The clarinet is a woodwind instrument played with a single reed. Clarinets come in many different sizes, with different pitch ranges. Though there are more than a dozen different modern clarinet types, the most common ones used in orchestras and bands are the B flat and A clarinets. The bass clarinet, which is much bigger than the standard and has an upwardly curved bell, is also frequently used in modern bands and orchestras. The standard clarinet consists of five parts—the mouthpiece, the barrel or tuning socket, the upper (or lefthand) joint, lower (or right-hand) joint, and the bell. A thin, flattened, specially shaped piece of cane called a reed must be inserted in the mouthpiece before the instrument can be played. Different notes are produced as the player moves his fingers over metal keys which open and close air holes in the clarinet's body.
An instrument similar to the clarinet—a cylindrical cane tube played with a cane reed—was in use in Egypt as early as 3000 b.c. Instruments of this type were used across the Near East into modern times, and other clarinet prototypes were played in Spain, parts of Eastern Europe, and in Sardinia. A folk instrument found in Wales through the eighteenth century, called the hompipe or pibgorn, was very similar to Greek and Middle Eastern cane single reed instruments, but it was made of bone or of elder wood. Through the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century such single reed instruments were played across Europe, but they were almost exclusively peasant or folk instruments.
The modern clarinet seems to have been originated by a Nuremberg instrument maker, Johann Cristoph Denner, sometime around 1690. Denner was a celebrated manufacturer of recorders, flutes, oboes, and bassoons. His early clarinets (the word is a diminutive of the Italian word for trumpet, clarino) looked much like recorders, made in three parts and with the addition of two keys to close the holes. A clarinet with a flared bell, like the modern clarinet, may have been made by Denner's son. Parts scored for clarinet were soon found in the music of notable eighteenth century composers, including Handel, Gluick, and Telemann. The early clarinets were usually made of boxwood or occasionally plum or pear wood. Rarely, they were made of ivory, and some used a mouthpiece of ebony.
The design of the clarinet was improved by the end of the eighteenth century. The two keys gave way to five or six, giving the instrument more pitch control. Composers and virtuoso performers began to exploit one of the signal characteristics of the clarinet, its versatile dynamic range, from whisper soft to loud and penetrating. Mozart composed a concerto for clarinet in 1791, showing that he realized its possibilities as a solo instrument. By 1800, most orchestras included clarinets. The clarinet developed further in the nineteenth century. Its intonation was improved by a rearrangement of the holes, more keys were added, and the instrument's range was extended. Virtuoso performers toured Europe and influenced composers such as Spohr and Weber to write clarinet concertos and chamber works. Instruments continued to be made out of boxwood, though makers experimented with silver and brass as well. Some clarinets were made out of cocuswood, a tropical wood found mostly in Jamaica. French makers began making clarinets out of ebony, a heavy, dark wood from Africa, in the mid-nineteenth century. But gradually the preferred material became African blackwood, which is similar to ebony but less heavy and brittle.
Clarinets made after 1850 are generally the same as modern clarinets in size and shape. Nineteenth century makers experimented widely with different key and fingering systems, and today there are two main key systems in use. The simple, or Albert, system is used principally in German-speaking countries. The Bohm system has more keys than the Albert and is standard in most other parts of the world.
Most modern clarinet bodies are made out of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon). There are actually many different trees in the African blackwood genus, such as black cocus, Mozambique ebony, grenadilla, and East African ebony. It is this heavy, dark wood that gives clarinets their characteristic color. Inexpensive clarinets designed for students may be made out of artificial resins. Very occasionally, clarinets are manufactured out of silver or brass. The clarinet mouthpiece is made out of a kind of hard rubber called ebonite. The keys are usually made out of an alloy called German silver. This is made from copper, zinc, and nickel. It looks like pure silver, but does not tarnish. Some fine instruments may be made with pure silver keys, and expensive models are available with gold-plated keys. The key pads require cardboard and felt or leather. The reed is made from cane. Other materials used in the clarinet are cork and wax, for lining the joints, and a metal such as silver or a cheaper alloy for the ligature, the screw clip that holds the reed in place, and stainless steel for the spring mechanisms that work the keys.
Preparing the body
- 1 When wood is harvested for clarinet-making, logs are sawed to between 3-4 ft (1-1.2 m) in length. The logs must be seasoned, to prevent later warping. They may be seasoned by being kept in the open air for several months, or they may be dried in a kiln. Then the logs are split and sawed to lengths approximating the finished lengths of the clarinet body pieces, (upper and lower joints, barrel and bell). The body pieces look like narrow rectangular blocks, and pieces for the barrel are carved in a rough pyramidal shape. These pieces are known as billets. The manufacturer buys the billets in lots, and begins the manufacturing process from these roughed-out shapes.
