The Composer’s Guide to the Clarinet

Photo credit: Lucie Bigo/Henri Selmer Paris

If you’re a composer wanting to write for the clarinet, you’ve come to the right place!

I’ve been very fortunate to have collaborated with some wonderful composers throughout the years, and I wanted to create this post to help anyone who wants to write for the world’s best instrument. ;)

I’ve put together this list to help anyone who wants to learn more about what the clarinet can (and can’t) do.

Before we dive in, it’s important to mention that these are general guidelines. Each clarinetist has different skills, specialties, and abilities, so when in doubt, ask them!

Please keep in mind that this list is specifically targeted towards soprano clarinets. All pitches indicated below are written pitch.

Clarinet Basics

  • Range. The clarinet’s lowest note is E one octave below bottom line E. The highest note depends on the level of player. Most professional can play high C (five ledger lines above the staff), and some can even go higher. If you want to write higher than “super C,” please ask the clarinetist you’re working with if it would be possible.
  • Breathing. This is one of the most important things for composers to understand about the clarinet, especially if the composer hasn’t written for a wind instrument. Clarinetists have to breathe, so it’s important to consider this when composing. Treat the clarinetist like a singer – make sure there’s room in your music for breathing. If you’re writing a piece without places to breathe, make sure that the clarinetist you’re working with can circular breathe. (This is becoming much more mainstream, but it shouldn’t be expected.)
  • Dynamics. The clarinet has a huge dynamic range, from the softest whisper of a pppppp (which Tchaikovsky actually indicates in his clarinet solo in Symphony No. 6) to a wailing scream of a fff+. Just be sure to consider the range in which you write extreme dynamics. For example, it is very difficult to play extreme altissimo notes softly.
  • Technique. Clarinet music has incorporated increasingly challenging technical passages (looking at you, Nielsen and Corigliano concerti), and virtuosic technique is becoming more and more commonplace in clarinet music. There aren’t very many technical restrictions, but you should be aware of clarinet alternate fingerings, pinky key rules, and a few other considerations which might affect the tempo (or number of notes) you choose. You should also note that altissimo fingerings can be awkward, so be sure to keep this in consideration if writing difficult technical passages in this register.
  • Choice of key signature/clarinet. Any good clarinetist should be able to play in all keys, but you should also consider the key signatures you use and which clarinet they work best with. For example, a technical piece in B major for the B♭ clarinet would make more sense on the A clarinet in C major.
  • Clarinet family. The most common soprano clarinets are B♭ and A, so if you want to write for others, be sure to check with your clarinetist.

Special effects

  • Multiphonics. The clarinet can play more than one note at once, and it can be useful to consult a multiphonics guide before incorporating these to see which notes work well together. In theory, you can choose which notes you want in a multiphonic, but sometimes finding convincing fingerings to use can be difficult for clarinetists. Unlike chords or harmonics on string instruments, most intervals are not true on the clarinet. As always, consult with your clarinetist if you have any questions.
  • Quarter tones and microtones. These are also becoming more common in clarinet repertoire, and there are several helpful guides for both clarinetists and composers.
  • Glissandi. Thanks to Gershwin and his famous Rhapsody in Blue, clarinetists around the world have embraced the gliss. This is a fairly standard technique, but it can be difficult to do cleanly when crossing the break (going from throat tones to the clarion register).
  • Sound effects. Several composers have asked me if the clarinet can sound like _________ (insert animal, machine, or other noise), and the answer is generally yes, as long as the clarinetist gets creative. Specific sounds like this are best workshopped directly with the clarinetist to see what’s possible and how it can be notated musically.

Resources for composers

  • New Directions for Clarinet by Phillip Rehfeldt – a comprehensive guide on contemporary clarinet techniques
  • Gregory Oakes’ website – includes microtone and multiphonics fingering guides (useful for both composers and clarinetists!)

Still have questions? Leave a comment or contact me and I’ll be happy to help!

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