The Role of the Clarinet in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

The clarinet looks somewhat like an oboe, but it makes a very different sound in classical music: full, but without the edge of the oboe’s sound. One important reason for this difference is that, whereas the oboe has a double reed (a piece of shaved cane doubled over on itself), the clarinet has a single reed.

A clarinet.

Credit: Source: Creative Commons
A clarinet.

Unlike oboists (and bassoonists), clarinetists don’t need to make their own reeds; they can buy reeds ready-made because clarinet reeds are much less temperamental than oboe reeds. Consequently, clarinetists — like their instruments — tend to be quite mellow as a species. The following information covers the most important clarinet facts to remember.

Transposing instruments

Clarinetists’ mellowness is fortunate, because they must contend with one of the strangest musical concepts: that the clarinet is a transposing instrument (one of several in the orchestra). This means that when you play one note, you get another.

Don’t panic: there’s an explanation.

On your average instrument — a flute, for example — what you play is what you get. You see a G on your sheet music, you play a G, and a G comes out. But play a G on a standard clarinet, and the note F comes out! In other words, it transposes down by one note.

And that’s just the most common kind of clarinet. Since ancient times — long before the Age of Reason — clarinets have been available in a mind-blowing array of different sizes: big ones to play low notes, small ones to play higher notes. And each size of clarinet transposes by a different amount; that is, on a bigger clarinet, you might play what should be the note G, but an E comes out!

As you can imagine, the mathematical complexities of trying to make the correct notes come out of the correct clarinet model drove decades of clarinetists quietly mad.

Thankfully, some hotshot musician of the past had a great idea. How about making the composer do all the math? Suppose the composer compensated for the clarinet’s tendency to produce notes that were actually lower than what the player played — by writing the notes too high in the first place? Then all the player would have to do is play what she saw, and the right notes would come out.

So suppose you’re playing the most common kind of clarinet, the one that transposes down one note. The composer wants to hear an F. No big deal — he just writes a G in the sheet music. You see the G, you play it — and F comes out. Just what the composer intended in the first place. The composer gets what he wants, nobody has to know about it, no money changes hands, and everybody’s happy.

Clarinetists can now play any kind of clarinet with no adjustments whatsoever, thanks to composers’ extra effort of writing clarinet sheet music in a different key than the rest of the orchestra. Composers, conductors, and music lovers have come to accept that this sheet music is printed in the “wrong” key — for the sake of clarinetists all over the world. Most trumpet, saxophone, and French horn music works the same way; all of those are transposing instruments, as well.

Hearing the clarinet

Clarinets are instruments of great grace and agility, with a smooth, lovely sound; they blend beautifully with just about every other instrument in the orchestra. You might say that they’re easy to get along with — much like the people who play them.

Check out some wonderful clarinet playing. Check out the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 (Track 03; 0:59). Then listen to a very different sound — a high clarinet bird call in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Track 09; 1:14).

If you’d like to hear some great concertos for the clarinet, you should definitely listen to the following compositions:

  • Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622

  • Aaron Copland: Clarinet Concerto

  • Debussy: Première rhapsodie for clarinet and orchestra

Or check out these beautiful pieces:

  • Brahms: Sonatas for clarinet and piano, opus 120, no. 1 (in F minor) and no. 2 (in E-flat major)

  • Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major

  • Franz Schubert: The Shepherd on the Rock, songs for voice, clarinet, andpiano

And, finally, you really should hear these beautiful clarinet parts within the orchestra:

  • Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to A Midsummer Nights Dream

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony no. 2 in E minor (third movement)