HOPEFULLY, I will update this site every month and put some interesting information about music or composers that we are studying, or something about current events in music that might relate to us, or who knows what! If you have ideas for me, let me know! muffitt@bandnotes.info

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This tidbit page will give you some information about the history of the clarinet. It contains sections on:


A clarinet type instrument has been around for many hundreds of years, although the instrument that we recognize as a clarinet wasn't invented until the end of the 17th century. Mozart was one of the earliest composers to write for the clarinet. (He wrote a WONDERFUL clarinet concerto! Remember, a concerto is a piece for solo instrument(s) and orchestra.) The first known composer to write a concerto for clarinet was J.W. Stamitz.

Instruments in the clarinet family all have a single reed (sometimes called a tongue) which vibrates against an opening to create the sound. This reed is either attached to, or carved from a cylindrical tube. The shape of the body of the early clarinet type instruments varied greatly! The Native Americans had an instrument that was a fairly short tube with a reed tied between two hollowed out pieces of cedar wood, while in South America there was a version that had a gourd like bulb on the end, and an instrument called a "bumpa" developed in the Upper Volta area of Africa that had bulbs on both ends and was played sideways like a modern flute! Other early instruments were made from animal horns or bones with reeds attached to the end. Click to see a picture of a Welsh style hornpipe called a pibcorn (sometimes called pibgorn). Click to see more pictures of other hornpipes and reedpipes and to listen to a sound file.

In some cases the player blew into one mouthpiece area, but two pipes were attached, each with its own reed and finger holes! Imagine, you could play duets with yourself! Each tube usually had only three or four holes or the player covered the holes on both pipes with the same finger. These double clarinets were popular in such diverse places as Egypt, South America, Palestine, the Balkans, and Yugoslavia, to mention but a few. The Sardinian launeddas has three pipes (one is a drone pipe and never changes pitch) and this instrument is still used today. (Click here to see a picture of someone playing a launeddas)

The instrument that we associate with snake charmers was a clarinet type instrument. It too, had two pipes which were made out of cane and were attached to each other and fitted into a gourd. The player blew air into the gourd and the reeds on both pipes vibrated.

(These instruments are hard to describe in words. Check out the Musical Instruments of the World Encyclopedia on the stage - page 36-41 - it has great pictures!)

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Our modern day clarinet developed directly from an instrument call a "chalumeau". (We still refer to the lowest register of the clarinet as the chalumeau register.) Around the 1690 the German instrument maker, Johann Christoph Denner, and his son (also named Johann) made some changes to the common chalumeau. He made the mouthpiece separate, added a slightly larger bell, but most importantly, he added some keys to make it possible to play notes higher than the chalumeau could reach.

By about 1720 the clarinet was a separate instrument. At the time it sounded more like an oboe than a modern day clarinet. It used very small reeds which gave it almost a trumpet-like sound - this is probably why the instrument came to be called the clarinet. (There was an ancient English trumpet called a clarion and the style of very high trumpet playing that we hear in the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 2 is called clarino trumpet playing.)

(Click here to see pictures of two really old clarinets. The bottom picture is the older of the two instruments and built in 1790. The top one was built in 1880)

By 1840 the Boehm system of keys was being used on the clarinets. The Boehm system is also used on flutes, oboes, saxes and somewhat on the bassoons today. On older instruments, the holes were cut close to the correct position to make the note in tune, but how far the fingers could reach was also a consideration in the placement of the holes, so some notes were pretty badly out of tune! In the Boehm system, the holes are cut so that they are in exactly the correct place to make the note in tune. Then keys are added to cover those hole, but the keys have levers that are placed within easy reach of the fingers. Alternate fingerings were also developed to make it easier to play certain combinations of notes. Woodwind instruments with the Boehm system of keys not only play better in tune, but are easier to play on fast and complex passages. Some clarinets are made with a different set of keys; although the Boehm system is the most common, both the Albert system and the Auler (pronounced oiler) system are still in use.

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Clarinets come in many different sizes and all are transposing instruments, which means that the music for the clarinets is written in different pitches than the note actually sounds. The fingerings are the same for each instrument in the clarinet family so the player can switch easily from one to another. But, even though middle C is always fingered the same way, it will create a different sounding note on each instrument.

The sopranino clarinet is pitched in Eb (sometimes just called an Eb clarinet), the soprano clarinet is in Bb (this is the one that is most common), the alto clarinet is in Eb, the bass clarinet is in Bb, the basset horn is in Eb, and the contrabass clarinet is in Bb and pitched an octave below the bass clarinet. To play a contrabass clarinet, the player sits on a stool while the instrument stands on the floor!

Click here to learn more about each kind of clarinet and about the instrument called a basset horn and to hear a sound clip from the Mozart clarinet quintet (clarinet & string quartet).

Most orchestra clarinet players carry the standard clarinet in Bb and also a clarinet in A because there are many orchestral pieces written for the instrument in A. (Being pitched in A makes it easier to play in the sharp keys that orchestra music is often written in!)

The clarinet has a range of over three octaves and each area of the range has a special name. The Chalumeau register goes from the lowest tone (E) up to open B-flat (left hand index A and octave key), the Clarion register goes from middle B natural up to the C above the staff (octave key and thumb only), and the Altissimo register is that C on up.

For many years the clarinet was made out of metal. Click for a picture of an old Albert system metal clarinet.

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Here are some other sites to visit to learn more about clarinets, the music written for the instrument, recordings and even jokes!

More on clarinet history from the Instrument encyclopedia: http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/MHN/enclpdia.html
And this site has more information on the bass clarinet! http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/MHN/enclpdia.html

The Clarinet Page: http://web.mit.edu/chrohrs/public/clarinet.html/

The Clarinet Pages: http://sneezy.mika.com/clarinet/

This site has many interesting clarinet likes - Michael Moors' Clarinet Homepage: http://edcen.ehhs.cmich.edu/~mmoors/

Pictures of clarinets from the collection of old instruments from Edinburgh University in Scotland. These pictures include some early 5 and 6 key instruments from the mid-1800s and a metal clarinet (called here a "sax type" clarinet). Click on the thumbnail pictures to see a larger picture of that instrument. http://www.music.ed.ac.uk/euchmi/ucj/ucjtf.html

Parts of the clarinet named and shown: http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~tvolpe/band/parts/parts.html

Jazz Clarinet Homepage: http://www.en.com/users/cassara/clarinet/

This is a fourth grader's project page, but it has a lot of good info about clarinets & some of the great players! Don't be put off by the fact that it was created by a fourth grader - this student knows her stuff! http://www.edenpr.k12.mn.us/forest/CHolt/Projects/97LF/StLF9.html

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