How to Read Clarinet Notes

By Bailey Richert
Clarinetists play songs from sheet music.

The clarinet is a long woodwind instrument with a mellow tone. Sound is produced by blowing air into the clarinet over a mouth reed. Different notes are achieved by opening and closing holes along the clarinet's body with the musician's fingertips in various combinations. A clarinetist is only able to play one note at a time, so understanding how to read clarinet notes comes from an understanding on basic sheet music rules.

Locate the note on the staff, and identify its position specifically. A staff is the bar with five horizontal lines on which the notes are written. If the note is located below the staff, it will be a low-range note. If it is located on the staff it will be a mid-range note, and if it is located above the staff it will be a high-range note.

Identify the pitch of the note from its location on the staff. There are two ways that notes can be placed on the staff: in a space or on a line. Within the staff, the names of the notes in spaces are called F, A, C and E, starting at the bottom and working up. Within the staff, the names of the notes on lines are called E, G, B, D, F, starting at the bottom and working up. This same note pattern when put in sequential order is E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F. Note that the E and F are found on both ends of the sequence. This is because the sequence repeats itself above and below the staff.

Calculate the length of a note based on its shape. Most beginning clarinet music is written in "4/4" time. This is called a time signature, and it means that there are four notes or beats per measure, and every quarter note gets one beat. A quarter note is denoted by a small black circle with a line extending upward from its right side. A whole note, which is four counts, is a small hollow circle. A half note, which is two counts, is a hollow circle with a line extending upward from its right side. To achieve a three-beat note, a half note is followed by a small dot.

Pay attention to a note change as denoted by a sharp or flat sign. Clarinets have the ability to play notes up or down one half-step. When this is necessary, composers will place a special sign in front of the note. A pound symbol means the note should be played as a sharp (one half-step up), but a small "b" symbol means that the note should be played flat (one half-step down).

Interpret key changes as written by the time signature. Key changes are indications that a particular note should always be played flat or sharp during the entire song. These are indicated using the same symbols for flat and sharp notes, but they are written only once at the beginning of the staff right after the time signature.

About the Author

Bailey Richert is a 2010 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a dual bachelor's degree in environmental engineering and hydrogeology, as well as a master's degree in systems engineering. After several years in the environmental consulting industry, she is now attending MIT for graduate school. An accomplished traveler, she has visited 23 countries and published her first book about international travel in 2014.