Classical clarinet

Also:       clarinette      Klarinette      clarinetto      

Title: Mozart Clarinet Quintets; Salomon String Quartet with Alan Hacker, clarinet. Label: Musical Heritage Society. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MHS 11968Z. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The clarinet is an end-blown single-reed aerophone, and the instrument pictured here is representative of the clarinets in use throughout Europe and in the Americas around the turn of the 19th century. At that time, the clarinet was used extensively in military bands along with other woodwind and a few (pre-valve era) brass instruments. It had also become an established instrument in the evolving symphony orchestra by that time. Composers of the period were publishing at an accelerating pace works for the clarinet as a solo and chamber ensemble instrument both for amateurs and for virtuoso professionals, who were concertizing as concerto soloists and recitalists throughout Europe and the Americas. The instrument pictured and described here was made in Dresden, Germany, probably no later than 1810, and brought to the United States by German immigrants in the late 19th century. Certainly by the middle of the 19th century such a model was no longer in regular use, even by amateur musicians. However, starting in the mid-20th century the interest in period-informed music performance--the Early Music movement--rekindled interest on the part of some professional players in earlier models of the clarinet. A few such performers today play on extant instruments (listen to audio example) or copies thereof made by skilled contemporary craftsmen.


This clarinet, made from boxwood and ivory, is constructed in five 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, stock, and bell. The instrument comes with two sets of left- and right-hand joints of slightly differing lengths called corps-de-rechange (or piece-de-rechange); when the instrument is assembled with the shorter of the two it is pitched in D but called a B-flat clarinet (because it is notated a whole step above what it sounds), with the longer one in C-sharp but called an A clarinet (sounds a minor 3rd below written note).  From the top of the barrel to the bottom of the stock the instrument’s bore is cylindrical; only the bell joint has a conical shape both inside and out. A total of fifteen sound holes are drilled into the walls of the tube. Of these, eight (three finger holes and a thumbhole on the upper-joint, three finger holes on the lower-joint, and one on the stock) are covered directly with the player’s thumb and finger tips, the other seven are operated with keys. The square-shaped keys, made from brass with tanned-leather pads, are mounted on raised blocks and rings of wood on the tube and have springs attached to their underside. The mouthpiece, made of cocus or ebony wood, 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 tied so that its thicker base is securely attached with string 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 is situated on the back side just below a thumb rest that 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 (starting 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 pictured here (assembled with the B-flat corps-de-rechange) is D3; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but E-flat6 would be possible for amateur players. Its range is therefore basically three 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 E-flat6). With the A corps-de-rechange 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 D6).


The immediate precursor of this instrument was the two- or three-key Baroque clarinet, which continued to be manufactured in areas of Europe until around 1760 and used in military bands and by amateurs until the turn of the 19th century. Design innovations to the Baroque instrument started to appear around the 1750s, and by the 1770s more responsive instruments with better intonation, larger finger holes, and up to six keys were being manufactured and used alongside the older clarinet design throughout Europe and in the American Colonies. It is not possible to put a date to when the clarinet pictured here was designed and manufactured, but it is likely that makers were producing such instruments before the year 1800 and possibly continued manufacturing this model well past that date as clarinets with an even greater number of keys and new key work systems were being designed, manufactured, and used by military bands, amateurs, and an increasing number of professional orchestra players and virtuoso soloists. Throughout this period many of the design innovations taking place were the result of collaborations between clarinet virtuosos and makers who together sought to resolve problems with existing instrument designs and limitations.

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.

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

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 in. length (B-flat clarinet) 27.2 in. length (A clarinet)

Primary Materials

reed - cane


made in Dresden, Germany

Entry Author

Roger Vetter