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What Is a Contrabass Clarinet?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

A contrabass clarinet, sometimes called a pedal clarinet, is the largest member of the clarinet family. It is a single-reed woodwind musical instrument which produces a note two octaves lower than the common soprano clarinet. Although larger and therefore lower clarinets have been built, the contrabass clarinet is the largest ever to see regular use.

Contrabass clarinets take one of two shapes: "looped" contrabass clarinets have a tube which curves on itself twice. The bell of the instrument may emerge above or below the mouthpiece. These clarinets are also known as "paperclip" clarinets because of their characteristic shape. "Straight" clarinets have a tube which curves only once, creating a long, straight instrument with the bell at the bottom. This type of contrabass clarinet superficially resembles a very large saxophone.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

A typical contrabass clarinet is pitched in BBb, meaning that the note it produces sounds two octaves and a major second lower than the note written. Musicians usually call this instrument a "Bb contrabass clarinet" for the sake of convenience. However, a similar instrument, the contra-alto or contralto clarinet, is pitched in EEb, meaning that its note is two octaves and a major sixth below the written note. The physical similarity between these two instruments sometimes leads musicians to refer to the EEb contralto clarinet as an EEb or Eb contrabass clarinet.

Several instruments which prefigured the contrabass clarinet came into being during the 19th century, but none of them achieved lasting popularity until acoustician Charles Houvenaghel developed the version on which all modern examples are based. Houvenaghel worked with French instrument maker Georges Leblanc and his son Léon. Houvenaghel's goal was to create a complete clarinet choir which would have the same musical range as an orchestral string section. To this end, he created a wide variety of different types of clarinet, including the tiny sopranino and the contrabass.

The contrabass clarinet is not nearly as widely used as the ubiquitous soprano clarinet. Very little music for the solo contrabass exists, but it does play a part in some orchestral compositions, including work by composers such as Richard Strauss, Olivier Messiaen and jazz legend Charles Mingus. Frank Zappa also made use of it in his experimental music. One of the most notable proponents of the instrument is jazz musician and academic Anthony Braxton, who uses the instrument, along with the contrabass saxophone, in a number of his avant-garde compositions.

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