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Instruments in the clarinet family use a single reed to produce sound. When the musician blows into the mouthpiece it causes the reed to vibrate. The vibration of the reed is what makes the sound. Reeds are attached to the mouthpiece using a metal, leather, or soft plastic ligature. The musician uses their fingers, mouth, and air to change the pitch.
Clarinet offers the widest range of pitch in all the woodwinds Each type of clarinet has its own pitch, but in general, there are three classifications of clarinet pitch.
- Chalumeau: This is the lowest register of the instrument. It reaches from Bb4 down to the lowest note the clarinet can produce.
- Clarion: This is the middle register and is sometimes called the clarino register. The clarion register starts with B4 and goes to C6.
- Altissimo: The highest notes that any woodwind instrument can play are called the altissimo register. On clarinet, this is any pitch above C6.
The body of a clarinet is made from granadilla wood, plastic, hard rubber, or resin. Clarinet keys and touch pieces are made from silver-plated nickel, silver, or gold-plated nickel.
Clarinets intended for beginning players are made from plastic, hard rubber, or resin. These materials are less fragile than wood and better stand up to the rough treatment younger players often dish out. They also require less care and maintenance than wood instruments.
The first clarinets were usually made from boxwood. Clarinets made from plum or pear have been documented. In the 18th century, it was fashionable to make clarinets from ivory. Since ivory cracks easily the fad didn’t last long.
Modern clarinets are made from a couple of different types of wood. Grenadilla is the most common, but other types of African blackwood are used as well. Occasionally you will find older clarinets made from Honduran rosewood and cocobolo. These two kinds of wood are rarely used today because of supply and conservation concerns.
Wooden clarinets give a richer, warmer tone than those made from other materials. Many clarinetists feel wood is more responsive and easier to play.
The downside is that the wood requires special care. Wooden clarinets must be cleaned carefully, inside and outside, after each use. The wood must be treated with bore oil occasionally to protect it from moisture created when the musician blows into the instrument.
Clarinets made from wood also must be stored carefully. Wooden clarinets should, ideally, be stored at roughly 70 degrees F, with about 70% humidity. They need to be protected from sudden or extreme temperature changes to prevent the body of the instrument from warping or cracking. Of course, no one lives in ideal conditions, and owners of wood clarinets do the best they can.
Wooden clarinets are ideal for intermediate and above musicians who play indoors. Professional clarinetists almost always use a top-of-the-line wooden instrument.
If you are playing outside, or in extreme conditions, a wood clarinet is not recommended. Many serious high school, college, and professional clarinet players have two instruments. One wooden for orchestra, concert band, and other indoor performances, and one made of plastic or ebonite for marching band and other outdoor performances.
Materials other than wood
Wood is the preferred material for professional musicians, but wood is expensive. Even though it’s a renewable resource, the species of tree used to make good quality wooden clarinets grows slowly and must be treated carefully. Building a wooden clarinet is a time-consuming, intricate process. For these reasons, and many others instrument makers looked for other materials with which to manufacture clarinets.
The C.G. Conn company patented the first metal clarinet in 1888. The first model of metal clarinet was called The Conn Wonder. It used the Albert fingering system and had a double wall of metal. They began mass production in 1895. This first metal clarinet had a wonderful tone and set the stage for metal clarinets.
After the success and popularity of the Conn Wonder in the United States, clarinet makers in Europe decided to produce their own. Couesnon and Triebert won awards for thier Boehm fingering system metal clarinets. Some European makers experimented with single wall models, but the intonation was bad enough that some historians described it as having a “repulsive tone.”
In 1910 the Penzel-Mueller company in New York created a double-walled metal clarinet that they called the CLARI-MET. This model quickly became the preferred clarinet of professional clarinetists playing in orchestras across the country. However, the instrument was made from a metal alloy that was almost pure silver. The clarinet cost about $200 in 1910. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $6000 in today’s money. The high cost and the fact that these double-walled instruments were difficult to repair led to their downfall. The metal clarinet fell from popularity until 1925.
The Silva-Bet was produced in 1925 by the Cundy-Bettoney Company in Boston. This model had a turnable barrel. Its sound quality and intonation stood up to any wooden clarinet of the time.
From that point on clarinet makers LeBlanc, Harry Pedler, Selmer, Haynes, Conn, H.N White (Cleveland), and others regularly produced metal clarinets.
As metalworking technology improved, producing metal clarinets became commonplace. Unfortunately, many very bad models were produced. These were cheap clarinets intended for young students. From 1926-1939 there were almost 400 different brand names of cheap metal clarinets. Most clarinet production was halted due to World War II.
After WWII metal clarinet production resumed, but not to the same level as before the war. Some models, like Silver King, continued production until 1960.