2 When the manufacturer receives the billets, workers inspect the lot. Then skilled workers place the billets on a borer, which drills a hole lengthwise through the center of each piece. The diameter and shape of this hole, called the bore of the clarinet, is crucial to determining the tone of the instrument. The bore may be drilled in a straight cylinder, or the cylinder may be slightly tapered. After the bore is drilled, the body pieces are turned on a lathe. The rectangular billets become smooth, round, hollow cylinders. These cylinders are then seasoned again.
After the rough pieces have been seasoned for the second time, they are reduced to finished size. The pieces are turned on a lathe and trimmed to exceedingly precise diameters. The joints where the body pieces fit into each other are turned after the exterior is completed. The bore may be reamed more precisely, and then it is polished on the inside. Then the joints are painted with a black dye.
3 Body parts for clarinets made of plastic are produced by injection molding. Plastic pellets are melted and forced under pressure into molds. The molds for clarinet body parts produce hollow cylinders. In some cases, the molds are so precise that these cylinders do not need any additional reaming. Or they may be reamed and polished, as are wooden clarinets.
The steps that follow apply to both wooden and plastic models.
Boring the tone holes
- 4 Next, the maker bores the tone holes that the player's fingers cover to make the different notes. The most common method for mass-produced clarinets is to set the body pieces in a setting out machine. This is a table which holds the piece on a mount under a vertical drill. The holes are drilled at specified distances apart and with precise diameters. The exact dimension of the holes affects the tuning of the instrument, and the holes may be adjusted after the instrument is nearly complete. Not every hole is the same size, and the maker may have to insert a different drill bit for each hole. The holes are smaller on the outside than on the inside, and to achieve their precise shape, after the holes are drilled they are undercut. The clarinet maker uses a small, flared tool placed in the tone hole to expand the underside of the hole. Next to the tone holes, tiny holes for holding the key mechanism are also drilled.
Construction of keys
5 Early clarinets were made with hand-forged keys. The modern method is usually die-casting. Molten alloy (usually German silver) is forced under pressure into steel dies. A group of connected keys may be made in one piece in this method. Alternately, individual keys may be stamped out by a heavy stamping machine, and then trimmed. These individual keys are then soldered together with silver solder to make the connected group. Next the keys are polished. Keys for inexpensive models may be placed in a tumbling machine, where friction and agitation of pellets in a revolving drum polish the pieces. More expensive keys may be buffed individually by being held against the rotating wheel of a polishing machine. Some keys may be silver-plated, and then polished.
- 6 The keys are then fitted with pads. The pads are usually made of several layers—cardboard, felt, and skin or leather. The circular pads are stamped or cut, and then workers glue them by hand into the head of the key. This will muffle the sound of the tone hole closing when the instrument is played.
- 7 The keys are drilled, and then fitted with springs that will keep them either open or closed. These springs are made of fine steel wire.
Mounting the keys
- 8 The keys are mounted on small pillars called posts. The posts are first set in the holes previously drilled for them. In many models the posts are threaded, and they can be simply screwed in by hand. Using a very small drill bit, tiny holes are then drilled in the posts to hold the needle springs. Then the keys are screwed into the posts with stainless steel hinge rods. The assembler uses a fine screwdriver, pliers, and a small leather mallet to fit the keys and adjust the spring action. The assembler also checks that the tone holes are covered completely by the key pad, inserting a tiny pick under the pad on each side. The pad may need to be adjusted or reset, or the assembler may clamp a key shut temporarily, to set the crease for a perfect, airtight closure.
- 9 The joints of the body pieces are lined with cork and waxed, so that the pieces fit smoothly into each other. The ends of the body pieces are fitted with decorative metal rings, as is the bottom of the barrel. The barrel is usually embossed with the name of the maker. The mouthpiece, manufactured separately out of hard rubber, is fitted to the instrument. When a reed is inserted, the instrument can be played for the first time.
After the clarinet is fully assembled, a worker checks the instrument for visual flaws, checks the action of the keys, and then play tests it. By playing it, the worker can note the tone quality, intonation, and action of the new instrument.
The finished clarinet should be checked for precision tuning. The clarinet's sounding A natural should be at 440 cycles per second, and the other notes in tune with this. If the instrument has been manufactured according to a standard model, with care to exact diameters of bore and tone holes, it should play in tune automatically. It may be tested with an electronic tuner, and the diameters of the tone holes made larger by more reaming, if necessary. If tone holes are too large (producing a flat note) they may be filled with a layer of shellac.
The wood of the clarinet body should not crack, and the action of the keys should be smooth and not too loud. Ideally, the instrument should last for decades without warping, cracking, or any serious defect.
