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Things You Should Know About Playing The Clarinet


Either you or someone you love has decided to learn how to play the clarinet. Whether that’s as part of a school band or orchestra program or not, you’re ready to explore music through one of the world’s most popular and versatile instruments. Producing a good sound on a clarinet is a little more involved than pressing a key or striking a string; however, with a little guidance, you can be well on your way to making beautiful music. Here are some things you should know about this horn.

Understanding the Clarinet

The clarinet falls under several categories, all of which have to do with how sound is produced:

  • Aerophones: These instruments make sound by causing air to vibrate without the use of strings (chordophones) or membranes (membranophones) or without the instrument itself vibrating (idiophones). “Aerophone” generally refers to wind instruments or horns that produce sound by blowing air.
  • Woodwinds: The clarinet is part of the woodwind family. This is not because it’s made of wood, but because sounds are produced by splitting air against a sharp edge, such as a reed. Woodwinds include flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones. You’ll notice that flutes and saxophones are usually made of metal. While many clarinets are made of wood, many are also made of plastic or hard rubber.
  • Single-reed instruments: To play the clarinet, you blow through a mouthpiece with a single reed attached. Saxophones are also single-reed instruments. Oboes and bassoons, by contrast, are double-reed instruments. Players blow through the small opening between two reeds.

Producing the Sound

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To play the clarinet, you need a reed. This small, rectangular reed is sized and shaped to fit your instrument’s mouthpiece. Some reeds are made of synthetic materials, but most are made from cane. This reed is affixed to the mouthpiece using a ligature. When you blow through the opening created by the reed and the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates producing the clarinet’s sound. As a student, you’ll buy manufactured reeds that vary in thickness or hardness. Thinner reeds are softer and easier to play with, but playing higher notes is generally more difficult. Thicker reeds are harder to play but necessary to produce the full range of notes for this instrument. Some reed brands use numbers to indicate thickness or hardness, while others use descriptors such as “soft,” “medium,” and “hard.”

Clarinets are hollow internally and feature a cylindrical bore. This contrasts with the conical bore found in oboes and saxophones. This cylindrical shape is what contributes to the clarinet’s distinct timbre. This cylinder flares into a bell end that also plays an important part in the instrument’s look and sound. Clarinets have a set of keys and holes that are either pressed or covered by the player’s fingers. These control the length of vibrating air in the horn, creating different pitches or notes. Longer sections of vibrating air correspond to lower pitches, while shorter sections correspond to higher pitches.

Exploring the Range

Every instrument has a range that represents the distance or interval between its lowest pitch and highest pitch. Clarinets are noted for having the largest ranges of common woodwinds. Most horns have a range that goes from the E below middle C to the third C above middle C. The range of your instrument can be divided among three groups or registers that have a specific sound:

  • Chalumeau: This is the lowest register, it is named for an instrument that was a predecessor to the clarinet. It extends from the lowest note a clarinet plays (E below middle C) to the B-flat above middle C. The chalumeau register sound is often described as dark and mellow.
  • Clarion: This register goes from the B-flat above middle C to the C that is two octaves above middle C. Generally considered to be bright and sweet, the clarion is named for sounding reminiscent of a trumpet heard from a distance.
  • Altissimo: This highest register goes from the second C to the third C above middle C. These notes can be so piercing that you can hear them above an entire band. “Altissimo” means “very high” in Italian.

Easy clarinet sheet music generally stays within the chalumeau and clarion registers. Intermediate and advanced solo music for your horn typically explores all three registers. In bands and orchestras, there are usually multiple parts. Usually, a “1st clarinet” part is higher than “2nd clarinet” and “3rd clarinet parts.”

Meeting the Family

Like the human voice, clarinets can be categorized according to their range or pitch. In most cases, the word “clarinet” refers to the B-flat soprano clarinet. This is the straight, black instrument with silver keys typically seen in marching and concert bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, and solo performances. It is a soprano instrument and is the most common in the clarinet family. Other common clarinets include the following:

  • Bass Clarinet: The bass clarinet is pitched an octave below the B-flat soprano clarinet. Remember longer sections of air correspond to lower tones or pitches. This instrument is larger in diameter and longer than the soprano. This horn has a curved neck and an upturned bell (resembling a saxophone), making it easier for a player to handle.
  • Sopranino or Piccolo Clarinet: This instrument looks like a miniature clarinet and is pitched in E-flat or a perfect fourth interval above the B-flat soprano.
  • Alto Clarinet: Also pitched in E-flat, this horn looks like a smaller version of a bass clarinet. It sounds a perfect fifth interval below the B-flat soprano and an octave below the soprano.

When looking for sheet music, especially arrangements that include piano accompaniment, it’s important to pay attention to the pitch. Typical soprano and bass clarinets need B-flat parts, while piccolo and alto clarinets need E-flat parts.

As a growing clarinetist, you’ll learn how to bring out the best in your instrument. Learning how to play songs you know and love is part of the joy of this journey. Musicnotes helps you build a repertoire with easy-to-play sheet music that you can buy, download, and access whenever you choose.

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