The clarinet consists of a closed cylindrical air column with a bell-shaped opening at one end. It's mouthpiece holds a single reed, in contrast to the double reed of the oboe family. The reed is made from cane, and reeds from southern France are favored. The base of the reed is at least 3 mm thick and the reeds for the clarinets used in the U.S. are 69 mm long. The base width specification is 11.55 mm and the tip 13.05 mm. The body of the instrument is typically constructed of wood.
The clarinet developed from the recorder family, and is closely related to the saxophone. The early models c. 1700 were played with reeds placed up against the upper lip. They were tied to the mouthpiece with twine. Today, ligatures are used to hold the reed to the mouthpiece with the reed against the bottom lip. Clarinets are relatively recent additions to the orchestra and are standard instruments in the concert band, symphonic band, military bands, wind ensembles, and chamber ensembles. They are also found in popular bands and jazz bands, and are especially prominent in Dixieland jazz.
The clarinet sound is produced by the vibrations of the reed attached to the mouthpiece as the air moves across it. The hardness of the reed and the physical characteristics of the mouthpiece all are contributing factors to the quality sound produced. The wood used is typically Grenadilla but Rosewood has also been used. The less expensive models are often made with plastic or composite. These will not crack with changes in humidity and temerature as the wooden models, but they lack the character of sound of the wooden models.
The earliest known works calling for the clarinet were an anonymous set of duets for chalumeau, trumpets, oboes, violins, flutes, clarinets, or horns published in Amsterdam by the Frenchman Estienne Roger.
At the end of the 18th century the clarinet had its own identity. It was no longer compared to other instruments such as the oboe or trumpet. It was known as the best imitator of the human voice and it was considered the best instrument to convey sadness or grief. Except for a few Concertos written for the D or C clarinet, the Bb clarinet had become the most popular instrument for solo works due to its tonal combination of brilliance and alternately warmth. At the end of the century there had formed two distinct schools, the soft, sweet German and the brilliant and penetrating French.
The Bb, or soprano, clarinet is the most common type of clarinet. It is used in a lot of different ensembles, ranging from larger groups like orchestras and wind bands to smaller ensembles like clarinet choirs and woodwind quintets.
The bass clarinet was invented in the 1830s. It sounds lower than the Bb clarinet. It too can be seen in wind bands and clarinet choirs and acts more like a bass voice than a higher voice.
The clarinet has a long and rich history as a solo, orchestral, and chamber musical instrument. In this broad-ranging account Eric Hoeprich, a performer, teacher, and expert on historical clarinets, explores its development, repertoire, and performance history.
Like its woodwind relatives, the clarinet has a low and a high register, but significantly, unlike these instruments, the clarinet 'overblows' a twelfth instead of an octave, due to the acoustical properties of a cylindrical, stopped pipe.
Most people play the B flat soprano clarinet. There are about thirteen less common types including:
The E flat alto. This produces slightly different pitches using the same fingering as the soprano.
The sopranino clarinet. This is the shortest clarinet. It can play very high notes.
The bass clarinet. This has a curve neck and bell. The bell lengthens the air inside, so it can play very low notes.
The rare octocontrabass clarinet. This is over 6 feet (2 meters) tall. It has a leg at the bottom to support its weight. It make the lowest notes of any clarinet.