bass clarinet

Also:       clarinette basse      Bass Klarinette      clarinetto basso      

Title: Frank Wigglesworth—Summer Music; Evan Ziporyn, bass clarinet. Label: CRI. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD 733. Track: 8.

Contextual Associations

The bass 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, clarinet, and contrabass clarinet), including this bass-register one tuned an octave lower than the standard soprano-register clarinet. The bass clarinet is called for in a number of late-19th century and 20th century works for orchestra, is a standard instrument in the modern concert band, and can be found in marching bands; it can also be heard in relatively recent works and arrangements for clarinet ensembles/choirs. There is not much of a solo or chamber music repertoire for the instrument. The bass clarinet is today taught, at least in the United States, in the public schools and in university music departments and conservatories where students earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in clarinet performance study it as an auxiliary instrument. Some of these players go on to specialize on the instrument, often holding the bass clarinet chair in a major symphony orchestra. The bass clarinet is played both by males and females, amateurs and professionals.


The bass clarinet pictured here is made of African blackwood (other hardwoods and resin may also be used) and German silver. It is constructed in four interlocking sections, connected with tenon-and-socket joints, plus a mouthpiece. The sections are called, from top to bottom: neck (into which the reed-bearing mouthpiece is inserted), left-hand or upper body joint, right-hand or lower body joint, and bell. From the top of the neck to the bottom of the body the instrument’s bore is cylindrical; only the metal bell section has a conical shape both inside and out. 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 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 of the tone holes are reached with the assistance of the keywork system and are covered with pads made of leather and cork. 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 neck.

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 body joint and the right hand on the lower one. An adjustable peg at the bottom of the instrument allows it rest on the floor and carries most of the instrument’s substantial weight when played by a seated performer; a neck strap can also be incorporated, especially when the instrument is played while standing/marching. 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. 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 this B-flat instrument is D-flat2; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but C6 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 bass clarinet: chalumeau (D-flat2 to G3); throat (A-flat3 to B-flat3); clarinet, clarion, or clarino (A-flat3 to C5); and extreme (D-flat5 to C6). Of these, the chalumeau register is favored in large part because it can be seen as a lower extension of the range of the soprano-register clarinet. Since the latter part of the 20th century, composers and performers have experimented with new techniques for the bass 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 bass clarinet.


Adolphe Sax designed bass clarinets in the 1830s and 1840s that can be considered precursors of the modern instrument. His instruments had acoustically well-paced tone holes covered by numerous keys, an important improvement over earlier designs with direct fingering systems that required the covering of fingerholes that were invariably too widely spaced for the anatomy of the human hand. In the 1850s, makers such as Buffet applied the rod-axel mechanism being used for other woodwind instruments of the time to the bass clarinet’s key-work system. The placement and sizing of tone holes and the key-work of this design were informed by the slightly earlier 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 designs, which have ever since been called ‘Boehm system clarinets.’ This resulted in an instrument that for all intents and purposes is like the bass clarinet pictured on this page.

Bibliographic Citations

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

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

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

Shackleton, Nicholas. 1984a. “Bass clarinet.” NGDMI v.1: 169-171.

________. 1984b. “Clarinet.” NGDMI v.1: 389-403.


Instrument Information


Continent: 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


37.4 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane




Prestige 400

Entry Author

Roger Vetter