How Many Keys Does a Clarinet Have?

The sophisticated orchestral instrument, the clarinet, is indeed one of the most reed instruments. If you have been obsessing over taking lessons to start playing the clarinet, you must already have seen the keys it comes with. This is what we will talk about today.

If you have missed seeing it, there are seventeen keys on a standard version of the instrument. These keys differ from one another, in some cases. This means, some keys have more than a single function. What is even more interesting is that, in general, you will be playing more than one key at the same time.

The clarinet is equipped with an octave key. This key is responsible to allow the player to reach the notes which are higher. Likewise, the others keys also have their own X factors. Let us dive into the key system of a clarinet.

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The Key System

When you take the first look at the instrument, you may feel the key system looks complex. We are not denying that it is surely the case. But this article will help to familiarize you a little more with the system these keys follow and hopefully, simplify the concept a little more.

A clarinet is equipped with different lengths of levers, blocks, tubes as well as axes, which move the long and short keys. These keys have pads in the bottom, and cover the holes of the tone. That is not all. The interaction between some of these keys is also sometimes complicated.

If you do not know how to play this instrument, this will look and even sound, a little confusing. Even for some musicians, it is impossible to answer which key is opening in full detail when they are playing a specific tune.

This is because sometimes the players only train their fingers to move a certain way without looking too much into the explanations of the key functions underlying the action.

The Order of the Keys

You will need to ensure that the keys of the clarinet are in the right order to have the desired effect on the recorder. And what is that you should desire- simply the opening and the closing of the tone holes.

To ensure that everything is working properly, you need to look out for the key to close the tone hole fully tight. In this way, no air will be able to enter through it. Furthermore, when open, it must allow as less resistance as possible to the air flow.

For this, you need to ensure that the key pad is open as much as a minimum of a third of the diameter of the tone hole.

This should be followed by the keys opening and closing as fast as possible and that too in both the directions. One of the moves is executed by the finger and this has to be followed by a spring to allow the key to come back in precisely the exact position as before.

Some keys open as well as close the different holes simultaneously. Also good to take note, some levers are very long.

Furthermore, bass clarinets are known to come with mechanics which can move pads almost 50 centimeters away. This will need the springs to be extremely strong and the axis to be as frictionless as it can be.

Clarinet Pads

The pads need to work in both dry as well as wet situations. They should not be making any sort of sound on their own and should be extremely reliable. This means, their acoustic neutrality is quite important, to the extent that they do not put an impact on the sound of the instrument at any cost.

You fingers are responsible to maintain this. It is of course not an easy task to beat your fingertips to close the tone holes. When it comes to closing the upper tone holes, you will realize that there indeed exist solutions which are purely ‘finger-only’, specifically in the case of playing small sized clarinets such as the Eb-flat and the B-flat.

However, the aforementioned action is not possible with all the different holes. This is because, the whole clarinet cannot be covered by the limited span of the hands. So the tones all the way towards the bottom are not accessible in this manner.

Moreover, the larger tone holes need to be large enough, as well as wide enough for the finger tips to normally access them.

Another, and the most crucial reason is that, if all the holes had to be accessed, you would require more than the 10 fingers you are blessed with, in order to use the clarinet.

Closed Keys and Open Keys


The clarinet comes with open as well as closed keys. As you press the lever, some keys will open the tone hole while come will close them. Closed keys are imperative for half tones (such as C#, D#, F#).

Furthermore, some of the closed keys serve as an alternative to some open keys. They may also be useful to correct in the tuning. They can, at times, open automatically, when you press down the other keys.

The Requirements of Keys

There are some requirements that clarinet keys need to meet. These include:

  • Proper closing of the tone holes- to avoid any loss of air
  • Proper opening of the tone holes: to avoid acoustical pressure for the air
  • Quick opening and closing of the keys: no friction should be allowed in between

Furthermore, the keys should not make too much unwanted noise. They need to work silently and efficiently. All of this is easily achievable using keys which are modern and maintaining these keys in the best possible manner.

Concluding Remarks

You are now well aware about how many keys the clarinet comes with, what these keys do and hence, you are prepared to start playing knowing the physics behind the keys.

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