History and Types of Clarinets Every Musician Should Know

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Clarinet-type instruments were created in ancient times. These instruments used a simple reed to produce sound. The mouthpieces had a small triangle cut out, allowing the reed to be attached to the instrument. The player controlled the reed with their lips. Some of these very early clarinets were double instruments.

One example of this is the memet. This was an Egyptian instrument that dates to the 3rd century BC. Memets consisted of two cylinders made from reed or wood that were tied together. Each cylinder had finger holes to control the pitch, and the instrument had two mouthpieces. The memet was eventually adopted by both the early Greeks and the early Romans.

The modern clarinet evolved from an oriental instrument called the chalumeau. The chalumeau is a single-reed instrument that has been used since at least 1630. Many instrument researchers believe the chalumeau was used as early as the 1300s.

The chalumeau looks a lot like a modern-day recorder. Like the recorder, it had no keys. The chalumeau came in a variety of sizes to produce tones in different octave ranges. At the height of their use, bass, tenor, alto, and soprano chalumeau were common. Unlike the recorder, the chalumeau uses a single flat reed to produce sound.

Today there are different types of modern clarinets to help fill a band or orchestra’s woodwind instrument needs, the most common being the Bb soprano clarinet. 

History and Types of Clarinets

Who Invented the Clarinet?

Johann Christoph Denner created the modern-day clarinet. Denner was an instrument maker in Nuremberg. Toward the end of the 17th century, Johann Denner added two keys to the popular chalumeau. The exact reasons and the precise changes that were made to the chalumeau are lost to history. What we do know is the clarinet, and the chalumeau existed together for over fifty years.

The two keys added by Denner gave the clarinet the ability to reach a higher register than the chalumeau. Originally, the lower registers were played on the chalumeau, and the higher registers on the clarinet.

Today the lower register of the clarinet is called the chalumeau register because they are the same tones as the original instrument.

Johann’s son, Jakob Denner, expanded on his father’s idea. Jakab, along with other instrument makers, made changes to the bore and changed the shape of the bell and barrel.

The bore is the diameter of the inside of the instrument. Jakab Denner and others widened the bore to allow more airflow. They also added a flared bell and created the bulged-shaped barrel. Both of these changes are still used today on modern clarinets.

What Was the First Clarinet Like?

History and Types of Clarinets: Wooden Clarinet

The first clarinet was made from wood. It had a mouthpiece with a reed. The area directly under the mouthpiece was flared out and then came back in. The shape resembled a barrel used for storing food or other goods. That piece of the clarinet is still called the barrel. The early clarinet had 2 metal keys and a flared bell.

The keys were typically made from metal. But musicians and instrument makers would sometimes cave the keys from wood if metal was unavailable.

The first clarinet had holes for the pinky finger drilled on both sides of the instrument. This was because musicians and instrument makers had not yet settled on which hand should be on top.

Some woodwind player put their right hand on top, while others placed their left hand on top. The instrument had to be able to accommodate both playing styles. The musician would plug the unneeded hole. Early clarinets also did not have the thumb rest that is standard on today’s instruments.

The register key was placed similarly to today’s clarinet, on the back of the instrument, operated by the thumb of the top hand.

The sound of the first clarinet was hard. In the upper registers, it sounded a lot like the trumpet. The name of the instrument means “little trumpet.” Because of the sound produced by this first clarinet, it was used in orchestras to play trumpet-like parts.

How Has the Clarinet Changed Over the Years?

The clarinet with two keys had a range of F3 to Bb4. Clarinet makers and musicians started making changes to improve the tone quality, range, portability, and ergonomics of the instrument.

1740 – 1750

  • A third key called the B4 key was added. This key made it much easier to play B4. By adding this key, the range of the clarinet was extended down E3. Pitches from C5 to G6 were possible by overblowing the instrument.
  • A more narrow mouthpiece was created. Unlike modern clarinets, the mouthpiece and barrel were one piece.

