The bass clarinet is an oft-overlooked instrument if it’s even known to someone at all. The average person may not even be able to picture one, let alone tell you its key.
Lessons are rarely offered in school, they’re almost completely absent from popular culture and modern music, and presence in orchestras, marching bands, and jazz ensembles is often subtle enough to go unnoticed by the average listener
Recently, however, thanks to the influence and genius of many individual musicians, the bass clarinet is starting to rise from the depths of public unconsciousness.
The incomparable Colin Stetson primarily used his bass clarinet to score the entire breakout Ari Aster debut, Hereditary, and Louis Sclavis has brought the bass to musical forefronts with his pioneering blend of jazz and french folk music.
So, now that the bass clarinet is alive and swinging, there’s never been a better time to clue yourself up on some of the details and there’s no better place to start than where it lives musically: its key.
So, What is the Bass Clarinet’s Key?
Much like its little sibling the soprano clarinet, the bass clarinet is typically tuned to B flat, although this will be one octave lower than the soprano’s B flat.
The bass clarinet’s low range has a wide tonal capacity, but it is most celebrated for its somber, celloesque timbre. You can consider the bass clarinet the Eeyore of the orchestra’s Hundred Acre Wood.
This unusual pitching sets the bass clarinet in a class known as transposing instruments. A musical instrument is given this label if it is pitched outside of traditional concert tuning, for example, that of a piano.
It means that written notes come out at a slightly different pitch, i.e. a C written in notation, will be played with the same C fingering, but it will sound like a B flat.
You may be wondering why on Earth anyone would tune an instrument slightly off-key. Surely that makes multi-instrumental composition incredibly hard, right? Well, yes, it does complicate composition a little, but it’s done for a good reason.
Instruments such as the clarinet are made in different sizes, each with its own range. Some - typically the lower register - are pitched differently so that the fingering remains the same across the whole family.
Put simply, by pitching the bass clarinet differently, as long as you know how to play a standard A clarinet, you can still play the bass, rather than have it feel like you have to learn how to play a whole new instrument from scratch.
The same is true the other way. If you learned to play on bass, the feel and technique will differ slightly, but once you’ve grown accustomed to the size difference, you can automatically play a standard A or B clarinet.
Are All bass Clarinets Tuned to B Flat?
The B flat tuning isn’t entirely universal for bass clarinets.
Other tunings predominantly include both A and C, but if you thought B flat bass clarinets were rare, the other variants are virtually non-existent. If you’re just picking up your first bass, the chances are it is or should be pitched at B flat.
As you’re probably aware, instruments that cover extremely low registers are normally notated with basso clef, but the interesting thing about the bass clarinet is that it is written in standard violin clef.
This is done for a few reasons. The first and most practical reason is that the bass clarinet can produce such low notes that a composer would need loads of ledger lines to write the notes into their proper place.
Another reason is that French notation is always portrayed in treble clef using a transposition of the 9th. This representation is the easiest for musicians to understand.
Adolphe Sax, creator of the saxophone and the earliest rendition of what we now call the bass clarinet, resided permanently in France, so it’s likely he intended this kind of notation for his invention.
Violin clef hasn’t always been the notation style of the bass clarinet, particularly for older pieces of music. Composers often like the notation to be a proper visualization of the notes of the instrument, and so, would use basso clef.
German composers in particular are partial to basso clef. In fact, a vast majority of bass clarinet music utilizing basso clef is of German origin.
Range and Uses
With a total of 4 octaves, bass clarinets (and clarinets in general) have the widest range of any other woodwind instrument. They can play notes as low as a bassoon and venture as high as a soprano clarinet.
They’re also one of the most dynamic woodwind instruments, capable of fading in ppp (very, very quiet) notes from silence at any pitch, whereas other dynamically advanced instruments such as the saxophone have somewhat of a noise gate, meaning a note starts loud, especially in the upper registers.
Thanks to this versatility in tone and range, the bass clarinet’s uses are myriad. They can be used in place of a strung bass instrument and settle nicely into a rhythm section in a jazz or orchestral ensemble.
They can be used beautifully for solos due to their enchantingly expressive timbre. Some bass clarinetists even perform solos written for bassoon or cello as more have been written, historically.
A few experimental clarinetists have also started using their bass as a percussion instrument by micing up the keys as they play. For faster pieces, this technique adds a rolling, galloping force behind the notes.
Another experimental use finding prominence currently is the singing of notes through the clarinet as it’s played. This way clarinetists can create interesting counterpoints and harmonies, giving the effect more than one instrument is being played.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many keys are on a bass clarinet?
A professional-grade C (B flat) bass clarinet should have 23 keys, 5 more than a B flat bass and 4 more than an E flat bass.
What key is a bass clarinet tuned to?
Normally B flat. Others are out there, but they’re a rarity.
Is bass clarinet harder than clarinet?
It’s generally accepted that the bass clarinet is slightly easier to play, but it’s not without its challenges.
They require faster hand movement as there are more keys spread over a larger area, they’re incredibly heavy, and there are typically more solos for bass clarinets in music than any other.
Why are bass clarinets so expensive?
One simple reason is the amount of material required to craft them. They’re much larger than a lot of other instruments.
They’re also very difficult to make, and quite rare. Scarcity drives the price up even more. Manufacturers often only produce them as custom orders.
If you’re thinking about learning the bass clarinet, but you’re not sure, go for it! It’s one of the most majestic, versatile, and hauntingly beautiful instruments ever created, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
If you’re seriously considering a career as a musician, the bass clarinet is a fantastic way to get your foot in the door as it’s likely you’re the only player in your area.
Even if there’s no way you can afford a bass clarinet, thanks to transpositional pitching, you can learn on a soprano clarinet and transfer your skills over when the opportunity presents itself.