This article gives you a short overview over what a clarinet is. You find more details in the articles of this site, the link page, plus lots of helpful links in Wikipedia.
The Clarinet Is...
The clarinet is one of the younger woodwind instruments with a single reed and cylindrical bore. When you talk about "the" clarinet in general you usually refer to the A- or B flat (soprano) clarinet, although there is a whole clarinet family ranging from the small and high E flat to the very big and ultradeep sounding contrabass clarinet, which is about 2,70 meter (appr. 8.86 feet) long.
Looks and Material
The soprano clarinet is about twice as big as a recorder. It consists of several parts, usually made of black grenadilla wood and silver-plated keys. There are, too, clarinets made of synthetics / plastic, Plexiglass or metal. From a distance the instrument may look similar to an oboe. In contrast to the oboe's thin double reed, looking like a straw, the clarinet has got a wide mouth piece with a single reed fixed onto it. Furthermore it has got a cylindrical bore, that is, the full length is of the same diameter (except for the very lower end called the bell), much in contrast to most other wind instruments.
The single reed and the cylindrical bore make the instrument a clarinet.
Tone Range and Sound
The clarinet's tone range is wider than that of all other wind instruments. All instruments play the E (E3 - some go lower) and most players can reach a high c7, that means nearly 4 octaves. A Bass Clarinet for example can easily play everything that is possible on an Alto Sax, Tenor Sax and Baritone Sax and go even a deeper a note or two.
The clarinet's dynamic (loudness) ranges from practically unhearable ppp to a hurting fff (only brass and saxophones can play louder). Other woodwinds usually will have serious difficulties beginning a phrase in ppp, not so the clarinet (to be fair, good saxophone players can, too).
Both in sound and playing techniques the clarinet is one of the most flexible instruments at all. It displays many characteristics you find in the human voice. It shows quite different sounds in the different registers - (high, medium, low) more characteristic than any other wind instrument. You can play virtually all forms of articulation with a clarinet - extremely short staccato, a perfect legato (binding of notes), vibrato when it is needed, even a glissando (that is changing the pitch from one tone to another without having to interrupt).
A Short History
The clarinet's history begins with its invention around 1700: The German instrument maker J.C. Denner developed it based on a very simple shepherd's instrument, the chalumeau, which then had a range of about one octave. Until today several clarinet systems have been developed, the most widely used being the French Boehm system (used in English speaking countries, too) and the German system (in German speaking countries). Since 1800 (Mozart, Weber, Beethoven) the clarinet is fully established in symphonic music, popular music, dance- and military music and then later on in Jazz and pop, but is also used in Indian, Persian and Turkish music, Gipsy, Kletzmer and even Arabian music with its non-European scales.
There is a diversity of national styles and quite different ideas of how a clarinet should sound, with the German and French schools being the most prominent (the English and North American in between, but leaning more towards the French). At least in the question which instrument type to use the French school is clearly dominating the world (except for Germany and Austria, where they use their own instrument types).
Types of Ensembles that employ clarinets
You find clarinets in all types of ensembles.
- In the classical symphony orchestra there are at least two to three clarinettists playing the B flat or A clarinet, in addition there often is an E flat clarinet player and a bass clarinet player when needed. Good orchestras are rare. And they do not change their woodwind section without serious need - so it is difficult for a young player to find one to join; as long as it is not the school's orchestra. You need a lot of good luck and better yet good connections to join one. Try to help out if they are in need as often as you can!
- Symphonic wind bands or harmonic orchestras - especially the big ones - are very much like the classical symphony orchestras, but without a string section. They replace the high strings with clarinets (yeah!) and saxophones and baritones. In result you have a clarinet section with up to 30 players. This makes a symphonic wind band an ideal starting point for the young clarinet player. Many of the wind bands have kid's bands, too.
- Military bands and their civilian counterpart, the firebrigade's - or schools marching band or community bands, are usually marching bands, that may as well play popular programs or perform in dark suits in a concert hall - then reaching the symphonic wind band's niveau. In some European regions (Alpine region, Tschech republc, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy - each in a different local tradition) many local communities may have such a band which gives young talents a lot of starting points. In the USA the high school's marching band has got a similar function - they may be huge, up to some hundred players. Because there are so many marching bands some become excellent, and they play an important role by employing composers to write new pieces, too.
- The Klezmer- Gipsy- or Tango-orchestra is nothing for beginners nor for the shy person - here you are one of the soloists; the ensembles are small (base/tuba, accordeon or piano, percussion, a violin, a clarinet and a singer. And on top of good technical playing skills you better have some acting skills.
- Playing chamber music, usually in a quintet, together with flute, oboe, horn and bassoon, perfection in every aspect is required (or the overall result will be unsatisfying). Pros often think this is the most demanding type of music, and they love it. There is a repertoire reaching from classical to modern. But outside of a rather small scene only very few people fancy chamber music.
- In the Big Band and other jazz ensembles the clarinet is a solo instrument at one moment, and the next it is a part of the wind section. Because the clarinet has got the same mouthpiece and many similarities in playing, it may be played by the same musicians. Once (Glen Miller!) it was the star, but that is long ago, today the clarinet is on the retreat, being replaced by the saxophone, which is able to cope with amplified instruments much better.
- In Pop, Rock and other commercial music - often based on electric and electronic effects the clarinet is rather exotic. You may find a bass clarinet here and there due to the interesting visual appearance. In contrast to a string set (usually pretty girls) that you can see in music video clips quite often (but that you hardly ever hear them play) a B flat clarinet player can be happy if he or she does not look stupid.
You do not find clarinets in Baroque Music (Bach, Händel, Vivaldi) because clarinets were invented later.
An Instrument For You?
Clarinets are not extremely expensive - you get "quite good" new instruments as well as a better but used ones starting from about 500 Euros (a little more than 500 US$). Neither is the clarinet large or difficult to carry about. The instrument case fits into an ordinary rucksack - just discuss logistics with a bassoonist, a tuba-player or a drummer! A young child can start to learn playing the clarinet as soon as it has his/her adult teeth are there and the hands are big enough. Depending on your ambition and time invested in exercising (like an hour per day) you can learn enough in two years to be able to play in a beginners' orchestra or band (this still leaves you some way to go to become a world class solo clarinet player, of course).