1760 – 1770

  • The 4th key was added for either Ab/Eb or F#/C#
  • The E/B key was added. That key is now on the left hand.
  • The clarinet was separated into pieces with joints. In this change, the mouthpiece, barrel, upper piece, lower piece, and bell were all created. The pieces fit together by sliding the tenon into the adjoining piece. Originally the tenons were covered with string to provide a snug, air-tight fit that could be easily removed. Today instrument makers use cork to cover the tenon.
  • By the end of the 1770s, clarinets were made from boxwood and had 5 keys.


  • In 1803 Simiot invented the 12-key clarinet. Metal posts and steel flat springs were beginning to be used on other instruments.
  • In 1810 Muller developed his version of the 12 clarinets, along with a 13-key arrangement. This model incorporated the metal posts, added the ability to play a low F/C, and used the first stuffed pads.
  • In 1812 Iwan Muller created a new type of pad for instrument keys. These pads were covered in either leather or fish bladder, which was a huge improvement over the standard felt. Felt pads didn’t completely seal the instrument keyholes. That meant the felt allowed air to leak. The new leather and fish bladder pads solved this problem and created an air-tight seal over the holes being covered. These resulted in greatly improved intonation and easier playing for the musician.
  • Buffet created the long hinge rods for clarinet in 1837. Today these hinge rods are essentially long screws that hold the finger keys for both the right and left hands.
  • The rings that go around the finger holes were added in 1840. These were added by Adolphe Sax, who is known for inventing the modern saxophone.
  • In 1843, the Klose -Buffet system of clarinet keys was patented. It was not used until the 1860s.
  • The Barmann system was patented in 1860.
  • The C# key was invented in 1861.

Clarinet Key Systems

History and Types of Clarinets: Clarinet Key Systems

Clarinets use one of three standard key systems.


The Albert system was created by Eugene Albert. It’s based on the 13-key system developed by Iwan Muller. In the UK, this key system is referred to as the Simple System. The Albert system is still used in some parts of the world.

Albert system clarinets are the preferred clarinet for musicians who perform Turkish Folk, Ukrainian, Russian, Klezmer, and Belarussian music styles. Many American Jazz musicians prefer the Albert system for its harsher, more saxophone-like sound. It has 14 keys. It lets the player play F# and C# with either pinky on the lower hand.

Some say that the Albert system is more difficult to play with heavily chromatic music. However, it’s a more expressive instrument than the Boehm clarinets.


The Oehler system is based on the Albert clarinet. It’s still used today, primarily in Austria and Germany. It has a wider chromatic range than the Albert system clarinets; the key work is complex.


The Boehm system was created by Theobald Boehm. In the mid 19th century, Mr. Boehm developed his key and fingering system from scratch. He wanted to re-design the clarinet keys and fingerings to allow for more chromatics, easier fingerings, and better intonation.

His goal was to create a clarinet that was perfectly in tune, more focused, and louder. In doing so, the Boehm clarinet has a thinner sound that is not as subtle and rich as the sound of the Albert system. The Boehm system is widely taught in schools, colleges, and by music teachers throughout the United States.

Types of Clarinets

Bb Soprano Clarinet

Bb Soprano Clarinet

This is what most people think of when they hear the word clarinet. This is the instrument used in most modern music. This is the original descendant of the chalumeau. The Bb soprano clarinet is used widely in orchestras, wind bands, jazz groups, clarinet choirs, and more.

It’s the first clarinet taught to students and is found in every high school and college band in the country. This instrument is widely manufactured and easy to find. Bb clarinets are made in all three common key systems.

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03/08/2024 01:31 pm GMT

Alto Clarinet

Alto Clarinet

Invented by Iwan Muller and Heinrich Gresner around the end of the 1800s, the alto clarinet is pitched in the key of Eb. Its range extends from Concert G2 to Eb6. .It is longer than the Bb soprano.

The alto clarinet has a curved neck and curved bell. The weight of the instrument is supported by a neck strap. Alto clarinets are readily available today and are common in orchestras and wind bands.

LE BLANC Clarinet | Amazon

Leblanc's tradition of offering a wide range of clarinets to students continues with the Leblanc L7165 Alto clarinet. It is perfect for young clarinetists learning to play alto clarinet. 

