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How Does a Clarinet Work?

By Cathryn Whitehead ; Updated September 15, 2017
How Does a Clarinet Work?

Parts of a Clarinet

The clarinet is a woodwind instrument. Beginner clarinets are made of inexpensive plastic, but intermediate and professional clarinets are usually made of aged wood that gives the instrument a rich, full tone. The most common B flat soprano clarinet consists of a mouthpiece that has a ligature to hold a single cane reed in place, a barrel that can help you fine tune the clarinet, an upper joint with keys and holes that are covered with the left hand, a lower joint with keys and holes covered with the right hand and a flared bell at the end that improves the tone for the clarinet's lower notes.

How the Clarinet Works

Clarinet Mouthpiece, Ligerature, and Reed

When a clarinetist blows into the instrument, the air hitting the tip of the reed makes it vibrate. Tone holes that have been bored into the body of the clarinet help create the right tone for each note. When a key is pushed down the soft felt pad keeps the air from flowing through the covered hole. This makes the tone lower as the distance the air travels through the clarinet is increased. Air rushes out through open holes a bit at a time.

The vibrating reed that produces the clarinet's sound are made from the cane of a type of grass or synthetic materials. Reeds come in different hardness, A number one reed is soft; a number five is hard. Some manufacturers of reeds use different hardness numbering systems. How hard your reed is and how your mouthpiece works determine how easily you can play, how stable your pitch is, and how rich your tone is.

Keys, Holes and Notes

The clarinet's upper and lower joints have many tone holes. You cover seven of them with your fingers, and open or close the rest with keys. The instrument is mostly cylinder-shaped with an hourglass shape between the upper and lower joints. The clarinet can play at least four octaves and has three main registers that make different sounds. This gives a clarinet the largest range in pitch of any common woodwind instrument. The lowest register, known as the chalumeau register, goes to the B flat above middle C. The clarino, or middle register, goes from the B above middle C to the C two octaves above middle C. The altissimo, or top register is all the notes above the C that's 2 octaves above middle C. You can change the pitch of the clarinet by tightening or loosening the mouth's grasp on the mouthpiece or by changing the speed at which air is sent through the instrument. This changes the speed at which the reed will vibrate. Changing the shape of the mouth on the mouthpiece will change the sound. To get a louder sound, more air must be pushed through the instrument.

About the Author

Cathryn Whitehead graduated from the University of Michigan in 1987. She has published numerous articles for various websites. Her poems have been published in several anthologies and on Poetry.com. Whitehead has done extensive research on health conditions and has a background in education, household management, music and child development.