A Brief History of the Clarinet

Invented by Johann Christoph Denner in About 1690

Clarinetists and bassoonists performing in orchestra, side view
Michael Blann/ Iconica/ Getty Images

Most musical instruments evolve into their present form over many centuries—so gradually that it is hard to pinpoint a date they were invented. This is not the case with the clarinet, a tube-shaped single-reed instrument with a bell-shaped end.  Although the clarinet has seen a series of improvements over the last few hundred years, its invention in around 1690 by Johann Christoph Denner, of Nuremburg, Germany, produced an instrument very similar to the one we know today.

The Invention

Although Denner based the clarinet on an earlier instrument called the chalumeau, his new instrument made such important changes that it really could not be called an evolution. With the help of his son, Jacob, Denner added two finger keys to a chalumeau—which at the time looked much like a modern day recorder, though with a single-reed mouthpiece. The addition of two keys might sound like a small improvement, but it made an enormous difference by increasing the musical range of the instrument more than two octaves. Denner also created a better mouthpiece and improved the bell shape at the end of the instrument. 

The name of the new instrument was coined shortly thereafter, and although there are different theories about the name, most likely it was named because its sound from a distance was somewhat similar to an early form of trumpet. (Clarinetto is an Italian word for "little trumpet.") 

The new clarinet with its improved range and interesting sound quickly replaced the chalumeau in orchestral arrangements. Mozart (d. 1791) wrote several pieces for the clarinet, and by the time of Beethoven's prime years (1800 to 1820), the clarinet was a standard instrument in all orchestras. 

Further Improvements

Over time, the clarinet saw the addition of additional keys that improved the range and airtight pads that improved its playability.

In 1812, Iwan Muller created a new type of keypad covered in leather or fish bladder skin. This was a great improvement over felt pads, which leaked air. With this improvement, makers found it possible to increase the number of holes and keys on the instrument. 

In 1843, the clarinet was further improved when Klose adapted the Boehm flute key system to the clarinet. The Boehm system added a series of rings and axles that made fingering easier which greatly helped, given the wide tonal range of the instrument.  

The Clarinet Today

The soprano clarinet is one of the most versatile instruments in modern musical performance, and parts for it are included in classical orchestra pieces, orchestra band compositions, and jazz pieces. It is made in several different keys, including B-flat, E -flat, and A, and it is not uncommon for large orchestras to have all three. It is even sometimes heard in rock music. Sly and the Family Stone, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Tom Waits, and Radiohead are some of the acts that have included the clarinet in recordings. 

The modern clarinet entered its most famous period during the big-band jazz era of the 1940s. Eventually, the mellower sound and easier fingering of the saxophone replaced the clarinet in some compositions, but even today, a great many jazz bands feature at least one clarinet.

Famous Clarinet Players

Some clarinet players are names many of us know, either as professionals or well-known amateurs. Among the names you might recognize: 

  • Benny Goodman
  • Arty Shaw
  • Woody Herman
  • Bob Wilbur
  • Woody Allen
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Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of the Clarinet." ThoughtCo, Jul. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-clarinet-1991464. Bellis, Mary. (2017, July 25). A Brief History of the Clarinet. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-clarinet-1991464 Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of the Clarinet." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-clarinet-1991464 (accessed March 19, 2018).