Get to Know the Clarinet

The clarinet is one of those instruments that everyone will be familiar with but actually know very little about. The clarinet has a long history and, today, forms part of an endless list of different musical styles and genres. High time to learn more about this versatile woodwind instrument!

The History of the Clarinet

The first ever clarinet appeared in around 1700, and was developed by the German instrument builder, Johann Christiaan Denner. Before the dawn of the clarinet, there was a similar instrument called the ‘chalumeau’, which Johann simply modified by adding an extra valve to complete the unique clarinet register. Quickly after, the instrument underwent a few other tweaks, including the addition of even more valves and variations in length, expanding the ‘clarinet family’ with models with different tunings and ranges, and suddenly widening the potential when it came to composing music for the clarinet. The word ‘clarinet’ itself, weirdly originated from the Italian word for trumpet: ‘clarino’ – allegedly because, if you look at a clarinet from a good distance (maybe squinting and with one eye closed, it looks a bit like a trumpet). However, it became very clear, very quickly, that the clarinet had a sound that was entirely its own.

How Does a Clarinet Fit Together?

If you just look at a clarinet, you see a long, hollow tube covered with holes and valves. The tube is cylindrical and doesn’t get wider, narrower or bend – it’s consistently straight – until you get to the mouthpiece at the top end and the bell at the other end, that is. The sound of the clarinet starts at the mouthpiece. When air is pushed through the hole, a reed is vibrated (more on this in a bit), and from there, the air (so, the sound) is pushed through the tube and out of the bell at the other end.

Let’s rewind a second and take a look at what those holes and valves do. The air being pushed through the tube wants to escape via the shortest route possible. By closing off the first hole, this route is made a bit longer, and by closing the second hole, the route gets even longer. Basically, the longer the escape route for the air, the lower the pitch of the note that’s produced.

Some of the holes in the body of the clarinet can simply be sealed with your finger, but a lot of the holes are covered or uncovered by a complex valve system. These valves are usually made from a lightweight metal finished with silver or nickel plating. Meanwhile, the body of the clarinet is traditionally made from a type of hardwood, but these days can even be made of materials like plastic. While plastic models can sound a little less warm, they are more resistant to humidity and temperature shifts, which over time, can warp models made from natural wood. Plastic clarinets are also much cheaper to produce, making them a great pick for beginner musicians. You might also come across some metal clarinets, which have a cooler sound and are harder to tune with other instruments.

Clarinet Reeds

A little earlier, we mentioned how the sound of a clarinet is produced with the help of a reed. The mouthpiece of a clarinet has a large hole in it, which is partially blocked by a reed. The reed is held in place by a ligature: a special holder that clamps the reed against the mouthpiece opening, leaving a small slit for air to pass through – which is precisely the point. When you blow air into that small slit, the reed vibrates. However, if you just blow into the mouthpiece, you’d hear nothing but a little squeak, but because the air then passes through the hollow body of the clarinet, its unique sound is formed. There are various different clarinet reeds available, often marked with a specific number which indicates the reed thickness, so a lower number means a thinner reed. Thin reeds vibrate more easily, so require less force and are perfect for beginners. While thicker reeds will give you a more full and warm sound, they are much harder to play with, as they require so much force. When shopping for reeds, be aware that you can only use specific clarinet reeds, so you really can’t use any other type of reeds, like a saxophone reed. You also need to make sure that you get the reeds that match the tuning of your instrument. So, if you have a Bb clarinet, then you’ll need to use reeds that are made for the Bb clarinet.

Bb, Eb or A-Clarinet

The instrument that springs to most people’s minds when they hear the word ‘clarinet’ is actually a Bb clarinet. But as we learned from the history of the clarinet, there are actually many different clarinet models. That people are most familiar with the Bb clarinet makes sense, since it is the most-played model across a range of different genres. The ‘Bb’ means that the Bb clarinet is a transposing instrument, so when you play a C, you hear a Bb instead. The A clarinet has a lower tuning, has a slightly different range, and is often played as part of symphony orchestras so that the original score can be played without having to transpose anything. The Eb clarinet is a bit smaller and therefore sounds higher pitched and sharper. Eb clarinets often play a big role in concert orchestras. Then there’s the bass clarinet, which is a whole octave lower than the Bb clarinet. From there, there are lesser-used models, which are usually used to play very specific pieces of music.

The Boehm System vs. The Albert System

One of the terms you’re likely to come across a lot in relation to the clarinet is ‘Boehm system’. This refers to the way that the holes and valve system are arranged. The system is named after Mr. Böhm (or Boehm), who developed the valve system of the flute. A similar layout has been applied to the clarinet, but the holes are slightly closer together, making the instrument easier to play. This is a modification of the earlier German system, which is also known as the Oehler or Albert system. These days, the Boehm system is considered the standard for most clarinet players, except those in Austria and Germany. Some players also still stick to the German valve system because it can result in a more beautiful glissandi.

From Classical to Klezmer

The fact that almost everyone is at least familiar with the clarinet is maybe because the instrument is so versatile. While its roots lie in classical music after it found its way into the concert orchestra via the marching band, the clarinet has also played a big role in jazz since its beginnings. It also pops up in a lot of Eastern European music, especially in the Balkans, where it’s a mainstay of traditional gypsy music. Also, Jewish klezmer music would never sound quite right without a clarinet or two. So, as a clarinet player, you’re never limited when it comes to style, technique and genre.


Clarinet Accessories

Like any instrument, there are a few clarinet accessories that can really come in handy. A good cleaning kit to keep your clarinet in top condition is definitely recommended. Since you’re blowing into your clarinet, it’s going to get dirty and, since you’re using your mouth to blow into your instrument, you’ll want to keep it clean. Using a specialised weighted cloth, you can easily keep the interior clean and dry. A clarinet stand is another useful accessory and, while playing some well-known songs is a lot of fun, practice is always a necessity, and there are plenty of books out there to help you do both – some including access to online audio and some scored for duets.

Learning to Play the Clarinet

The clarinet is an extremely adaptable instrument. Learning to play it and navigate all of those holes and valves might seem difficult, but it’s definitely nothing to be afraid of. In essence, learning to play the clarinet is no less complicated than learning to play any other instrument. In our complete range of clarinets you’ll find plenty of affordable, beginner friendly models so you can try one out for yourself. And once you have your instrument, you can complete you can start learning with the help of a music stand, a metronome, and plenty of other helpful accessories.

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