A Brief History of the Clarinet

When was the clarinet invented?

Clarinetists and bassoonists performing in orchestra
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Most musical instruments evolved into their present forms so gradually over centuries that it is hard to pinpoint an exact date on which they were invented. However, this is not the case with the clarinet, a tubular 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 1690 by Johann Christoph Denner of Nuremburg, Germany produced an instrument very similar to the one we know today.

The Invention

Denner based his clarinet on an earlier instrument called the chalumeau, which looked much like a modern-day recorder but had a single-reed mouthpiece. However, 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. The addition of two keys might sound like a small change, 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 was somewhat similar to an early form of the 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 wrote several pieces for the clarinet, and by the time of Beethoven's prime years (1800–1820), the clarinet was a standard instrument in all orchestras.

Further Improvements

Over time, the clarinet saw the addition of more keys that further improved the range, as well as 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 the felt pads being used, 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 evolved when French player Hyacinthe Klose adapted the Boehm flute key system to fit 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 just 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, many jazz bands feature at least one clarinet. The clarinet has also helped to inspire the invention of other instruments, such as the flutophone.

Famous Clarinet Players

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

  • Benny Goodman
  • Arty Shaw
  • Woody Herman
  • Bob Wilbur
  • Woody Allen