Some clarinets produce deep, rich, melancholic, and warm notes while others produce brighter and shrill notes. Depending on the type of clarinet, music, humidity, and reed, different sound variations can be produced.
The clarinet is best known for making appearances in orchestras, bands, and other ensembles. I have been playing the clarinet for a long time and have taken some beginners under my wing to teach them how to play this amazing instrument. One of my students’ biggest discoveries, when they begin their journey, is finding out that there are so many types of clarinets to choose from. All these clarinets serve different purposes and they all have their distinct sounds. I decided to come up with this post and help beginners or anyone interested, by painting a picture of what the different clarinets sound like.
What do the clarinets sound like?
The B flat clarinet
In general, the sound of the B flat clarinet can be described as full and warm. While playing, the upper, low, and middle registers sound different. The low register sounds full, mellow, and warm, the middle register sounds a bit weaker and dull while the upper register is bright, brilliant, and compact. Thanks to its large range it is mostly used in symphony or wind orchestras. The B flat clarinet, also known as the Bb clarinet is the most common type of clarinet and the most popular among beginners. Most of the time, this clarinet sounds rather low since the A C played is sounded as a B flat.
The E flat clarinet
The E flat clarinet plays higher than any other clarinet producing a bright, piercing, and shrill sound. This clarinet is often mistaken for the piccolo since its sound is quite similar. The E flat and B flat clarinets are written in the same range but the E flat goes from G3 to D flat 6.
The Bass clarinet
Taking the spot as my personal favorite, the bass clarinet has a rich, mellow, and warm sound. However, depending on how the player is playing the instrument also has other sound characteristics such as lively, hollow, somber, and melancholy. The bass clarinet is common in film scores accompanying dark visuals and scenes such as a lake at night or scary parts of the ocean. It’s also used in mysterious or unfathomable movie scenes. The bass clarinet has a wide range playing from B1 to H2. It’s not the best clarinet to play higher notes. The B flat or E flat clarinet is recommended for higher notes.
The Contrabass clarinet
The contrabass clarinet is the largest in the clarinet family and is an octave lower than the bass clarinet. It produces a deep and low sound. It is pitched two octaves lower than the soprano clarinets at B-flat. It has a practical range of low Eb below the treble staff to high C above the treble staff.
The Contra-alto clarinet
The Contra-alto clarinet is also one of the largest in the clarinet family. It produces a low-pitched rattle sound. Some compare it to a tuba with the addition of a reed. In the key of E flat rather than B flat, the contra-alto clarinet is pitched higher than the contrabass clarinet. For beginners, it can be quite difficult to play it loudly since the instrument requires more breath support. You will mostly hear it in clarinet choirs wind bands, and clarinet and saxophone ensembles.
The Alto clarinet
The Alto clarinet produces deep, rich, and mellow tones which are very pleasing to the ears. You will mostly find the alto clarinet being played in large symphonic bands, harmony and wind bands, or clarinet choirs. Despite its beautiful sound, alto clarinetists rarely have extensive solo parts. The sound of the alto clarinet is similar to the alto saxophone since both are notated in E-flat but the alto clarinet is more agile.
What affects the sound of a clarinet?
Despite the clarinet having a fixed and proper way that it should sound, various factors might affect the quality of the sound. These factors can range from mechanical issues with the clarinet to the playing technique of the clarinetist. Let’s look at some of these factors.
Articulation fundamentals are one of the key things a beginner needs to learn. They involve learning about the proper tonguing placements and how much pressure should be applied when playing. Poor articulation may lead to a squeaking sound when playing which can be very displeasing to the ears.
Old or defective mouthpiece
An old, broken, or defective mouthpiece will tamper with the quality of the clarinet’s sound. If you realize that the problem is a defective mouthpiece, it might be time to replace it.
Embouchure simply refers to the way a clarinet player uses the muscles of the mouth to play the clarinet. Incorrect embouchure techniques such as too much tension on the mouthpiece from biting or tonguing too hard, or not making a firm seal around the mouthpiece will tamper with the sound of the clarinet. Refer to the table below to see some incorrect clarinet embouchures and how they affect the sound.
||This prevents the reed from vibrating hence no sound will be generated.|
||This causes a weak, fuzzy, and unfocused sound.|
||This makes the reed hard to control thus producing a squeaky sound.|
||It prevents the reed from vibrating which causes a thin or weak sound.|
||It causes a break or hitch in the clarinet sound.|
Slow or weak breath support
Slow or weak breath support might make your clarinet sound airy. The clarinetist should ensure adequate strength and speed of air while playing the clarinet to guarantee good sound and tone production.
Clarinet mechanical issue
At times your playing techniques could be perfect but your instrument simply has a problem. Perhaps one of the keys has a problem or the pads don’t completely cover the tone holes making your clarinet sound odd. If you suspect that it is a mechanical issue, take it to your repair technician to fix it for you.
An issue with the reed
A clarinet reed should be centered in the middle of the mouthpiece. Therefore, as you assemble your clarinet, ensure that it is balanced. On the same note, ensure that the reed is of the proper strength and quality to prevent any squeaky or airy sound coming from your clarinet. If you notice that the reed is worn out, you should replace it.
Based on where you intend to play your clarinet or which one sounds most pleasing to your ears, you can choose the one you like!
What does the bass clarinet sound like?
The bass clarinet has a rich, mellow, and warm sound.
Is the contrabass clarinet lower than the bass clarinet?
Yes, the contrabass clarinet is an octave lower than the bass clarinet.