We consider the modern clarinet as a relative newcomer to the woodwind instrument family. However, its roots trace as back as the early single-reed instruments or hornpipes used in ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East.

An instrument called Chalumeau direct precedes the modern clarinet. This intrument was similar to a recorder, but with a single-reed mouthpiece and a cylindrical bore. Since it lacked a register key, it played mainly across its fundamental register. This meant a limited range of one and a half octaves.

Instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner is widely credited for inventing the modern clarinet, during the beginning of the 18th century. Compared to the Chalumeau, the clarinet boasted a rich sound quality in both low and high registers. The fact that the word “clarinet” originally meant “small trumpet” (‘clarino’ means trumpet) was possibly also related to the instrument’s sound character.

The orchestras admitted clarinets fairly soon. Mozart (d. 1791) liked the sound of the clarinet. He found its tone to be the nearest in quality to the human voice and wrote multiple pieces for the instrument. During his time, the classical clarinet typically had eight finger holes and five keys. By the time of Beethoven (c. 1800–1820), the clarinet was already a regular in the orchestra. 

Nowadays, we have a variety of instruments from the clarinet family. This family includes instruments of different sizes, such as the piccolo, alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets. It also includes instruments with somewhat different construction, such as the basset horn. Likewise, it includes instruments of the same size with different tube lengths. For instance, there are various types of soprano clarinet in use. Their tube lengths vary. On one end we have the C-tube, the shortest one, and on the other end the G-tube, which is the longest. However, the B♭-tube soprano clarinet and A-tube soprano clarinet seem to be the most popular today.

Construction and similarities

Several aspects are shared in the construction of all instruments from the clarinet family. The ligature attaches the reed to the mouthpiece, and around the top half-inch of this assembly is placed in the mouth of the player. The reed is on the underside of the mouthpiece, pressing against the lower lip of the player, while the upper teeth are normally in contact with the top of the mouthpiece. Some players roll the upper lip under the upper teeth to form the so-called ‘double-lip’ mouthpiece.

Next is a short barrel. This part extends to fine-tune the instrument. As its pitch is fairly temperature-sensitive, it often has interchangeable barrels with slightly varying lengths.

The body of a modern soprano clarinet is equipped with numerous tone holes, of which seven are covered with fingertips. The rest are opened or closed with a set of keys. These tone holes allow the player to produce every note of the chromatic scale. They sit across the main body of the clarinet, which includes the upper joint, where the left hand operates most keys, and the lower joint, where the right hand mostly operates. The right hand also operates the cluster of keys at the bottom of the upper joint, which we know as the trill keys. They give the player alternative fingerings that make it easy to play trills and ornaments.

Materials used in clarinet construction

There is a variety of different materials that clarinets can be made of, but most classical designs were made of boxwood. However, today not only is music different from the era of classical music, but the requirements of the musicians are also different. Grenadilla, which is now the most commonly used material for making clarinets, has a higher relative density than boxwood. This makes it easier to support the body while performing and allows for more air volume. Also, when blowing softly, the sound becomes soft and gentle rather than weak.