What Is the Clarinet Family?

The clarinet is the largest family of woodwind instruments. Different clarinets are better suited to higher or lower ranges; for example, the standard soprano clarinet has roughly the same range as a trumpet and primarily plays on the treble clef. Regardless of range, all types of clarinets have a few characteristics in common. The clarinet family shares physical characteristics with other woodwinds, such as the inability to easily overblow.

Clarinets are tubular wooden instruments with a single reed and a flared bell that are all members of the clarinet family. When the player blows air into the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates as the air travels down the bore of the clarinet, producing sound. The player can change pitches and transfer from one octave to the next changing fingering patterns and airflow rate. The reed material determines the quality of a clarinet’s sound; cheaper clarinets have plastic reeds, while more expensive clarinets have wooden reeds. These produce a clearer, more consistent sound, but they can crack when exposed to moisture or extreme temperature changes.

The clarinet, unlike other woodwinds, does not easily overblow or squeal when the player tries to play notes in a higher octave. Instead, it has keys near the tone holes that can be used to cover multiple holes at once. Unlike the recorder, which only has an octave range, the clarinet does not produce tones solely through finger positions.

The B flat soprano clarinet is the most commonly used member of the clarinet family. It has a range of E below the treble staff to C two octaves above. Other soprano clarinets in the keys of A and C are also available. In the key of B flat, bass clarinets sound an octave lower than soprano clarinets. Bass clarinets are typically used as the backbone of a woodwind section and are used in pieces that require a solemn tone due to their low range.

In orchestras and concert bands, the clarinet family plays a prominent role. The clarinet was also used jazz musicians until the late 1940s, when the saxophone began to take its place. Clarinet quartets with three B flat soprano clarinets and one B flat bass clarinet are very popular. Surprisingly, a clarinet ensemble with instruments in various keys can imitate the sound of a human choir.