IT: clarinetto – FR: clarinette – GER: Klarinette


The clarinet has a cylindrical bore, employs a single reed, and is made of wood (usually grenadilla). It is overblown at the twelfth rather than at the octave. This means that the fingerings are different from other woodwinds that have an octave key. Odd numbered harmonics are strongly emphasized. The clarinet has the acoustical properties of a stopped pipe, with the fundamental an octave lower than an open pipe or a conical pipe of the same length.

Range and Natural Dynamics

FIGURE 3.11 Clarinet range


The B clarinet is the most common, and the part is transposed UP a major second from the concert key. Because of this transposition, it is more easily handled in concert keys with flats. The A clarinet is also used frequently by orchestral performers, and the transposition is UP a minor third. It has fewer accidentals to deal with when used in concert keys with sharps. The compass of the clarinet is from e upwards approximately three and a half octaves.

Tone Quality

The chalumeau register, which consists of the lowest octave of the range, is surprisingly strong and warm. The throat tones in the middle register are weaker, but the clarino register becomes very bright and incisive. The highest register is brilliant and penetrating. The tone of the upper register is less characteristic and quite flutelike. Extremely wide dynamic variations are possible on pitches throughout the majority of the clarinet’s range. The sound below the break is easily covered by other instruments. When chords for woodwinds are being orchestrated in a high tessitura, the clarinet is best placed above the oboes; in lower harmonies it may be best to score it below the oboes.

Technical Abilities

The clarinet is extremely agile, capable of fast runs, arpeggios, trills, wide leaps, and expressive legato. It may be wise to avoid assigning it melodic passages that hover around the break. Double-tonguing is possible but used only in very rapid tempi. A sharp staccato is available, as well as a semidetached articulation similar to the loure bowings on stringed instruments. All trills are accomplished easily by means of many alternate fingerings. Vibrato is not normally used in orchestral playing.

Musical Example

FIGURE 3.12 Clarinet line: Beethoven, Symphony No.6, second movement, measures 69-72. (Note the articulative nature of the solo part and the low register tone held by the second clarinet.)

Refer to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 and the second movement of the Dvorak New World Symphony for other clarinet excerpts in the Excerpts in Score section.

B♭ Bass Clarinet

IT: clarinetto basso – FR: clarinette basse – GER: Bassklarinette

The range and facilities of the B bass clarinet are similar to other clarinets, but it has a curve near the mouthpiece and an upturned bell. It is twice the length of the B clarinet. The instrumental part is written in the treble clef and must be transposed UP a major ninth from concert pitch. In older German scores the part was often written in the bass clef and transposed UP a major second from sounding pitch. The lowest written note is e, but on a many professional instruments the c an octave below c1 is available. Although the upper register is weak and seldom used, the middle and lower registers are common in solo and doubling applications. Considerable control of volume levels and dynamic nuances are possible on the bass clarinet.

E♭ Clarinet

All E clarinet parts are written in the treble clef. The following are members of this family.

Soprano Clarinet in E♭ 

This instrument is used in concert bands and can be found in some orchestral scores (the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz and Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss). A smaller version of the B clarinet, it transposes DOWN a minor third. It has a thin, squeaky tone, is difficult to control in its extreme upper and lower registers, and has a penetrating quality in the high register.

Alto Clarinet in E♭ 

A standard member of the concert band, this is rarely used in the orchestra. Transposition is UP a major sixth from sounding to written pitch. Soft, low parts for the instrument will often be covered by the ensemble.

Contrabass Clarinet in E♭ 

This larger version of the bass clarinet is called for in some concert band scores. Parts are transposed UP an octave plus a major sixth.

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