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The clarinet (sometimes historically spelled clarionet) is a musical instrument in the woodwind family. A person who plays the clarinet is called a clarinettist.

Professional clarinets are made from African hardwood, often grenadilla or (rarely) Honduran rosewood (student instruments are usually composite or plastic resin, commonly "resonite," an ABS resin). Some parts, such as the mouthpiece are sometimes made of ebonite. 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)(NB: It doesn't use the true Boehm System, but a system designed by Klose based on the Boehm system) which allow the full musical scale to be produced. The clarinet has a written range spanning from low E on the third space of the bass clef staff (concert D on the Bb clarinet,concert C# on the A clarinet ) to the high C, on the space above the fifth ledger line above the treble clef staff (concert B flat on the Bb clarinet, concert A on the A clarinet). It also has an extended range up to the G above high C. This top range is not used very commonly, and many professional players have difficulty getting these notes.

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, basset clarinets (which are pitched in the key of A, but with an extended lower register, designed for the performance of the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K.622), 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). Extremely rare octocontrabass (which can play the B flat below the standard piano's lowest note) and octocontralto clarinets have been made.

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 reed is attached to the mouthpiece by the ligature. The position of the mouthpiece assembly in the player's mouth is called the embouchure (also, and more importantly, the formation of the mouth around the mouthpiece and reed).

Next is the short barrel, this part of the instrument may be extended in order to fine-tune the clarinet. As the pitch of the clarinet is fairly temperature sensitive some instruments have interchangeable barrels.

The main body of the clarinet is divided into the clarion (upper) joint whose holes and most keys are operated by the left hand, and the chalumeau (lower) joint with holes and most keys operated by the right hand. The left thumb operates both a sound hole and the register key. The cluster of keys in the middle of the illustration are known as the trill keys and are operated by the right hand. The entire weight of the instrument is supported by the right thumb behind the lower joint on what is misleadingly called the thumb-rest.
Finally, the flared end is known as the bell.


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 a similar 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. It also lacked certain chromatics. 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 near 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. It was an adaptation of the Boehm system developed by Theobald Boehm, a flute maker who had invented the system for flutes. The system was so successful that it was also adapted for oboe and bassoon. It was also adapted for the saxophone when it was invented by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian clarinet player. 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. Also, some contemporary Dixeland and Klezmer players continue to use Albert system clarinets, as the simpler fingering system can allow for easier slurring of notes. At one time the reed was held on using string, but now the practice exists only in Germany and Austria, where the warmer, thicker tone is preferred over that produced with the ligatures that are more popular in the rest of the world.
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