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Bass Clarinet

Bass Clarinet

An early version of the bass clarinet was called the bass tube. Adolphe Sax patented the bass clarinet in 1836. Adolphe is responsible for the unique neck and bell shapes of the bass clarinet. Modern bass clarinets are pitched in the key of Bb. They come in two types. The standard range bass clarinet reaches down to a low Eb, below the staff.

The extended range version can reach C below the standard range. Bass clarinet is used in wind bands, clarinet choirs, and occasionally in jazz music.

The size and weight of the bass clarinet make it more difficult to play than the much smaller Bb clarinet. Some bass clarinet makers include a peg stand that attaches to the bottom of the instrument to support the weight. Other models rely on a neck strap.

Contra Alto Clarinet

Contra Alto Clarinet

The first contra-alto clarinet was seen during the first half of the 19th century. These instruments were pitched in the key of F. Contra altos in Eb are a fairly new development. They achieved popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The modern contra-alto plays one octave lower than the alto clarinet. It plays at the same pitch as the modern baritone saxophone. It’s used in wind bands. Contra alto is the second-largest clarinet, and because of its size, it is very difficult to play. Most musicians sit on a high stool to play this clarinet.

Contrabass Clarinet

Contrabass Clarinet

The tallest, heaviest, and lowest clarinet is the contrabass. It plays one octave lower than the bass clarinet and is pitched in BBb. The contrabass clarinet was invented in 1808. The earliest version was changed into the batyphone.

In 1889 it became the pedal clarinet, and finally, in the late 1800s, the contrabass clarinet as we know it today was developed. This instrument requires very strong breath support to play. The contrabass clarinet is heavy, and most musicians sit on a high stool rather than a chair to play it. It’s used in wind bands, orchestras, clarinet choirs, and occasionally jazz.

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Eb Clarinet

Eb Clarinet

This is commonly manufactured and available today. It’s used in wind bands, orchestras, and clarinet choirs. The Eb has a range of Concert G, below the staff, up to Concert G, two octaves above.

The instrument measures about 19 inches long. Hector Berlioz used this high-pitched clarinet in his famous piece Symphonie fantastique in 1830. This piece was a major contributor to the popularity of the instrument.

A Clarinet

A Clarinet

Invented in the mid-18th century, the A clarinet sounds just like the more common Bb clarinet. It’s used in orchestras and very difficult technical pieces. Because the A clarinet is pitched to a different key than its Bb cousin, certain key signatures are simply easier to play on the A clarinet.

Many professional orchestral clarinet players switch back and forth between the two as needed. This practice is so common that case manufacturers make double cases to hold both the Bb and A clarinets.

Basset Clarinet

Basset Clarinet

The basset clarinet was created by a clarinet manufacturer in Vienna named Theodor Lotz. He made a clarinet for Anton Stadler to extend the range of the clarinet down to a low C.The Basset clarinet is longer than the more common Bb soprano and A clarinets. The basset clarinet uses the Boehm key system.

It’s still made today, although it’s not a common instrument. It’s primarily used by professional clarinetists. . Sabine Meyer is the most popular and well-known professional basset clarinet player. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was written for this instrument.

Basset Horn

Basset Horn

The basset horn is different from the basset clarinet, and the similarity in their names confuses many people. Even though it resembles a hornpipe with a dramatic bend in the instrument, the basset horn has always been a member of the clarinet family. It was invented by Anton Mayrhofer and Michael Mayrhofer in Bavaria.

The original basset horn was curved so much that it looked like the letter “C” and had to be rested on a wooden block. Today’s basset horns are straight instruments with a curved neck and often a curved bell. Mozart and Mendelssohn both loved the basset horn, and each wrote pieces specifically for this clarinet.

Requiem in D minor, K626 is Mozart’s most famous piece written for basset horn. Mendelssohn features this clarinet in Concert Piece No.1 in F major, Op.113,

C Clarinet

History and Types of Clarinets: C Clarinet

The C clarinet was introduced in the 1720s. Vivaldi favored this instrument in three of his concertos. C clarinets are still produced today, although they can be difficult to find. They are used occasionally in orchestras. C clarinets are also used to teach music theory when a non-transposing instrument is needed.

