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Why Bb?


Staff member
I was fortunate to cut my playing teeth with a country rock band while still in high school. I actually prefer playing in F# and B over the flat keys. C#, not so much, but only because it comes up so rarely on the tenor.


Clarinet CE/Moderator
Staff member
I am a multi-instrumentalist and love the sax but I hate hate hate the awkward fingerings and transpositional mental gymnastics required to play the Eb Alto (especially) along with groups playing in the “common” keys most pop/rock/blues groups play in — E, A, G, D, C, B.
This player is certainly not alone. Certainly not all C-pitched players play the horns b/c they are not capable of playing in guitar players' favourite keys, but for many that is certainly the case. I see these players as a throwback to the original target market of the C melody saxes.
I was lucky enough in high school that my private teacher would give me these weird french pieces that had double sharps and flats and all the tough keys. I became quite adept at any key signature.

Looking at the market for C instruments
- newbie players in elementary school just starting? No. The instrument isn't accepted. I'm not sure if the instrument would be accepted at any point in the educational aspect all the way through college.

- guitar friendly instrument. I can see this. But then how many are interested in a (how much did it cost) alto or tenor in C when they probably have their other alto/tenors. I can see an initial demand/inquiry but a continual production model is cannot see. Which may have been part of the problem. This would require such a large analysis for long term viability it would then also question if a large maker would jump in and steal some of the market. But who knows. I myself didn't get a C clarinet as I couldn't see spending the $$ on it as the higher tone wasn't to my liking for any type of ensemble playing.

I still wouldn't mind having one, but it's not even on my priority list.

Carl H.

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
I guess I'm the odd duck here. I use my C clarinet quite a bit, but I'm mostly doing orchestra playing these days. The Bb and A are getting about 85% of the playing load, and I could get by without any additional clarinets with my full Boehm Bb, but I like having the option to hear the original color intended by the composers. At first play they have their own voices, but after a while I sound like me again on all of them, but I can still go to their inherent tendencies easier on the "correct" instrument.

One benefit of the C is that is that it is easier to play over the trumpets on a C than on an A.

Plus easier key signatures is something I'm in favor of whenever possible.

Bloo Dog

Consider the plight of the boneless chicken.
I was just wondering why most beginner clarinets are in Bb? Why flat? Were the early clarinets in such keys as Bb, Ab and Eb? I know some are in A and C but they seem the exception.
GREAT question! There were/are the octave clarinets that were tuned to C and Ab. The Ab is tuned to a minor 7th above the Bb. There were the piccolo Eb and D clarinets that belong/belonged to the piccolo clarinet family.

But the story of the clarinet's evolution is a dark one, full of mutants and variations and absolutely weird brothers, sisters. and odd uncles.

The clarinet is a descendent of a Baroque era instrument, a single-reed cylindrical bored instrument that had very few keys. It is believed to go back in history as far as the 1200’s. The family included a funky-looking bass chalameau whose bell pointed upward. The mouthpiece was affixed to the body via something akin to a saxophone neck or a bassoon bocal.

There was also a tenor, an alto, and a soprano chalameau, each keyed differently because they were different sizes. (Why each was built to particular dimensions is anyone’s guess, but it could have been to achieve accurate intonation relative to other instruments).

Then someone got a bright idea to add a register key and extra keys and tone holes and pads to cover them. Then the chalameau as it was known disappeared from common usage by 1800 because the instrument with more keys and holes replaced it. This was the clarinet. It could do what the chalameau could do and more.

The soprano clarinet as we know it today exists in the key of A as well as Bb and Eb, but the transition wasn’t without weird twists and turns. Someone named Schuller created a clarinet that --- wait for it--- played quartertones and employed two parallel bores!

But to address the original question: why is the modern soprano (and presumably the "beginner) clarinet tuned to Bb?

I don't know. Just be glad that it wasn’t tuned to Db!
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Banned :(
I recently got a book on the history of the clarinet (the Clarinet Companion). Looks an interesting book.


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Off the top of my head, I think there were 14ish "pitches" of modern clarinet, from Ab sopranino to Bb octocontrabass. Leblanc used to sell them all. The below picture has most of them. I know it's missing the quartertone and the Heckel-Clarinet.



_•_ •_• __ •_•_ •____|
Banned :(
Off the top of my head, I think there were 14ish "pitches" of modern clarinet, from Ab sopranino to Bb octocontrabass. Leblanc used to sell them all. The below picture has most of them. I know it's missing the quartertone and the Heckel-Clarinet.

Clarinet heaven!
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