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Title: 20th Century Music for Unaccompanied Clarinet—Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, by Igor Stravinsky; Paul Meyer, clarinet. Label: Denon. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CO-78917. Track: 2.

Title: Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band--Byala Stala; Ivo Papasov, clarinet. Label: Hannibal. Format: CD. Catalogue#: HNCD 1346. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The clarinet is an end-blown single-reed aerophone that originated in Europe but is now distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. The modern clarinet family has several members (see E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet), but by far the most commonly encountered ones are the soprano-register clarinets in B-flat and A, both of which will be discussed in this entry. Of these two the clarinet in B-flat may be considered the standard with mainly orchestral players possessing a second instrument tuned in A. The clarinet, in earlier forms, started to be incorporated in the orchestra with some regularity in the middle of the 18th century, and by the early 19th century it had become a standard member of the orchestra's wind section. As military and concert bands evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, the clarinet became a standard member of those ensembles as well. In the 20th century it has been absorbed into jazz idioms (see Heaton 2006a). Folk and classical musicians of many cultures around the world have also adopted the clarinet (for an example of the clarinet’s use in one such tradition listen to the second audio clip, which is of Bulgarian music; see further Cottrell and Mantzourani 2006). In the domain of Western art music, concertos featuring the clarinet were written beginning in the 18th century, and this repertoire has continued to grow right up to the present. Composers have also produced a substantial repertoire of accompanied and unaccompanied (listen to first audio clip) solo works for the clarinet and incorporated it into a wide variety of chamber music works (one chamber ensemble in which the clarinet is a standard member is the woodwind quintet). Clarinet is today taught, at least in the United States, in the public schools and in university music departments and conservatories, where students can earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in clarinet performance. The clarinet is played both by males and females, amateurs and professionals.


Structurally, clarinets in B-flat (the first and third instruments in the image gallery) and in A (the second gallery image) are identical; they differ only in their lengths, with a clarinet in A being less than two inches longer than one in B-flat. The bodies of the first two clarinets in the gallery are made of African blackwood (other hardwoods, metal [the third gallery instrument], and resin may also be used) and are constructed in four 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), left-hand or upper joint, right-hand or lower joint, and bell. From the top of the barrel to the bottom of the lower joint the instrument’s bore is cylindrical; only the bell joint has a conical shape both inside and out (the metal clarinet shown in the gallery provides the clearest impression of the bore shape and dimensions). A total of twenty-four sound holes are drilled into the walls of the upper and lower joints. 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 joint and the right hand on the lower one. 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 B-flat instrument is D3; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but B-flat6 would be attainable by professionals. Its compass is therefore just under four octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic. At least four tone-quality registers are acknowledged within the range or compass of the clarinet: chalumeau (E3 to G4); throat (G-sharp4 to A-sharp4); clarinet, clarion, or clarino (B4 to C6); and extreme (C-sharp6 to B-flat6). For the clarinet in A, all the above pitches and ranges are lowered by a half step (for example, the lowest sounding note is C-sharp3 and the compass is C-sharp3 to about A6). In the latter part of the twentieth century, composers and performers have experimented with new techniques for the clarinet, 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 clarinet.


The evolution of the modern clarinet 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 (see flute). 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 clarinets pictured on this page are Boehm system instruments that differ only in subtle details from the one designed by Buffet/ Klosé in 1843. Metal clarinets such as the third instrument in the gallery, useful for outdoor performance (military and marching bands), began to be manufactured in the 1850s.

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.

Cottrell, Stephan, and Evangelia Mantzourani. 2006. “The Clarinet and Its Players in Eastern Europe and Greece.” in The Versatile Clarinet, Roger Heaton, ed. New York: Routledge, pp. 31-46.

Heaton, Roger, ed. 2006. The Versatile Clarinet. New York: Routledge.

________. 2006a. “Jazz Clarinet Performance.” in The Versatile Clarinet, Roger Heaton, ed. New York: Routledge, pp. 51-73.

Hoeprich, Eric. 2008. The Clarinet. New Haven: Yale University Press.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

Rice, Albert R. 2003. The Clarinet in the Classical Period. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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


26.4 in. length (B-flat clarinet) 28.2 in. length (A clarinet)

Primary Materials

reed - cane





Entry Author

Roger Vetter