This instrument uses the Boehm system exclusively.
Ab Piccolo Clarinet This is not made anymore. You can still find good quality used instruments, and a select few clarinetists still play these. The Ab Piccolo clarinet is one of the smallest clarinets ever made.

It measures a little over 12 inches. The tiny mouthpiece takes reeds the size of paper clips. Because of its tiny size, it’s a very difficult instrument to play.

This type of clarinet was popular in Austrian military bands and clarinet quartets. Verdi used it in some of his operas, and Celtic Requiem (1969, John Tavener) was written to include this member of the clarinet family.

Metal clarinet

History and Types of Clarinets Metal clarinet

Metal clarinets were popular in the early 1900s. They were exclusively produced as Bb clarinets. Most were used by clarinet students and in marching bands because, unlike wood instruments, metal clarinets do not crack. They are ideal for young students because the metal clarinet is difficult to damage.

During the height of production, some instrument makers began using poor-quality metals for manufacturing these clarinets. The inferior quality metal led to a thin, tinny, and mostly unpleasant sound, resulting in the metal clarinet gaining a very bad reputation.

They lost popularity and went out of production around the 1930s. However, when you compare the sound of a high-quality metal clarinet to an equally high-quality wooden clarinet, it’s very difficult to tell the difference.

When and how did the clarinet become popular?

Clarinets were originally used in orchestras to provide a trumpet-like part. The additional range created by the addition of 3 new keys at the end of the 18th century created an instrument of greater flexibility and range. Orchestras, wind bands, and military bands started, including the enhanced clarinet.

In 1716 Vivaldi wrote Juditha Triumphans. This piece did not feature clarinet but did include music for a clarinet part. Composer Telemann wrote several orchestral pieces that included the clarinet in 1721

Between 1740 and 1741, Handel wrote Ouverture. This piece was written for two clarinets and a horn. Somewhere around 1745, J.M. Molter created between 4 and 6 different concerto pieces intended for clarinet and strings. Between 1781 and 1791, Mozart wrote at least 15 pieces that involved the clarinet. Some of the more well-known pieces include Divertimenti K439a (1783-1785), Quintet K 452 (1784), and Requiem (1791).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the first well-known composer to create solo pieces for the clarinet. It’s rumored that Mozart fell in love with the clarinet the first time he heard it. In a letter to his father in 1778, Mozart wrote, “Oh, if only we too had clarinets!”

Mozart wrote Clarinet Concerto In A Minor 622 for Anton Stadler. Mr. Stadler was regarded as the most talented clarinet player in all of Vienna. He performed Mozart’s concerto for the first time on October 16, 1791. This piece is a standard part of any clarinetist’s repertoire today.

The success of Mozart’s concerto led to the popular composers of the time including clarinet in their music. From 1792-1799 respected composers like Beethoven, Hayden, and Pleyel included the clarinet in their symphonies. During this time, Beethoven wrote Octet Op. 103, Quintet Op. 16, and Symphony No. 1.

The 1800s gave us many more pieces, including the clarinet by a wide variety of composers.

  • Schubert
  • Weber
  • Beethoven
  • Spohr
  • Mercadente
  • Berlioz
  • Mendelssohn
  • Rossini wrote the opera Barber of Seville in 1816.
  • Schumann
  • Liszt
  • Reinecke
  • Brahms
  • Gade
  • C. Barmann

