Whether being played by a soloist or one section of a 100-piece orchestra, the clarinet is a woodwind instrument that, like other instruments, has many variations. The variations of the clarinet are generally based on the notes that they can play and how they are transposed. Though many variations used to be popular, today there are really only four being used regularly: A, B flat, E flat and the bass clarinet.
The B flat clarinet is the most common of the clarinets. It is classified as a soprano clarinet and is what most modern clarinet literature is written for. Most every clarinet player should have one of these in his collection if he plans on playing any recent music without transposing it. The B flat clarinet is a transposing instrument, meaning that the note heard is a tone below the one written. For example, a written E would be heard as a D.
The A clarinet is the next most common in the family of clarinets. It is similar in size and shape to the B flat clarinet but has a slightly different range and transpostion. The A clarinet will transpose its notes by a minor third. Much orchestral music written in the 18th and 19th centuries is written for A clarinets. Therefore, it is advisable for professionals to have at least a B flat and an A clarinet in their arsenals.
Another well-known albeit uncommon type of clarinet is the E flat clarinet. Unlike the previous two clarinet pitches, the E flat clarinet is a requinto. Requinto clarinets are the smallest clarinet variety and can play notes much higher than the soprano clarinets can. The E flat clarinet does not have nearly as much music written for it as the B flat clarinet, but has seen light in such famous works as "The Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky and "Symphonie Fantastique" by Berlioz.
The last major type of clarinet is the bass clarinet. While some clarinetists argue that it is more its own instrument than a variation on the normal clarinet, the fact remains that they have evolved from the same base. The bass clarinet plays low notes by comparison to the soprano clarinets and has quite a bit of music written for it. A bass clarinetist will generally be able to cover a similar music style to a bassoonist. Bass clarinets are usually tuned to B flat.
Numerous rarer other types of clarinets exist as well. The A flat requinto clarinet, for example, is called a piccolo clarinet. There are also clarinettes d'harmonie, in C, D and G, which are other members of the soprano family. The bassett clarinets are the next level lower than the soprano, and the most common tuning for them is A. The alto clarinet, also called a tenor clarinet, comes next. It is shaped like the bass clarinet but is slightly higher pitched and tuned in E flat. Below that are two more, deeper types of clarinets: the contralto and contrabass clarinets.
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