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What Is the Clarinet Family?

By Michael Smathers
Updated May 23, 2024
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The clarinet family is the largest group of woodwinds. Different types of clarinets are suited to higher or lower ranges; for example, the standard soprano clarinet has the same approximate range that a trumpet does, playing primarily on the treble clef. There are several characteristics shared by all types of clarinets, regardless of their range. The members of the clarinet family have common physical features, and do not easily overblow, as is common with other woodwinds.

All members of the clarinet family are tubular wooden instruments with a single reed and a flared bell. Sound is produced when the player blows air into the mouthpiece, which causes the reed to vibrate as air travels down the bore of the clarinet. Fingering patterns and rate of airflow allow the player to shift pitches and transfer from one octave to the next. The quality of a clarinet's sound depends on the reed material; cheap clarinets have plastic reeds, and more expensive clarinets have wooden reeds. These produce a clearer and more reliable sound, but can crack due to moisture and sudden temperature changes.

Unlike other woodwinds, the clarinet does not easily overblow, or produce a squealing sound when the player tries to play notes on a higher octave. Instead, it has keys located near the tone holes that can cover more than one hole at a time. Unlike the recorder, which covers little more than an octave, the clarinet does not rely solely on finger positions to produce tones.

The most commonly used member of the clarinet family is the B flat soprano clarinet. Its range is from E below the treble staff to C two octaves above the staff. Other soprano clarinets are available that play in the keys of A and C. Bass clarinets are in the key of B flat, but they sound an octave lower than the soprano. Typically, bass clarinets form the backbone of a woodwind section and are used in pieces requiring a somber sound due to their low range.

The clarinet family features most heavily in orchestras and concert bands. Jazz players also used the clarinet until the late 1940s; the saxophone then began to take the clarinet's place. Clarinet quartets, featuring three B flat soprano and one B flat bass clarinet, are popular. Interestingly, a clarinet ensemble featuring instruments of different keys can mimic the effect of a human choir.

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