B-flat Clarinet

B-flat Clarinet

B-flat Clarinet range

There is a saying in the band world that something is “as bland as B-flat.”  For me, this is exemplified in the abundance of B-flat Clarinets in our modern band.  I have seen bands with twenty or more.  I have also seen bands with as few as three or four.  In the days of the early bands (or at least the early bands as we see them today), the B-flat Clarinet was thought of as the equivalent of the Violin.  Their range is somewhat similar and they have similar facilities in technique, but to me the sound is miles apart. Continue reading “B-flat Clarinet”

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.

Clarinets Part 3 – Clarinets in the Band

Clarinets in the Band

            The clarinet family takes up the most real estate on the band stand.  The original idea in band scoring was to have the clarinets replace the orchestras’ strings, but this arrangement to my ears has never once worked.  I feel modern bandestrators should rethink this scenario.  Instead think of the clarinets as simply another choir, albeit a considerably larger one, within the woodwind section.

Over the years, many different arrangements for the clarinet section have been tried.  A section from a large band in the late 1800s might have looked like this:

1 A-flat Clarinet

2 E-flat Clarinets

24 B-flat Clarinets

2 Alto Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

We can see that this arrangement was skewed towards the higher end.  As bands evolved, the A-flat Clarinet part was dropped, but little else changed.  Then around the 1950s the Alto Clarinet and the E-flat Clarinet started to disappear, but the contra clarinets were starting to make their appearance.  By this time the section would have looked like this –

1 E-flat Clarinet

12 B-flat Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

1 Contra Clarinet (Contra-Alto or Contrabass – but not both)

This is very similar to the arrangement we have today.  Of the mighty family of clarinets, we now only see four members.

I want us to start thinking creatively though.  We have this mass of players (16 in the scenario I gave).  Why not use them in more interesting ways?  Throughout the individual instrument descriptions, I alluded to the fact that many of these instruments can and should be used in a band setting.  I hereby present a more interesting and more well-balanced clarinet section.

2 E-flat Clarinets (one possibly doubling on A-flat)

2 C Clarinets

4 B-flat Clarinets

2 A Clarinets

2 F Alto Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

1 Contra-Alto Clarinet

1 Contrabass Clarinet

In this arrangement, we have the same sixteen players, but as we can see the diversity is double what we had before.  We now have eight different sizes of clarinet and eight different timbral possibilities.  The mass of B-flat Clarinets is now reduced to four instruments.  This will have the added benefit for the player of now being an important part of a small group as opposed to being a neglected member of an undefined mass.  The division into parts for C, B-flat, and A instruments is a decision wholly based on bandestrational possibilities.  Our C Clarinets can carry the traditional first part while the A Clarinets can carry the traditional bottom (third or fourth part), but more importantly, each of these three groups of soprano clarinets can function as an independent group.  Think of quirky, happy passages on the Cs, while we have serious and melancholy passages played on the As.  The two E-flats and 2 Cs can team up for a high quartet just as Mahler does in his 1st Symphony (3rd movement, Klezmer sections).  The A Clarinets paired with the F Alto Clarinets can form a somber quartet of deep passion.  On the bottom end, instead of having only three players in two ranges to support the sound, we now have six players in three (or four) ranges.  This powerful low end is something I have yet to experience from a band.  Only now, with our more perfect solution, can the clarinet family even begin to approach the orchestra’s strings.  Think of dividing each part into multiple parts.  For instance, 1st and 2nd F Alto Clarinet and 1st and 2nd Bass Clarinet.  This can give far more delicate textures.  Powerful unisons can be had by having the whole section in octaves.  I am getting excited just writing this section!  The possibilities are staggering!

Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre for clarinet choir (appears to use E-Flat, B-flat, E-flat Alto, Bass, and Contrabass Clarinets).  Note, there is only one each of the Alto, Bass, and Contrabass Clarinets.  These poor three players are having to over blow to make up for the ill proportioned group.  However, the lone E-flat player is heard clearly.

Vivaldi’s Summer for clarinet octet (1 E-flat (=B-flat), 3 B-flats, 1 E-flat Alto, 2 Basses, 1 Contrabass).  See how different the balance is with a full low end.

Libertango for 2 B-flats, F Alto, and Bass.  Again note the equal balance of the parts.  This makes the 16 B-flat clarinets in the Danse Macabre video seem extraneous.

Young Person’s Guide to the Clarinet Choir – E-flat, B-flat, F Alto, E-flat Alto, Bass, and Contrabass

Clarinets – Introduction



As I begin to write this introduction, I have my old B-flat Clarinet in my hands.  I just gave it a few good blows to reacquaint myself with its sound.  In the band world, the clarinet is the most commonly heard sound there is.  There are more clarinets in the band than there are any other instruments.  I was the favorite instrument of Mozart, and has had huge popularity ever since.  The clarinet comes in more sizes than any other woodwinds.  Were I so inclined, I could readily purchase clarinets in nearly every key of a diatonic scale (A-flat, G, E-flat, D, C, B-flat, A, G, F, E-flat – yes, clarinets exist in every single one of those keys!).

It is possible to think of the clarinet family as we would the taxonomy of living species.  The genus Clarinet has many species, and several of those species have further subspecies.  Just as in wildlife, the true taxonomy of some of these beasts is debated.  Many of these species and subspecies, again like our wildlife, are in danger of going extinct (and six members of the family already have expired). Genus – Clarinet

A rather curious way of looking at musical instruments, I’m sure, but it does give us the breadth of the family.  Each “subspecies” is a valid instrument in its own right and has a unique voice.  In the traditional band setting we used only those instruments pitched either in E-flat or B-flat.  Instruments that fell outside of these pitch classes were excluded (though many were and are still used in orchestras).

The Complete family