There are various types of clarinets; generally, they are grouped into three main ranges; soprano clarinets, alto clarinets and bass clarinets.
There are several types of clarinets and they are played in all sorts of music from classical to jazz, Broadway to marching band, rock to klezmer. However, when people mention the name “clarinet”, they are usually referring to the Bb clarinet. The kind and number of clarinets a player own vary depending on the kind of music they play. Since the invention of this instrument in the 18th century, several developments and changes have been made to it. In this article, we will discuss the various kinds of clarinets, so read on to familiarize yourself with these instruments.
There are several kinds of clarinets under this category;
- The clarinet in Bb.
This is the most popular and recognizable clarinet. The Bb clarinet is a transposing instrument, meaning that when a C is played it sounds a concert Bb pitch. This soprano clarinet is known for its strikingly wide range and is common among beginners. Bb clarinet is used in all music styles and its written range starts at D3 and ends on Bb6.
- The Clarinet in A.
When note C is played on this clarinet it sounds a concert A, thus the name A clarinet. Besides its slightly longer size and timbre, the A clarinet is almost identical to the Bb clarinet. Also, the written range of the A clarinet is from C#3 to A6, which is a half-step lower than the Bb clarinet’s range. Additionally, the clarinet in A is the only popular clarinet that is not in Bb or Eb. Clarinets in A are used in classical music as a substitute for the Bb clarinets.
- The Eb soprano clarinet.
Although this clarinet is not as common as other soprano clarinets, it is still used widely in orchestras and bands. When an Eb is played on this instrument it sounds a concert C, thus the name Eb clarinet. The Eb soprano clarinet is also referred to as a “sopranino” or “piccolo” clarinet and it is relatively small in size with a higher pitch compared to Bb and A clarinets. The written range of the Eb soprano clarinet is from G3 to Eb7. Thanks to its high pitch, it is also widely utilized in choirs to comfortably play the high parts that a Bb clarinet could struggle in.
The alto clarinet is an Eb instrument widely used in small chamber ensembles, bands and sometimes in orchestras. When Eb is played on the alto clarinet it sounds a concert C. The Eb alto clarinet’s pitch range is from Gb2 to B65 which is between the Bb clarinet and the bass clarinet. In terms of appearance, the Eb alto clarinet is smaller than the bass clarinet.
According to band directors, alto clarinets aren’t the best because; One, they are more fragile compared to other clarinets. Two, they are harder to play in tune. Three, the range they offer can be covered by the other clarinets like the Bb and bass clarinets. Four, during a performance, their tonal colour is overpowered by the sound of other clarinets.
Due to these flaws, fewer clarinetists specialized in the alto clarinet which led to a decrease in demand for parts, thus composers seized to write for them. This is the main reason behind the rarity of the alto clarinets today. However, in pieces composed before the 1980s, the alto clarinet is most likely to be included.
The most used bass clarinet is the Bb bass clarinet, which when a Bb note is played, sounds a concert C. The written range for the Bb bass clarinet is from C2 to A6 but it can also sound from Bb1 to G5.
The Bb bass clarinet shares a few things in common with the soprano counterpart like fingerings and the extra keys that extend its range. However, the Bb bass clarinet is relatively bigger compared to the Bb soprano clarinet, and has a curved metal neck, with a curved bell. Bass clarinets come with an endpin which rests on the floor to accommodate the instrument’s weight.
Contrabass clarinets are Bb instruments with the lowest pitch compared to all commonly used clarinets. These clarinets are widely used in orchestras, small chamber ensembles and bands. A contrabass clarinet is over 7.5ft tall with a long neck and bell that nearly reaches the height of the mouthpiece.
Contrabass clarinets can play a minor third below the bass clarinet, therefore, they produce deep, warm and rich sounds, making them perfect for bands and clarinet choirs. However, most contrabass clarinets today are treated as antiques due to the big decline in production, after the 1900s.
Rarest clarinet types
In addition to the clarinets mentioned above, there are other various types of clarinets that are extremely rare and some completely obsolete today. The rarest clarinets include; the Sopranino Clarinet in Ab, the Basset Clarinet and Horn and the Octocontra-bass and Octocontra-alto Clarinets.
The table below has summarized the main ranges of clarinets, the kind of clarinet in those ranges and where they are commonly used in.
|Range of clarinet.||Type of clarinet||Used in;|
||Standard bands, orchestras and concert bands.|
||Orchestras, bands and clarinet choirs.|
||Bands, small chamber ensembles and orchestras.|
||Orchestras, bands and small chamber ensembles.|
||Concert bands, standard bands and orchestras.|
||Small chamber ensembles, orchestras and bands.|
There are numerous kinds of clarinets, each with its peculiar qualities, and they are all used in different settings like orchestras, bands and small chamber ensembles. Some clarinets are rare while others have become completely obsolete over the years.
Which type of clarinet is best for beginners?
The Bb clarinet is the recommended clarinet for beginners since it’s the most used type and the easiest to learn compared to the other kinds.
Which is the most common and rarest clarinet?
The Bb clarinet is the most common clarinet. The octocontra-bass and octocontra-alto clarinets are the rarest clarinets with only one of each surviving today.