The clarinet family is very large. Clarinets of many sizes are used in band, orchestra, and as a solo instrument. The family can be broken down into four broad main categories- soprano, alto, bass, and contrabass. The B♭ soprano is the standard clarinet. The orchestra also frequently uses the A soprano clarinet. E♭ sopranino and B♭ bass clarinets are the next most common.
The A♭ piccolo clarinet is the smallest member of the clarinet family. It is not seen very often but is sometimes used in clarinet choirs and military bands.
E♭ and D sopranino
The E♭ sopranino clarinet is common in band and orchestra. The D clarinet is a semitone lower and is used very rarely in orchestra, famously by Strauss in Till Eulenspiegel. Molter’s clarinet concerto is also written for the D clarinet.
The B♭ clarinet is the most common clarinet. The A clarinet is commonly used in orchestra and some solo and chamber repertoire. The C clarinet is less common, appearing in some orchestral works, but is also used in folk music like klezmer, and by some jazz clarinetists.
G mezzo-soprano/Clarinet d’amore
The clarinet in G is very rarely used in Western classical music but is very common in Turkish and Greek folk music, often made of metal and with a German fingering system. The clarinet d’amore is also in G and having a pear-shaped bell, is an instrument from the Classical period but is extremely rare today.
Basset horn in F/Alto clarinet in E♭
The alto voices in the clarinet family are the alto clarinet in E♭ and basset horn in F. These instruments have a slightly curved metal neck and an upturned bell. The alto clarinet descends to a written E♭ and was more commonly used in wind bands in the mid-20th Century but is less common now. It is still an important voice in clarinet ensembles but is never used in orchestra. The basset horn, descending to a written low C and with a traditionally smaller bore, is the equivalent voice in the orchestra. It is also rare, but there has been a recent rise in its use in solo and chamber music. Mozart and Mendelssohn wrote important works with basset horn, and Stockhausen wrote several solo pieces.
The bass clarinet in B♭ is very common. It is always used in band, very frequently in orchestral works from the mid 19th Century onwards and has a large body of solo and chamber repertoire. It has a curved metal neck and upturned bell and descends to either E♭ (older and student instruments) or C (modern professional instruments). A number of orchestral composers write for the bass clarinet in A, which did exist but are now very rare, but today they are always transposed and played on a B♭ instrument. Bass clarinets in C are even more rare but did also exist.
The name of the instrument an octave below the alto clarinet is a point of confusion. Originally, it was called the E♭ contrabass clarinet, but more recently has been called the E♭ contra-alto or contralto clarinet. If a part only says “contrabass clarinet” always be sure to clarify the key! There are two main types – one looks like a large bass clarinet and descends to E♭, and the other is made of metal and wrapped into a compact form, colloquially named a “paperclip” model because of its resemblance to the office supply, and descends to C. It is used exclusively in clarinet choir, wind band (but often as an optional part), a few musicals, and gets used in film scores.
The B♭ contrabass clarinet is an octave below the bass clarinet, descends to either E♭, D, or C and comes in three forms – large bass clarinet shape, in the metal “paperclip” shape, or in a metal saxophone shape. It is standard in clarinet choirs and relatively common in wind band. It is occasionally used in modern orchestra and has its own solo and chamber repertoire.
E♭ Octocontra-alto/B♭ Contrabass
The E♭ octocontra-alto and B♭ octocontrabass are one octave below the contra-alto and contrabass clarinets. The Leblanc Corporation is the only company to have made these instruments on an experimental basis. They now reside in a museum in France.