Clarinet History

Brief History of The Clarinet

Invented by Johann C Denner

Most musical instruments evolve into their present form over many centuries—so gradually that it is hard to pinpoint a date they were invented. This is not the case with the clarinet, a tube-shaped single-reed instrument with a bell-shaped end.  Although the clarinet has seen a series of improvements over the last few hundred years, its invention in around 1690 by Johann Christoph Denner, of Nuremburg, Germany, produced an instrument very similar to the one we know today.


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The Invention

The Invention

Although Denner based the clarinet on an earlier instrument called the chalumeau, his new instrument made such important changes that it really could not be called an evolution. With the help of his son, (Jacob Denner ), Denner added two finger keys to a chalumeau—which at the time looked much like a modern day recorder, though with a single-reed mouthpiece. The addition of two keys might sound like a small improvement, but it made an enormous difference by increasing the musical range of the instrument more than two octaves. Denner also created a better mouthpiece and improved the bell shape at the end of the instrument.

The name of the new instrument was coined shortly thereafter, and although there are different theories about the name, most likely it was named because its sound from a distance was somewhat similar to an early form of trumpet. (Clarinetto is an Italian word for “little trumpet.”)

The new clarinet with its improved range and interesting sound quickly replaced the chalumeau in orchestral arrangements. Mozart (d. 1791) wrote several pieces for the clarinet, and by the time of Beethoven’s prime years (1800 to 1820), the clarinet was a standard instrument in all orchestras.

Let’s Dive Deeper Into the Clarinet

The clarinet is a woodwind instrument with a distinctive, versatile sound, capable of producing a wide range of tones, from warm, rich low notes to bright, piercing high notes. Its history spans several centuries, reflecting a journey of innovation and adaptation. Here’s an overview:

History, Origins and Early Development

Early Precursors: The clarinet’s ancestors can be traced back to early single-reed instruments like the chalumeau, which was popular in Europe in the 17th century. The chalumeau was limited in range, primarily producing sound in the lower register.

Invention of the Clarinet: The modern clarinet was developed around the turn of the 18th century by Johann Christoph Denner in Nuremberg, Germany. Denner and his son, Jacob, are credited with adding a register key to the chalumeau, which allowed players to produce a higher range of notes. This innovation effectively doubled the instrument’s range and led to the creation of the clarinet.

Evolution and Refinement

18th Century: Initially, the clarinet had a limited role in orchestras and was used primarily in military and folk music. However, as its range and capabilities became more widely known, composers began to incorporate the clarinet into their works. The instrument at this time typically had two keys.

19th Century: The clarinet saw significant development during the 19th century. The number of keys and the complexity of the clarinet’s key system increased, improving its intonation, range, and versatility. The Boehm system, developed by Theobald Boehm for the flute and adapted for the clarinet by Hyacinthe Klosé and Auguste Buffet in the mid-19th century, was a major advancement. This system, which is still in use today, made the clarinet easier to play in tune and facilitated playing in a wider range of keys.

20th Century and Beyond:

The clarinet became firmly established in orchestral, band, jazz, and chamber music. The instrument continued to evolve, with improvements in materials (such as the use of African blackwood, also known as grenadilla) and manufacturing techniques. The clarinet family also expanded to include a range of instruments, such as the E-flat (soprano), bass, contra-alto, and contrabass clarinets, among others.

Cultural Impact of the Clarinet

The clarinet has made a significant impact on various music genres. In classical music, it is a staple of orchestras and ensembles, with a rich repertoire of solo and chamber works. In the early 20th century, the clarinet became prominent in jazz, with players like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw contributing to its popularity. The instrument is also integral to folk and ethnic music traditions around the world, from the klezmer music of Eastern European Jews to the classical and folk music of the Middle East.


The history of the clarinet is a testament to the human ingenuity of Johan Christoph Denner and the evolution of musical expression. From its humble beginnings as a modified chalumeau to its current status as a mainstay of musical performance in multiple genres, the clarinet has undergone continuous transformation, enriching the world of music with its unique sound and versatility.

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