional one will have a price between $2,000 and $3,000, being able to reach, as it happens in these cases, more than $10,000.

A bass clarinet can be purchased for $1,500. Generally, these instruments will not be of great quality. For about $2,500 you can get a slightly better instrument, and a professional one will cost about $10,000.

The difference in price comes down to:

  • The way they are made (in factories or by luthiers)
  • The materials they are made of (while the wooden ones are more expensive, the resin or plastic ones will be more accessible)
  • The quality of their accessories

From here we recommend, as long as it is within your possibilities, to try to make an investment for an instrument that, even if it is for beginners, is of good quality (your teacher can help you to choose it), with a set-up made by a luthier.

Remember that, unless you damage it, you will later be able to sell your instrument, not for its original price, but perhaps for a little less.

Some Notable Differences In The Repertoire For Each

There are notable differences between the two, with the favored being the B-flat clarinet. Why is this so?

This instrument was built between the baroque and classicism periods, at the beginning of the 18th century (the earliest mention of the clarinet by that name is in an order dated 1710 for a pair of clarinets from the maker Jacob Denner of Nuremberg).

Only a few decades later, it would begin to enjoy great popularity, mainly in the orchestras and bands of central Europe. Hence, we can find many pieces composed by true masters. Clarinet concertos by Mozart, sonatas written by Brahms, Mendelssohn or Saint-Saens, beautiful pieces by Schumann, etc. 

Outside the classical repertoire, the clarinet also gained popularity with jazz, with its visibility extending to New Orleans in the early twentieth century, and a few decades later during the Swing Era, in the 30s and 40s of the same century.

On the other hand, it was not until the end of the 19th century that the bass clarinet began to appear very frequently in orchestral scores, as it was frequently used by Mahler, Wagner, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, among others.

Unlike the clarinet, and possibly because it is more expensive and in that sense less accessible, it is not so often used in popular music, songs, pop, rock, folk, or jazz.

How Do You Know Which One Is Right For You?

As it happens with all instruments when choosing one, your ears should be the ones to guide you, they will make the decision!

There are many cases of musicians who even become excellent in their profession, who end up hating their instrument, since it was an imposition from childhood, or, for various reasons, could not opt for the one they really loved.

Of course, if you prefer higher-pitched sounds, you may end up choosing the “regular” clarinet, while if you enjoy more bass, you may end up choosing the bass clarinet.

Now, if you don’t have a particular preference, we recommend listening to lots and lots of music (if it’s live, all the better!). You probably have professional orchestras nearby, but if you don’t, you can go to your local music school and research both.

While it is true that the price is a crucial difference (and can be a big difficulty), there are also many places where you can ask for the instrument to study.

If you don’t want to take a risk, it is not a bad idea to start with a B-flat clarinet, get used to how it produces sound, the fingering, and then try the bass clarinet as well, as to have the possibility to experience both instruments.

Keen to learn about other instruments? Check out our post on the complete guide to musical instruments!