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10 Different Types of Clarinets Explained

Cropped image of a band playing clarinets.

Just like most musical instruments have evolved gradually to become what they are in their present form, the clarinet has also undergone quite an evolutionary journey.

The clarinet is best described as a woodwind instrument that has a cylindrical bore, body, and a single reed. From upbeat jazz music to soulful classical music, the clarinet is featured in almost all types of music styles.

This musical instrument can be called a rendition or a successor of an earlier instrument called the chalumeau. The chalumeau is also a single-reed woodwind instrument but is more of a folk instrument that belonged to the early classical eras.

The clarinet is more like a modern-day chalumeau, and one of the biggest changes made to it was the addition of two-finger keys. While this may have apparently looked like a very minor improvement, it actually made all the difference in the world by increasing the musical range of this instrument to higher than two octaves.

The Clarinet Today

Cropped image of a musician's hands on a clarinet.

The clarinet is possibly one of the most versatile of all musical instruments given its significance in modern musical performances. Not only that, but it is also commonly featured in jazz pieces, band compositions, and classical orchestra pieces.

Fascinatingly, many modern rock music compositions also include the sound of the clarinet, such as numerous acts performed by Pink Floyd, Radiohead, the Beatles, and Aerosmith, to name a few.

The modern-day clarinet that we know today underwent a great many changes over time alongside the addition of supplementary keys. The keypad of this instrument was also modified once in 1812 to improve its playability. This not only enhanced the player’s ability to work the instrument, but it also affected the overall tonal range and made fingering a lot easier.

Although the clarinet today has been mostly replaced by the saxophone due to its mellower sound and ease of use, you will still find at least one clarinet being featured in a number of jazz bands. If anything, the clarinet has propelled the development of numerous other instruments such as the flutophone, which is almost completely inspired by the clarinet.

Different Types of Clarinets

Ever since the inception of the clarinet in the eighteenth century, numerous changes have been made to the original model, especially in terms of the number of keys on the instrument.

This has resulted in several types of clarinets; some of which some gained massive popularity while others were completely phased out.

Take a look at some of the most common and popular types of clarinets that have come and gone and some that are still used in today’s times.

A Clarinet

A Clarinet

When people talk about ‘the’ clarinet, the A Clarinet is the one that they are usually referring to. This is a standard orchestral instrument that was popularly used in old European classical music. An A Clarinet is often used alongside a Bb soprano, and every single classical clarinetist is likely to own both types of clarinets.

The A Clarinet is often referred to as the “black sheep” of the clarinet family and is, in fact, a very core member of the family. It measures just over a foot in length, which makes it possibly the smallest member of the clarinet family.

The mechanics of the A Clarinet are very similar to those of the sopranino clarinets, except that its lower joints are like the ones in the E-flat clarinets and are combined into a single piece. The range of this clarinet is from low E to altissimo G or higher, but it mainly depends on the clarinetist’s ability. Given the small size of the instrument, oftentimes, the overall sound and tuning tend to be quite erratic.

Interestingly, the A clarinet was a very popular instrument during the first few decades of the 20th century where it was mainly used in Italian military bands. It was also featured by several famous composers in their music. Two of the most prominent composers to have used the A clarinet are Verdi and Bartok.

Bb Clarinet

Bb Clarinet

This is the most popular and common instrument in the clarinet family and is widely used in almost all styles of music. The Bb clarinet is a soprano woodwind instrument that goes all the way back to the time of Mozart and beyond.

Bb clarinet is one of the best choices for beginners and young clarinet players. Although it is featured in many different music styles, it is most commonly used in classical music because it has unique tones that produce an exceptionally beautiful sound.

This clarinet is classified as a single-reed woodwind instrument that measures up to approximately 66 cm in length. It has a beak-shaped mouthpiece that is made from either cocus wood or ebonite and consists of a single reed that is almost 12.5 mm wide.