Famous Clarinet players


  • Benny Goodman (1909-1986) Probably the most well-known clarinetist of all time. Goodman is known as the “King of Swing.” Goodman also had his own band. Their concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 is one of the most famous jazz concerts ever.
  • Bennie Maupin
  • Artie Shaw (1910-2004) Recorded Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter. Shaw was a popular bandleader during the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Woody Herman
  • Richard Stoltzman
  • Karl Leister
  • Anton Stadler (1752-1812) Mozart wrote Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto specifically for Anton Stadler.
  • Deiter Klocker
  • Johan Simon Hermstedt (1778-1846) Served as court clarinetist for Duke Gunther 1 of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. Louis Spohr wrote clarinet concertos for Hermstedt.
  • Julian Bliss
  • Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847) Was well-known for playing Romantic Era music. Was principal clarinet in the Munich Court Orchestra for 30 years. Played for the Berlin Court and Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. He wrote Op.23 for clarinet.
  • Carl Baermann (1810-1885) Son of Heinrich Baermann. Became principal clarinet when his father retired from the Munich Court Orchestra. Developed the Baermann-Ottensteiner clarinet key system. This key system became the most popular clarinet key system of the period.
  • Charles Neidich
  • Jack Brymer
  • Martin Frost (1970-) Known for using and creating new clarinet techniques in classical and chamber music. Conducts the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.
  • Sabine Meyer (1959- ) One of the first female musicians to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. She is known for playing the basset clarinet.
  • Pete Fountain
  • Jimmy Dorsey is known for recording some of the better-known jazz and pop clarinet standards. Some you might recognize include Pennies from Heaven, So Many Times, and John Silver.
  • Sidney Bechet
  • Eddie Daniels
  • Husnu Senlendirici
  • Robert Marcellus
  • Sharon Kam (1971-) Studied with the Juilliard School of Music. First performance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at 16 years old. Plays with some of the biggest orchestras in the world.
  • Harold Wright (1926-1993) American clarinetist who studied at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Played for the National Symphony in Washington, DC. Played with Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1970-1993.


Question: What keys do modern clarinets come in?
Clarinets come in a few different keys, but the most common is the Bb clarinet. The other keys include:
  • Ab Clarinet
  • Eb Clarinet
  • D Clarinet
  • C Clarinet
  • A Clarinet
  • Basset Clarinet key of A
  • Basset Horn key of F
  • Bb bass clarinet
  • Eb Contrabass Clarinet key of EEb
  • Contrabass Clarinet key of BBb
  • Subcontrabass clarinet BBBb/EEEb
Question: What is the modern clarinet made of?

Answer: Modern clarinets are made from wood, plastic, or resin. Each material offers benefits and drawbacks. Plastic clarinets are the most popular and intended for students, resin is also often used for student clarinets. Intermediate and professional clarinets are made from various types of wood. African blackwood, redwood, and grenadilla wood are popular choices.

The keys are made from metal. Some are silver-plated, and others are gold-plated. Clarinet pads are made of a variety of materials.
The pads chosen depend on the music being played and the skill of the player. Pad materials include:
• Cork
• Synthetic materials
• Woven felt
• Leather

Question: How does the Clarinet produce sound?

Answer: The clarinet produces its sound when air is blown into the mouthpiece. The reed vibrates causing the sound. Different notes are crated by covering or opening holes on the body of the clarinet.

Question: What was the Clarinet based on?

Answer: The clarinet was adapted from a middle ages instrument called the chalumeau.

Question: What are some interesting facts about the clarinet?

Answer: The original score of Clarinet Concerto by Mozart has been lost. No one is certain what happened to it. One story claims Stadler left the only copy of the music in a portmanteau that was stolen in Germany. A letter from Mozart’s widow to Johan Andre implied that Stadler had pawned the music. A third story says Stadler burned the music in a fit of anger.
Mozart also wrote The Kegelstatt Trio and the obbligato parts from La Clemenza Di Tito for Statler to be played on the clarinet.

Question: What is the most common clarinet?

Answer: The most common clarinet today is the Bb clarinet. This is the instrument most people associate with the word clarinet.

Question: What are the best clarinet brands?

Answer: The best brand depends on player preference. Yamaha clarinets have a reputation for being the best. They are well made, easy to play, and easy for an instrument repair tech to work on when something breaks.
Other well-known clarinet brands include:
• Bundy
• Vito
• Boosey & Hawkes
• Buffet Crampton
• Leblanc (owned by Conn-Selmer)
• Jupiter
• Schreiber
• Henri Selmer, Paris
• Selmer (owned by Conn-Selmer)

History and Types of Clarinets: Conclusion

The clarinet family of instruments includes the well-recognized Bb soprano clarinet as well as many less-known clarinets. The wide variety of sizes and keys allows the clarinet family to enjoy a wide musical range.

Modern clarinets can be found with three different fingering systems. Clarinets are used in orchestra and chamber music, as well as wind bands, marching bands, clarinet choirs, and solo pieces throughout the world.

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