Clarinet manufacturing itself is a fairly conservative industry, relying on highly skilled craftspeople who do much work by hand. Most of the innovations in clarinet design are now 100 years old. One area that is still in flux, however, is the manufacture of clarinet reeds. While the best reeds are said to come from a species of cane grown in France, some players and makers are experimenting with wild cane that grows in California. Synthetic reeds have also been developed recently, and more research is being done to improve them. As sources of natural cane diminish, and overall quality is not high, synthetic reeds may be what most clarinet players use in the future.
Where to Learn More
Rendall, F. Geoffrey. The Clarinet. Norton, 1971.
Robinson, Trevor. The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker. University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Armato, Ben. "Raising 'Cain' with the Growers." The Clarinet. February/March 1994, pp. 32-33.
As the reed blocks one end of the tube, the pipe acts as a ‘stopped’ one, sounding an octave lower than it would have done if left open. Like other cylindrical tubes the cl. overblows at the interval not of its first upper partial, the interval of an octave (as the fl. and ob. do), but at its 2nd (the interval of a 12th). The notes of the instr.'s first octave are obtained in the normal way and the gap of a 5th before the overblowing begins has to be filled by additional side-holes which leave the tone weaker at this point and the fingering somewhat more awkward. All members of the family have great powers of pianissimo and of crescendo and diminuendo—greater than those of any other wind instr. Double, triple, and flutter tonguing are possible.
Varieties of cl. incl.:
(a) clarinet in C, B♭, or A—the normal treble instr. The existence of these 3 pitches was to enable the composer to use any key without creating undue difficulty for the player (see transposing instrument). The B♭ clarinet is a transposing instr., sounding a tone lower than written. The A clarinet sounds a minor 3rd lower than written. The C instr. is now not much used, on account of inferior tone, but figures in the scores of classical composers. It is not a transposing instr. (b) bass clarinet. Its range lies an octave below that of one of the above (usually of that of the B♭ instr.). It differs somewhat in shape, its lower end being curved upwards and ending in a bell, and its upper one continued by a tube bent downwards to reach the player's mouth. Except in military band mus. it is treated as a transposing instr., its mus. being notated either in the treble clef and a 9th higher than the sound (Fr. method), or in the bass clef a 2nd above the sound (Ger. Method). (c) high E♭ clarinet, a 4th above the B♭ instr. It is found in all military bands and occasionally figures in orch. scores, e.g. Richard Strauss's Alpensinfonie. It is a transposing instr., its mus. being notated a minor 3rd lower than the sound. (d) high D clarinet. This serves the same purpose as the E♭ cl., but is much rarer. It is a transposing instr., being written for a tone lower than the sound. R. Strauss uses it in Symphonia Domestica and with outstanding effect in Till Eulenspiegel. (e) alto clarinet—in E♭ and F. The E♭ is used in symphonic wind bands, concert bands, and cl. choirs. The F instr. is practically a modernized basset horn. Both are written for in the treble clef and are transposing instr. (f) pedal clarinet, or contrabass clarinet, or double-bass clarinet. Almost entirely a military band instr. Its part is written 2 octaves and a tone higher than the sound. (The word ‘pedal’ had no reference to any part of the construction and the origin of its use is not very clear.) (g) 3 obscure modern instr. related to the cl. family by possessing a single reed are the clarina, the heckelclarina or Heckelclarinette, and the Holztrompete. All were invented to represent the shepherd-boy's pipe in Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, but have not displaced customary use of the cor anglais.
Note that the old Eng. spelling ‘clarionet’ is obsolete.
clarinet, musical wind instrument of cylindrical bore employing a single reed. The clarinet family comprises all single-reed instruments, including the saxophone. The predecessor of the modern clarinet was the simpler chalumeau, which J. C. Denner of Nuremberg improved (c.1700) into the clarinet. It was accepted into the orchestra during the 18th cent., and Mozart used it extensively. Major improvements of the key system during the 19th cent. employed the principles of Theobald Boehm. The clarinets in B flat and A are the standard orchestral instruments. The higher, shriller E flat clarinet is also a band instrument and is used occasionally in the orchestra. Of the larger clarinets, the B flat bass clarinet is the most important. The E flat alto and the E flat contrabass clarinets are mainly band instruments. Clarinets were once made in other keys, but all of these instruments are now obsolete. The basset-horn, a type of alto clarinet, was much used by Mozart and was revived by Richard Strauss. The clarinet is a transposing instrument.
See F. G. Rendall, The Clarinet (3d rev. ed. 1971).
clar·i·net / ˌklarəˈnet/ • n. a woodwind instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece, a cylindrical tube of dark wood with a flared end, and holes stopped by keys. ∎ an organ stop with a tone resembling that of a clarinet. DERIVATIVES: clar·i·net·ist / -ˈnetist/ (Brit. clar·i·net·tist) n.