The pitch produced by a Bb clarinet is best described as transparent, lustrous, rich, and brilliant, which makes it an ideal instrument to pair with other woodwind instruments. Its sound is considered to be super adaptable and blends amazingly well with the tones and sounds of other instruments. The Bb clarinet is most commonly paired with horns, flutes, oboes, and bassoons. It is also often combined with various brass instruments including the trumpet and trombone.

Harmony Clarinet

This type of clarinet primarily includes the plastic clarinet and the bass clarinet. The latter is fairly big in size as compared to the other different types of clarinets. This makes it particularly heavy, which is why most players play this instrument with the help of a neck strap in order to take some of the weight off. The plastic clarinet, on the other hand, is average-sized and very easy to hold. It is most suitable for children and beginners, and it is also super easy to clean, in addition to being highly durable.

Harmony clarinets are typically used to provide backup to the main or the lead instruments. They come in any key that is lower than A or Bb. These keys usually include C, F, or Eb.

The reason why harmony clarinets are given this name is that they are meant to provide ‘harmony’ or support to other lead instruments.

Contrabass Clarinet

Measuring almost 2.70 meters in length, the contrabass clarinet is one of the largest members of the clarinet family. It is normally pitched in Bb, which means it is one octave lower than the bass clarinet and two octaves below the Bb sopranino clarinet.

The earliest known variant of the contrabass clarinet was invented in 1808 and was called the contre-basse guerrièr. However, there is not much that is known about this particular type of contrabass clarinet.

The contrabass clarinet is mainly used by composers for the social sound effects that it produces, which are described as “acoustically and optically impressive.” It produces a very deep tone that is very similar to that of a string base.

This type of clarinet originated in Europe but is now found in all those regions of the world where there has been a spread of Western cosmopolitanism. It is played by both amateurs and professionals, but it doesn’t have a solo repertoire. It is commonly played in modern concert bands and clarinet ensembles that are famous in various parts of Europe.

The main body of the contrabass clarinet is typically made of hardwood, but may also be made from metal or nickel-plated brass. The upper and lower joints of this instrument consist of a total of twenty-five sound holes that are located at optimal positions in regard to the acoustics of the instrument.

Bass Clarinet

Bass Clarinet

This is a musical instrument from the clarinet family that sports a great similarity to a saxophone. Interestingly, the bass clarinet was introduced in 1836 by the composer Meyerbeer in a grand recitativo. This happened around the same time that the inventor of the saxophone called Adolphe Sax invented another type of bass clarinet, similar to a saxophone.

This instrument is significantly larger than the Bb clarinet and is almost 40 inches tall. The tones of the bass clarinet are typically written in B-flat which is an octave lower than the Bb clarinet. Its tone range is said to be wider than other woodwind instruments, given how it can go as low as a bassoon and as high as a soprano clarinet.

The bass clarinet has majorly been used in concert bands and for scoring in orchestras since the mid 19th century. It has gained massive popularity since then and is called to be used in concert band music more than it is called in for orchestra music. Recent times have also witnessed a significant increase in the use of the bass clarinet as a solo repertoire, whereby it is also featured in marching bands, film scoring, and clarinet choirs.

The main reason for the popularity of this instrument is its incredibly rich and earthy tone that greatly appeals to the ears, enhances the quality of the lower range and is quite distinctive from numerous other instruments that fall within the same range.

Alto Clarinet

Also referred to as a tenor clarinet in Europe, the alto clarinet is more of a transposing instrument of the clarinet family that holds great resemblance to a bass clarinet. It has quite a straight body that is typically made from a variety of materials such as plastic, hard rubber, or grenadilla. Its appearance also resembles that of a basset horn but is quite different from it in three areas: the bore, the lower range, and the tone. As compared to a basset horn, the alto clarinet has a wider bore, it is pitched a tone lower, and it doesn’t have an extended lower range like the basset horn.

The credit for the invention of the alto clarinet goes to two notable figures: Iwan Müller and Heinrich Grenser. Soon after its invention, it began to be used in concert bands and was also featured as a core orchestral instrument in clarinet choirs. While you may also find this instrument in symphonic bands and harmonic bands, they are hardly used in classical symphony orchestras.

