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The clarinet is a family of wind instruments which produce sound by means of a single vibrating reed. The soprano instrument, in B-flat, is most widely used today. One often sees the high E-flat clarinet, the A and the bass clarinet in orchestra concerts, and still others are employed with less frequency.
The earliest mention of the clarinet is in 1710. It came into widespread use in the mid-18th century. It came to the orchestra in the late 18th century via the military band and the wind ensemble. The Mannheim and Paris orchestras deserve much of the credit for popularizing its orchestral use at that time. The B-flat clarinet has played a primary role in ragtime and jazz.
Source: The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.,  ISBN 0-333-43236-3