by Kyle Coughlin
Why don’t we just learn the clarinet by playing the concert pitches?
The main reason we learn the notes of the clarinet in the key of B flat and not with concert pitches is that it makes it much easier to play clarinets in other keys, like the E flat clarinet or A clarinet. Many clarinet players will have to play E flat clarinet or A clarinet at some point in their careers. Since clarinets of varying lengths are in different keys, they share exactly the same system of fingerings, even though those fingerings produce different concert pitches. In other words, when you see the pitch G on the second line from the bottom of the staff, you will play it by leaving all of the tone holes open, regardless of the clarinet you are playing. If we played the concert pitches on the clarinet, we would have to learn three different sets of fingerings for each one of those clarinets. That would not be fun.
In the 1700’s during the early days of the clarinet, the instruments were very simple and not as technologically advanced as they are today. Clarinets could play comfortably in only a few different keys. As a result, the instruments were made in several different keys. Clarinets in B flat, A, C, D, and G were very common. However, as the instruments were improved, some of those clarinets lost favor and were abandoned. Today, the B flat clarinet is the most commonly used. However, the clarinet in E flat and in A are frequently played in orchestral music, and the clarinet in A is also a favorite of many composers of chamber music.