Like many other types of clarinets, the alto clarinet also makes use of the Boehm system or the Oehler system of fingering and keys. However, the latter also comes with an extra key and a half-hole key. The extra key allows one to play a lower range of Eb and the half-hole key assists in playing the uppermost register on woodwind instruments, which is commonly called the altissimo register.

Basset Clarinet

Often compared with the soprano clarinet, the basset clarinet is a musical instrument that has additional keys that enable one to play a number of additional lower notes, unlike the former type of clarinet. It is most commonly a transposing instrument in the A note, but different forms of this particular clarinet also exist for other notes such as Bb and C.

Interestingly, the basset clarinet is now universally recognized as the correct instrument to be used for performing a Mozart Concerto. The main reason for this that is Mozart actually wrote a few of his musical compositions, especially for the basset clarinet.

The inception of the basset clarinet is mainly associated with Anton Stadler, a contemporary clarinet virtuoso. Despite being associated with a clarinet expert, the basset clarinet never managed to become a regular member of the orchestra. Even during the period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only a few pieces of this instrument were produced and used for performing Mozart’s musical pieces.

However, the basset clarinet experienced a major wave of revival during the mid 20th century where several modern composers began to feature this instrument in their written works.

Soprano Clarinet

Soprano Clarinet

The Soprano clarinet is a member of the clarinet family that is known for occupying a higher position in terms of pitch and popularity as compared to the other varieties. The term soprano is also often used to refer to those clarinets that have similar characteristics, such as the Bb clarinet, which is the most common type of soprano clarinet. Other types include the clarinets in A and C that have a similar range of tones.

Soprano clarinets are an excellent choice for entry-level professionals. One great example is the Yamaha Eb Professional Soprano Clarinet, which contains many features and characteristics. For instance, it has a grenadilla wood body that is incredibly resistant to humidity and temperature fluctuations. It also has inset tone holes that are not only hand-adjusted for a perfect fit, but they help produce a very focused and clear sound.

Contra-Alto Clarinet

Like the contrabass clarinet, the contra-alto is also one of the largest types of clarinets, but it is pitched higher than the former since it is pitched in the Eb key instead of the key of Bb. It is often referred to as the great bass or the Eb contrabass clarinet.

‘Contra-alto’ is quite a unique term, and it is meant to convey that this particular instrument basically plays at a lower octave than its alto clarinet counterpart.

As with the majority of the different types of clarinets, this particular clarinet is also a wind-wood instrument that produces sound with the help of a reed. Its keys also bear great similarity to the ones present on other types of small clarinets.

Some of the earliest models of the contra-alto clarinet were invented during the first half of the nineteenth century, and they were known as ‘contrabasset horns’ back then. This type of clarinet was pitched at an octave lower than the actual basset horn.

It was during the late nineteenth century, and early twentieth century that contra-alto clarinets began to gain significant popularity, after which, this clarinet started being featured in clarinet choirs and concert bands. This clarinet has also been used in some of the Broadway pit orchestras and marching bands where it has also been paired with numerous other instruments, such as the bass clarinet, the sousaphone, and the baritone saxophone.

C Clarinet

This is a type of soprano clarinet and is the only clarinet variety that does not transpose. It is often categorized together with the A instruments and the B-flat ones. This is primarily because it uses the same mouthpiece as the A clarinet and the B-flat clarinet.

Many people have deemed the C clarinet as the “happiest” of all clarinets, mainly because of how different and unique it sounds as compared to the standard B-flat clarinet. Another reason for its popularity is that even the slightest change in this instrument has the ability to influence the entire character of the woodwind section.

Although the C clarinet almost disappeared from the world of music during the 19th century, it did make a comeback soon enough when it was rediscovered by Mahler and Strauss. It also began to be paired with higher clarinet members such as the E-flat and D instruments. Due to this very reason, the C clarinet has been referred to as a ‘chameleon’ which helped bridge the gap between soprano clarinets and the sopranino clarinets.


If you know how to play the clarinet, perhaps it is time for you to bring back music from the good old classical era!

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