- Learn about the many different types of clarinets
- Listen to examples of each type
- What makes each clarinet unique from the other?
- Also, check out our post on bass clarinet vs clarinet
Are you curious about the different kinds of clarinets out there? There are many types, and it is important to understand this whole family of musical instruments if you want to play any of them.
The clarinet family has a range of instruments, including the Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, the Eb clarinet, and the A clarinet.
The Bb clarinet is the most common clarinet, and other types may be known as harmony clarinets.
In this article, we will explore the following:
- What Is A Clarinet?
- The Different Kinds of Clarinets
- How the Different Types Vary
- The Styles of Music Where You’ll Encounter Each of the Clarinets
- How the Clarinet Was Developed
Let’s dive in!
What Is a Clarinet?
Clarinets are woodwind instruments that use a single reed in the mouthpiece. They come in a wide range of sizes and appearances, and each of the different instruments has its own unique timbre.
The instrument has a flared bell, a mouthpiece, and a bore that is almost cylindrical. All common clarinets are transposing instruments, meaning they are notated in a different key than they sound in.
For example, when a Bb clarinet player plays a C that is notated on a score, a Bb comes out of the instrument.
How Many Types of Clarinets Are There?
There are eleven different types of clarinets, which generally come under three broad categories: bass clarinets, soprano clarinets, and alto clarinets.
What Are the Most Common Clarinets?
The Bb clarinet is the clarinet that most people know and recognize. It produces a Bb pitch when you play a C on it. This clarinet has an excellent range, which is one of the reasons it is so popular. The Bb clarinet counts as a soprano clarinet.
The Bb clarinet is the main type of clarinet used in symphony orchestras and concert bands.
The Eb clarinet is slightly less common. It will produce an Eb if you play a C. These clarinets are smaller and noted for being excellent when playing high parts. The range provided in an Eb clarinet is higher and slightly narrower.
The Eb clarinet is popular in many kinds of bands and orchestras due to its ability to stand out even when the whole ensemble is playing.
The Eb clarinet can play high passages with a smooth tone quality, whereas the more common Bb clarinet can sound harsh in that same upper register.
This clarinet is very similar to the Bb clarinet. The A clarinet produces an A when you play a C on it, and its range is only a semitone below that of the Bb clarinet.
Because of its transposition, it is ideal for playing sharp keys, while the Bb clarinet is perfect for playing flat keys.
Bass clarinets most commonly use a Bb transposition (although other types can be found). It uses the same fingering as the Bb soprano clarinet. It is notated in Bb on a treble clef, but it plays an octave lower than written.
The bass clarinet’s range is the largest of the clarinets, and it is a bigger instrument as a result. In terms of its appearance, it is also quite different with its curved neck and curved bell, along with an endpin to support its weight.
The alto clarinet is similar to the soprano Eb because it produces a C when you play the Eb, but it is a perfect fifth lower than the Bb clarinet rather than higher.
The alto clarinet is smaller than the bass clarinet, but it still has a curved bell and bent neck, though without an endpin.
The alto clarinet is not commonly seen in orchestras, although you may see it in concert bands. These clarinets are fairly rare and not frequently used in modern music.
What Are the Rarest Clarinets?
There are still six other kinds of clarinets that are recognized. You probably won’t see these very frequently, but it’s still worth understanding how they differ from the common clarinets and from each other.
Let’s look at the rare clarinets next.
This clarinet is even longer and larger than the bass clarinet, with a particularly large bell. These produce deep, rich sounds that can go lower than the bass clarinet, but contra-alto clarinets are rarely used today.
Most of these instruments available are considered antiques.
This is similar to the contra-alto but larger and sounding two octaves below a Bb clarinet. Contrabass clarinets are over seven and a half feet tall, which may be partly why they are so rare today.
You may sometimes see them in clarinet choirs or possibly in bands, but otherwise, they are not often found.
This type of bass clarinet is even larger at eight feet. It sounds an octave lower than the contrabass clarinet. Only one octocontrabass clarinet exists, which Charles Houvenaghel built for Leblanc Instruments as a prototype in 1935.
Sadly, it is no longer in playable condition.
This is like the octocontrabass clarinet in that it is extremely rare. This clarinet is an Eb clarinet pitched a fifth lower than the contrabass clarinet.
You are unlikely to see an octocontralto clarinet being played in reality, even if you are keen on music.
This comes in many different transpositions, including G, Bb, A, and C. Compared to a Bb clarinet, these instruments have additional notes, so you have a greater range available.
Basset clarinets are mainly used to play music by classical composers such as Mozart and Anton Stadler.
The basset horn is a clarinet despite its name. It is close to the alto clarinet in range, and it comes in F, D, or G transpositions.
Like the basset clarinet, the basset horn is fairly uncommon since its main use is in playing music of the classical era.
Those are the eleven kinds of clarinets!
Only the first five mentioned in the article are commonly seen in the music world today, but it is worth recognizing the existence of the rare clarinets, especially if you are passionate about this beautiful family of instruments.
They are quite different from each other, and all require enormous levels of skill to play.
How Do the Clarinets Differ From Each Other?
Clarinets have the biggest range of pitch of all the common woodwind instruments, which is partly why they have become so popular. The keywork is what defines the differences in how the instruments sound.
The bore and mouthpiece can also make significant differences in sound, as can the reed. The differences between clarinet types likely developed as a result of different geographic locations, although the various kinds are used across the globe today.
Compared to Bb clarinets, A clarinets have a warmer sound, but they both sound very similar.
An Eb clarinet is brighter and sharper, helping it to be heard through loud music from other instruments. It is useful in large bands and big concert halls.
The alto clarinet and the bass clarinet sound similar to each other, and they are much deeper and more mellow than the other three. The bass clarinet has a darker sound than the alto.
All of these differences mean that it really matters what kind of clarinet you play, although some are more interchangeable than others – such as the A clarinet and the Bb.
What Is the History of the Clarinet?
The clarinet is thought to have evolved from an ancient instrument called the chalumeau. This was a single or double-reed instrument that was used throughout the Middle Ages and even into the 18th century – and it gave its name to the clarinet’s lower register.
No one knows exactly where the word “clarinet” comes from, but it is thought that it relates to the clarion or clarino register – the challenging high passages that trumpet players often found particularly difficult.
Handel and Bach both wrote many of these clarino passages, and they required great skill on the part of the trumpet players since they couldn’t depend on valves or pistons. Clarinets were initially seen as “mock trumpets” that were easier to play.
Today’s modern clarinet was invented in the 17th century by a German instrument maker named Johann Christoph Denner. He worked hard for many years to create a chalumeau that was capable of playing different registers.
After this point, the clarinet was further modified to further improve it and increase its flexibility. Denner’s clarinet had a mouthpiece that faced forward, but Heinrich Bärmann changed this, making the instrument easier to play and the sound more consistent.
In 1812, Ywan Müller added thirteen keys to Denner’s version. This meant that, for the first time, the clarinet could play the full chromatic scale, making it a far more flexible and useful instrument.
In the 1840s, the Böhm ring system was applied, making the instrument more sturdy. Most modern clarinets now have seventeen keys (although this may vary).
There are eleven types of clarinets, and they vary significantly in appearance, the sound they can produce, and their range.
However, they all depend upon the same single reed system and keys, and they are all categorized as clarinets across the globe.
The five most common kinds of clarinets are the Bb clarinet, the A clarinet, the Eb clarinet, the alto clarinet, and the bass clarinet.
Before you go, check out our guide to the different Types Of Musical Instruments!