contrabass clarinet

Also:       clarinette contrebasse      clarinette-pédale      Kontrabassklarinette      

Title: Giacinto Scelsi: The Complete Works for Clarinet—Maknongan; David Smyers, contrabass clarinet. Label: Radio Bremen/cpo. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 999 266-2. Track: 10.

Contextual Associations

The contrabass clarinet is an end-blown single-reed aerophone that originated in Europe but is now distributed, albeit sparingly, throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. The modern clarinet family has several members (see clarinet, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet), the contrabass, introduced in the late 19th century, being the lowest-register member of, and the most recent addition to, this family. The contrabass clarinet is primarily found in the modern concert band and in relatively recent works and arrangements for clarinet ensembles that are popular in parts of Europe. A few late 19th and 20th century orchestral works call for it. There is not much of a solo repertoire for this instrument, though a few works in recent decades have been composed for it (listen to audio clip). The contrabass clarinet is played both by professionals (as an auxiliary instrument) and amateurs (in university bands and clarinet ensembles), males and females.


The body of this contrabass clarinet is made of resin (hardwoods and metal may also be used) and nickel-plated brass, constructed in four interlocking sections connected with tenon-and-socket joints, plus a mouthpiece. The sections are called, from top to bottom: neck (that has two U-shaped turns into the end of which the reed-bearing mouthpiece is inserted), left-hand or upper joint, right-hand or lower joint, and bell (with a U-shaped bend). 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. A total of twenty-five 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 cannot possibly take into consideration the physiology of the human hands that operate them. An elaborate system of spring activated keys with pads, horizontal rod-axles, and levers made from nickel silver compensates for this. None of the holes are covered directly with the player’s digits; all are reached with the assistance of the keywork system and are covered with keypads made of leather. 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 on a stool, 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 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 some of its weight. An adjustable peg at the bottom of the instrument allows it rest on the floor and carries most of the instrument’s substantial 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 D-flat1; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but C5 would be attainable by professionals. Its compass is therefore just under four octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic.


When the modern contrabass clarinet similar to the one pictured here came into existence around 1890, its French makers adapted to it the already well established system of keywork that had been designed a half century earlier for smaller clarinets by the Paris maker Louis-Auguste Buffet in collaboration with the clarinetist Hyacinth Klosé. While contrabass clarinets existed earlier than this period, they displayed different body and keywork designs that didn’t prove as practical and enduring as the late 19th century models.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1962. Woodwind Instruments and their History. New York: W.W. Norton.

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.

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

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: France

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


71.3 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane


Selmer Vito



Entry Author

Roger Vetter