A soprano clarinet is a woodwind instrument. It is a derivative of the chalumeau, a baroque and classical period instrument similar in appearance to a recorder but which utilized a single reed. Its name comes from the Italian word "clarino," meaning trumpet, and the suffix -et, meaning little, thus referencing the original volume and tonal quality of the original metal versions of the instrument. The modern soprano clarinet is known affectionately by players and other musicians as the licorice stick due to its standard black color.
Soprano clarinets may be pitched differently, in part because limitations in initial keywork prevented players from performing in many different keys and necessitated entirely different instruments to accommodate all the key choices. For example, there are G, A and Bb soprano clarinets. The name of the soprano clarinet corresponds to the concert pitch produced when the player plays a written C on the clarinet. For instance, when a Bb clarinet player plays a written C, a piano player would play a Bb to match the pitch. The majority of soprano clarinets use this process, called transposition, although some soprano clarinets are pitched in C and thus do not transpose.
The range of a soprano clarinet varies slightly depending on how it transposes, as transposition is related to the size of the instrument. All soprano clarinets play in the treble range, however. Some people consider the soprano clarinet to be the highest-pitched instrument of the clarinet family, but this is not true. There are sopranino clarinets, the most common of which is pitched in Eb, which are smaller than sopranos and are the piccolos of the family.
When people refer to a soprano clarinet, they usually mean the soprano clarinet pitched in Bb. This is because the Bb clarinet is by far the most popular and widely manufactured of all instruments in the clarinet family. Some people also refer to the clarinet in A when they say soprano clarinet, because the instruments are similar enough to use the same mouthpiece, are both common in orchestral repertoire and are very similar in range.
Soprano clarinets are usually made from high-quality grenadilla wood, although other woods like redwood also are used. Wood clarinets are highly sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, which means they can crack if not cared for properly. Manufacturers of clarinets offer clarinets made from alternatives like plastic for beginners for this reason, but the tone of these clarinets is not nearly as warm. Clarinets that don't use wood still are vastly improved over original metal clarinets, however.
There are generally five main body pieces in a soprano clarinet, as well as a reed and a ligature that holds the reed on the clarinet. The top piece is the mouthpiece, against which the musician puts the reed. Below this is a small intermediary piece called a barrel. Then come the upper and lower joints, which contain the tone holes and key work. The last part of the clarinet is the bell.
The soprano clarinet is related very closely in terms of fingerings to other soprano instruments such as the flute and oboe. It frequently plays with these instruments because the flexibility of movement from pitch to pitch thus is similar, permitting comparable virtuosity. Clarinets also are paired with these instruments because of their similar ranges and because of how the tones blend. In concert bands, clarinets also pair well with saxophones when the clarinet player is in the lower range of the instrument.