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Johann Christoph Denner is generally believed to have invented the clarinet in Germany around the year 1700 by adding a register key to the earlier chalumeau. Over time, additional keywork and airtight pads were added to improve the tone and playability.
These days the most popular clarinet is the B♭ clarinet. However, the clarinet in A, just a semitone lower, is commonly used in orchestral music. Clarinets have the largest pitch range of common woodwinds. The intricate key organisation that makes this range possible can make the playability of some passages awkward.
The bottom of the clarinet's written range is defined by the keywork on each instrument, standard keywork schemes allowing a low E on the common B♭ clarinet. The lowest concert pitch depends on the transposition of the instrument in question. The nominal highest note of the B♭ clarinet is a semitone higher than the highest note of the oboe. Since the clarinet has a wider range of notes, the lowest note of the B♭ clarinet is significantly deeper (a minor or major sixth) than the lowest note of the oboe.
Defining the top end of a clarinet's range is difficult, since many advanced players can produce notes well above the highest notes commonly found in method books. G6 is usually the highest note clarinetists encounter in classical repertoire. The C above that (C7 i.e. resting on the fifth ledger line above the treble staff) is attainable by advanced players and is shown on many fingering charts, and fingerings as high as A7 exist.
How to play
The sound is made by blowing a stream of air into the mouthpiece (known as embouchure), and pressing down on the instrument's keys. This changes the pitch by opening and closing holes on the instrument, creating higher or lower notes. Varying the air flow into the instrument can affect the pitch, volume, and type of sound created.
Did you know?
The word clarinet may have entered the English language via the French clarinette (the feminine diminutive of Old French clarin or clarion), or from Provençal clarin, "oboe". It would seem however that its real roots are to be found amongst some of the various names for trumpets used around the renaissance and baroque eras. Clarion, clarin and the Italian clarino are all derived from the medieval term claro which referred to an early form of trumpet. This is probably the origin of the Italian clarinetto, itself a diminutive of clarino, and consequently of the European equivalents such as clarinette in French or the German Klarinette. According to Johann Gottfried Walther, writing in 1732, the reason for the name is that "it sounded from far off not unlike a trumpet". The English form clarinet is found as early as 1733, and the now-archaic clarionet appears from 1784 until the early years of the 20th century.