E-flat clarinet

Also:       clarinette      Klarinette      clarinetto      

Title: Giacinto Scelsi:The Complete Works for Clarinet—Tre Pezzi; David Smyers, E-flat clarinet. Label: Radio Mremen/cpo. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 999 266-2. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The clarinet in E-flat is an end-blown single-reed aerophone that originated in Europe but is now distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism (and especially the symphony orchestra) has taken root. It is the highest-pitched member of the modern clarinet family and is pitched a fourth higher than the standard clarinet. In the early 19th century the E-flat clarinet was initially used in military bands and eventually, in the course of the century, as an orchestral instrument. In this latter context it can be considered a doubling instrument performed by clarinet players as an auxiliary instrument for restricted passages. There is not much of a solo repertoire for this instrument, although a few works in recent decades have been composed for it. It is therefore not an important recital instrument; it has only a small solo repertoire that is seldom heard even at tertiary educational institutions where most clarinetists earn their performance degrees. Today, it is primarily heard in a relatively small number of orchestra, concert band, and clarinet ensemble pieces. The E-flat clarinet is played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females.


The body of the pictured E-flat clarinet is made of African blackwood (other hardwoods and resin may also be used) and is constructed in three interlocking sections, connected with tenon-and-socket joints, plus a mouthpiece. The sections are called, from top to bottom: barrel (into which the reed-bearing mouthpiece is inserted), key joint, and bell. From the top of the barrel to the bottom of the key joint the instrument’s bore is cylindrical; only the bell section has a conical shape both inside and out. A total of twenty-four sound holes are drilled into the walls of the key joint. These holes are of varying sizes and are located at acoustically optimal positions, but do not take into consideration the physiology of the human hands that operate them. An elaborate system of spring activated ring keys with pads, horizontal rod-axles, and levers made from nickel silver compensates for this. Seven of the holes are covered directly with the player’s digits (open ring keys around six of these assist the player in covering them), the other seventeen holes are reached with the assistance of the keywork system and are covered with pads made of fish skin. The mouthpiece, made of ebonite (a hard rubber), is somewhat conical in shape with much of one side shaved off to create a flat, mostly-open plane (called the ‘table’) over which a rectangular reed is positioned so that its thicker base is securely clamped with a screw-tightened metal ligature to the mouthpiece and its thinly-shaven end is aligned with the tip of the mouthpiece. A very small gap is left between the tips of the reed and mouthpiece so that the airstream necessary to sound the instrument can pass. A tenon-and-socket joint is used to connect the mouthpiece to the barrel joint.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either standing or seated, holds the instrument vertically in front of himself or herself with both hands, left hand on the upper part of the key joint and the right hand on the lower part. The tip of the mouthpiece is inserted into the mouth and pressed upon snugly between the lips using the embouchure muscles. The player’s left hand thumb and all the fingers on both hands are used to operate the finger holes and keys found on the instrument; the right hand thumb, situated on the back side just below a thumb rest, helps steady the instrument and absorb much of its weight. The instrument functions acoustically as a closed tube, meaning that its fundamental sounds an octave below that of an open tube of comparable length, and that it overblows at every other overtone (stating at a 12th above the fundamental) rather than at every overtone (starting at the octave). With all the finger holes covered the lowest sounding pitch on the instrument is G3; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but C7 would be attainable by professionals. Its compass is therefore about three-and-one-half octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic. In the latter part of the 20th century, composers and performers have experimented with new techniques for all clarinets, most importantly the production of multiphonics. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the E-flat clarinet.


The pre-modern E-flat clarinet seems to have come into use in military bands by the 1830s. However, the evolution of all modern clarinets needs to begin with the 13-key clarinet designed in 1811 by Iwan Müller, a German virtuoso clarinetist and instrument maker who set up shop in Paris. His innovations produced an instrument with keywork (the ‘Müller-system’) that would serve as the platform upon which many contemporaneous and subsequent makers operated, including Louis-Auguste Buffet, who, in collaboration with the clarinetist Hyacinth Klosé in 1843, designed a clarinet with seventeen keys and six rings, and twenty-four tone holes. The tone hole placement and key work of this design were informed by the contemporaneous innovations in flute design by Theobald Boehm. Even though Buffet did not copy Boehm’s flute system, Boehm’s name became attached to Buffet’s clarinet design, which has ever since been called the ‘Boehm system clarinet.’ The modern clarinet in E-flat pictured on this page is a Boehm system instrument that differs only in subtle details from the one designed by Buffet/ Klosé in 1843. 

Bibliographic Citations

Brymer, Jack. 1976. Clarinet. New York: Schirmer Books.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Shackleton, Nicholas. 1984. “Clarinet.” NGDMI v.1: 389-403.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.211.2 aerophone--single cylindrical-bore reedpipe with single reed: the pipe has a [single] reed consisting of a lamella which periodically opens and closes an aperture, controlling the flow of air; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed percussion (single) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at every other partial

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


19.1 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane
spring - flat and/or needle





Entry Author

Roger Vetter