About the Clarinet

The clarinet is a musical instrument in the woodwind family. The name derives from adding the suffix "-et," meaning "little" in French to the Italian word clarino, which is a particular type of trumpet, as the first clarinets had a strident tone similar to that of a trumpet. The instrument has a mostly cylindrical shape, and uses a single reed.

Clarinets actually comprise a family of instruments of differing sizes and pitches. There are more than a dozen types, but many have fallen out of fashion. Nowadays, music written for these unpopular types is adapted to more common ones. The most common is the soprano clarinet, which is what most refer to when they use the word "clarinet."


The clarinet derives from flutes and single-reed instruments from the medieval period. A more immediate predecessor is the Baroque chalumeau, which was modified into the clarinet in the 18th century. Early clarinets produced a very shrill sound, but this mellowed out over time.

In 1812, the pads covering the holes on the clarinet switched from felt, which leaked air, to leather or fish bladder. Ian Muller, the inventor of these pads, also created a new kind of clarinet with seven holes and thirteen keys. In 1839, clarinetist Hyacinthe Klosé adapted the Boehm system of flute playing to the clarinet. Though it revolutionized how the instrument was played, today it is the modern standard, save in Austria and Germany.


Most clarinets are made of wood, though plastic, metal, and other materials are also common. Because of the wide variety of clarinets, the primary components of the instrument are quite simple. There's the reed, which is attached to the bottom of the mouthpiece and held between the lower lip and teeth.

After the mouthpiece comes the barrel, whose length determines the pitch of the clarinet. Lower-register clarinets sometimes replace the barrel for a curved metal neck. Next is the upper and lower joints, which house the tone holes, seven of which are covered with the fingers, and the rest using keys. There's also a number of trill keys on the lower joint, which give further musical control to the player. Lastly, there's the bell, which creates a more uniform sound, especially with lower registers.

The clarinet is played by pressing on keys to open and close different holes. This changes the length of the column of air inside the body, which determines the length of vibration and thus pitch. Clarinets have a very wide range, some notes being very shrill and others very low. Different styles of music use different clarinets depending on the range of notes needed.