As clarinets are wind instruments, they are primarily played by blowing through the mouthpiece and using your fingers to cover or open various finger holes. But, as you will have likely noticed, clarinets are a little more complicated than just that.
Clarinets also have a range of metal keys that are attached to a metal configuration that sits along the length of the instrument. These keys have a great bearing on the sound that the clarinet produces.
When looking at a clarinet, the metal keys can appear complicated and a little overwhelming. Especially when you will need to know their positioning without looking away from the sheet music.
So, how many keys are on a clarinet, and what else is there to know about these strange instruments?
The Keys of a Clarinet
There are several different types of clarinet. But on the standard B♭ clarinet, there are 17 keys. The keys of a clarinet are essentially a collection of short and long metal levers along the side of the instrument, as well as in between the tone holes.
The tone holes are also surrounded by ring shaped pieces of metal. Some of these are keys but some are just connected to the overall mechanism. Pressing the keys lifts a cap over some of the tone hole situated along the body of the instrument.
The keys that surround the finger holes on the main body (or the “upper tube” and “lower tube”) of the clarinet are known as ring keys. They are connected to the rest of the metal mechanism that runs the length of the upper and lower tubes.
But they do not have a great bearing on the sound. The rings do not cover the finger holes themselves. Instead, the rings surround the holes and are pressed down with the finger. When pressed, it is the pad of the finger that actually covers the hole.
Clarinet in Detail
Different styles of clarinet will have different fingering styles and different arrangements of keys and levers.
To give you an idea of where all these keys are and how they all work and sound, here’s a quick rundown of the keys on a standard B♭ clarinet.
Let’s start with the more complicated side of the clarinet. There are quite a lot of keys on the front of a B♭ clarinet, as well as many tone holes and pads.
Going clockwise from the top, they are called:
- A pad
- A key
- A♭ key
- First ring
- Second ring
- E♭/B♭ trill key
- C#/G# key
- F/C lever
- E/B lever
- F#/C# lever
- Third ring
- B/F# key
- A♭/E♭ key
- A♭/E♭/ pad
- F/C key
- F#/C# pad
- E/B pad
- F/C pad
- E/B key
- F#/C# key
- B/F♭ pad
- Third-ring pad
- Side E♭/B♭ key
- Side F# key
- Side B♭ key
- Side C key
- Second-ring pad
- First-ring pad
- A♭ pad
- Side B♭ pad
- Side C pad
The keys, pads, and tone holes on the back of a clarinet are much simpler than on the front. But they are still integral to the proper playing of the instrument.
So they absolutely must not be forgotten.
Clockwise from the top, these keys, pads, and holes are known as:
- Register key
- Thumb ring
- Side F♭ pad
- Side E♭/B♭ pad
- C#/B# pad
- E♭/B♭ trill pad
As you can see from these extensive lists, clarinets are pretty complicated. But, they are actually relatively easy to learn.
When you begin the play, you won’t be doing anything too complicated and will just focus on a few of the tone holes. Then, you will gradually build up your understanding and be able to use the more complicated features.
As you must keep your eyes on the sheet music, you won’t be able to watch what your hands are doing. It is actually almost impossible to watch your fingers as you play.
But, even after playing a few simple notes, you will be able to know exactly where to place your fingers without even thinking. It will become second nature to you.
So don’t be intimidated by the complex and intricate key, pad, and tone hole system. If you really don’t think that you will be able to understand the fingering of a clarinet, you can always start off with a recorder.
Recorders and clarinets are very similar instruments. If you were to hold two side by side, the clarinet would almost look like a more complicated recorder. (Especially in comparison to the treble recorder).
Anatomy of a Clarinet
So, that’s the complicated key and lever system of a clarinet. But what about the rest of the instrument? The clarinet is separated into several different parts. These parts are called:
- The mouthpiece (which the reed is attached to)
- The ligature
- The barrel
- The upper tube
- The lower tube
- The bell
These sections all fit together to make up the clarinet. They are specifically designed to produce the instrument’s beautiful sound. The sections can be separated but this isn’t anything to do with the playing or sound of the instrument.
The sections can be separated to allow them to be easily packed away. (So you wouldn’t be able to take the bell from the base of a clarinet to make a different sound. It really wouldn’t work).
So, there you have it. This is a very basic guide to the keys of a clarinet.
As mentioned before, there are several different styles of clarinet, so the keys won’t be exactly the same on every single kind. But these are the most common keys that you will come across.
Using the key system of a clarinet is a complicated process but it is one that you can learn pretty quickly.
If you’re reading this article, then you’re probably a bit of a beginner who is wondering what on earth the metal mechanism running the length of your instrument actually does.
But don’t be overwhelmed. Work slowly and steadily and it will all become second nature before you know it.