The use of the B-flat and A Clarinets

In the clarinet world, there is a large question: is there a fundamental difference in the tone quality of the B-flat and the A Clarinet?

The conventional wisdom is that the A Clarinet sounds slightly darker than the B-flat.

First, what is the mechanical difference between the two?  From a distance, the two instruments are identical.  The A is only slightly longer than the B-flat.  The mouthpiece is exactly the same.  If both instruments are by the same maker, which is typical for professional players, the interior bore is identical.  If these were brass instruments, there would be no difference in the sound whatsoever.  However, woodwinds do function slightly different than brass.

The one absolute difference between the two instruments is the availability of the low concert C-sharp of the A Clarinet.  This is no small issue, as this note appears throughout the literature.

Here’s where the real issue comes in, and that’s the difference between individual notes on a woodwind instrument.  As a bassoonist, I will give an example on my own instrument.  An F scale and an F-sharp scale sound fundamentally different.  They utilize different mechanics on the instrument.  One is simply closing or opening tone/finger holes, while the other is a complex series of both closing and opening tone holes at the same time.  Try as a player might, an F-sharp will sound with a slightly different tone color than the F natural.  And herein is the big difference between the B-flat and A Clarinets.  While a competent clarinetist, or for that manner any instrumentalist, can and should be able to play in any key, certain notes and keys will sound different on different instruments.

The complex acoustics of the clarinet can make this problem larger.  The lack of even harmonics in the instrument’s spectrum has a direct correlation to the different registers of the instrument.  If a note lies in different registers on the different instruments, it will sound differently tone color wise.

A side by side comparison of single notes between the two instruments will result in the listener not being able to tell the difference between the two.  However, music does not consist of single notes in isolation.  It is the combination of notes that we desire.  Ease of playability is an important part of tone color.

Let’s take for instance Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. This is the most famous work for the A Clarinet.  Could it be played on the B-flat Clarinet at the exact same pitch? With the exception of notes below the B-flat’s range, yes it could.  Will it sound the same? No.  The simplicity and ease of Mozart’s lines become far more difficult when played in B or E as opposed to C or F (the printed keys of the clarinet part in B-flat and A respectively).  In fact, the part in B-flat just looks nasty to play and makes the piece far harder than it needs to be.

There are pieces out there where the composer expects the B-flat and A Clarinets to have different qualities. Strauss’ Elektra is king among these, as it requires a section of 2 B-flat and 2 A Clarinets that are fully independent of each other.  Strauss treats these instruments in slightly different manners though the parts have great overlap.

In reading over some of the copious discussion among clarinetists about the differences between the two instruments, it seems that there is a small difference in tone.  A trained clarinetist can usually hear the difference between the two.  Conductors may not be able to notice the difference, and an untrained audience probably won’t even notice.

What’s the bottom line?

In music that is centered around tonality and keys, it makes sense to use both instruments, as the technique dictated has a direct correlation to the tone color produced. If the low C-sharp is required, then the A Clarinet is a must.  In music without a tonal center the choice of instrument is more often than not the B-flat Clarinet as most players will feel more comfortable on what they consider their primary instrument.

Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for Clarinet” where the player uses both the A and the B-flat Clarinets.

7 thoughts on “The use of the B-flat and A Clarinets

  1. Alex Kindel

    I had always been skeptical of the benefits of keeping both B-flat and A clarinets around. The other woodwinds seem to do just fine without the extravagance of pairs of almost identical instruments for the sake of navigating different keys, but now that you mention it, I can buy the idea that the technical difficulties of overblowing at the twelfth are what sets the clarinet apart in this regard. As for the difference in tone color, if it’s brought about by the qualities of fngering different keys, wouldn’t it be the case that, rather than sounding darker across the board, the A clarinet in one key would have the same color as the B-flat in the same written key? So the A clarinet would sound the same in concert A as the B-flat clarinet does in concert B-flat, and if the A clarinet sounds darker in concert B-flat than the B-flat clarinet does, then the B-flat clarinet would sound darker in concert B (written D-flat, the same written key as A clarinet playing in concert B-flat) than the A clarinet would sound in concert A (written C, the same written key as B-flat clarinet playing in concert B-flat).

    In any case, it seems that if the distinction is important enough to justify using both instruments, it should be important enough to apply to the other members of the clarinet family as well, so that bass clarinet in A would be resurrected, clarinet in D would be revived, and basset horn in E would be introduced. (I can see why alternate contrabass instruments would be a stretch, but in an ideal world, maybe Schoenberg could have his fictional contrabass in A too.) Anything less would seem to imply that the soprano clarinets are more important than the rest, an attitude I find arbitrary at best.

    1. There perhaps is a call for resurrecting the Bass Clarinet in A. From everything I’ve heard, it DOES have a different sound than the B-flat instrument. It’s an instrument I think I will probably write an article on at some point.

      However much you want to deny it, the soprano clarinets are more important than the other clarinets. That can empirically be shown in nearly every piece of orchestral/band music ever written.

      1. Alex Kindel

        Soprano clarinets are certainly “more important” in the sense that there is so much more repertoire for them, but what I meant is important in terms of the possibilities the instruments open up for orchestrators. In a four-person orchestral clarinet section, for example, I’d prefer 2 B-flats, an alto and a bass or an E-flat, a B-flat, an alto and a bass over the more common 3 B-flats and bass or E-flat, 2 B-flats and bass any day. It seems to me that, though what is considered the “primary” instrument in each family is certainly influenced by the practical value of the instruments-what works well-it’s also a product of history; some sizes are used often while others are rare because they were adopted first and that’s how it’s always been, and composers have written so much great music for those instruments to the exclusion of others because they knew they would be available, rather than because they’re inherently better.

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  4. phil newton

    Im a string player learning B flat clarinet and bought an A so I could join in with its
    easier fingering
    for their sharper keys like G D A.E(and rel minors)
    But a sax player tells me when he learned clarinet he played in every key on tdifficulties in remoter keys?he Bflat.
    and implied that I didn’t need an A instrument.
    Apart from tone colour and range -for my practical purposes ,was it invented partly because
    a quick change of instrument as instructed in the score enables continuity and avoids facing sudden
    fingering problems in a new remoter key thus keeping the music flowing?
    I should have done more in my BMus orchestration
    but is it not a bit pedantic to play in all keys on a Bflat if both instruments give ease of access to wind experience when playing from folk to classical to band?
    Any comment?
    pm newton

    1. I had to read your post a few times as I thought it was from my dad (also Phil) who isn’t musical in the least! As to learning every key on the clarinet – yes. It’s an absolute must to learn to play all keys on all instruments There’s no getting around this. As to why it was invented, this goes back to the 1700s when the clarinet couldn’t play in all keys due to its limited keywork. The two-instrument system (really three when the C Clarinet is used) stuck around long enough that a huge amount of literature was written for the 2/3 instruments that it was impractical to drop one or the other.

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