You can still find metal clarinets in pawn shops, estate sales yard sales, and on eBay. If you run across one, know that it’s probably one of the cheap, badly tuned models, as the good models are rare.
In 1948 the plastic clarinet was invented. It was less expensive to produce and sounded almost as good.
Today, most cheap clarinets are made from a plastic resin called ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). It’s the same plastic that the Lego company used to make its interlocking bricks.
This plastic is durable, immune to temperature and humidity changes, and light. ABS clarinets are made by pouring the heated plastic compound into molds. This means that manufactures can automate the clarinet body process and bring down costs. The posts and keys must be installed by hand.
Resonite is a type of plastic that Selmer uses to make its plastic clarinet. In today’s clarinet world the term resonite tends to be used to describe any plastic clarinet, however, the Resonite is trademarked by Conn-Selmer as the name of the plastic they invented.
Plastic clarinets are the ideal choice for beginners, especially young children. Plastic is durable, It’s less likely to chip, crack, or break when the inevitable drop or stand dings happen. A plastic clarinet body won’t react to heat, humidity, or rain. Although your clarinet student will still need to be careful not to get the clarinet pads wet.
Ebonite is hard rubber. It’s made by taking natural rubber heating it together with sulfur. This process is called vulcanizing. Manufacturers use the vulcanizing process to change the hardness, flexibility, and strength of natural rubber. The material is intended to be used as a replacement for ebony wood. The process was invented in 1851 by Charles Goodyear.
Instrument manufacturers started using ebonite for clarinets in the 1860s.
Ebonite clarinets are not sensitive to humidity or temperature, and they are much more durable than wood.
One modern company, Hanson Clarinet Company uses a grenadilla wood compound mixed with ebonite. This compound is called BTR. It combines the benefits of hard rubber with the tone quality of wood.
Buffet Crampton makes a clarinet line from a mixture of grenadilla wood powder mixed and carbon fiber. This combination has the advantage of being resistant to temperature changes and humidity while producing the rich warm tone of a wooden clarinet. The drawback of this mixture is that it’s heavy.
Clarinets made from a material other than wood are also easier to clean and require a lot less regular maintenance than wood.
You can find good-quality non-wood clarinets from all the big clarinet makers. Examples include Yamaha (my personal favorite regardless of material, or clarinet level), Bundy, Selmer, Boosey & Hawkes, Buffet Crampon, and LeBlanc (owned by Conn-Selmer). There are others, but when buying any musical instrument, I recommend sticking with the big-name brands and makers.
In general, there are three types of fingering systems used on clarinets.
Boehm System (French System)
This keywork and fingering system was developed between 1839 and 1843 by Hyacinthe Klose and Auguste Buffet jeune. (AKA Louis-Aguste Buffet). The Bohem system for clarinet is based on the fingering and keywork system invented by Theobald Boehm for flute Although the system is named for Bohem, he was not involved in its development.
Bohem is the most common key system on modern clarinets outside of Germany, Russia, and Austria. To find a non-Boehm key system in the United States or Canada, you’ll need to intentionally look for one.
Most Bohem clarinets have 17 keys. Some intermediate and advanced/professional models can have as many as 19 keys.
The Albert key system for clarinet was developed by Eugene Albert. It’s also referred to as the Simple System. It’s based on a 13 key system developed by Iwan Muller.
Albert system clarinets are used primarily in folk music from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Turkey. Some Klezmer and Dixieland Jazz musicians also prefer the Albert system.
In these musical styles, the Albert system gives easier slurring and a greater number of alternative fingerings.
Jimmy Dorsey is known for preferring the Albert system.
Oehler System (German System)
Oskar Oehler developed the Oehler key system based. He adapted the Muller system clarinet by adding tone holes. An Oehler system clarinet can have up to 27 keys, while the Boehm typically has 17 keys, but can have as many as 19.
Oehler clarinets are not seen much outside of Germany and Austria.
Most Common Clarinets
By far, the most common clarinet is the Bb soprano. They are the instrument clarinet players are started on. As a clarinetist progresses he/she might move to alto, bass, or Eb soprano depending on the needs of their band. Most
Contrabass clarinet is seen often in college and professional orchestras and symphonies. You might see a contrabass in the occasional high school band as well.
The other clarinets in this list are seen less frequently.
Bb Soprano Clarinet
This is the clarinet most people are used to seeing. It’s used in marching bands, concert bands, orchestras, clarinet choirs, and as a solo instrument. Beginning bands start their clarinet players on the Bb soprano as well.
It’s easy to find new and used Bb soprano clarinets. Stick to the well-known manufacturers, like Yamaha, Buffet, Bundy, Boosey & Hawkes, Leblanc, and Selmer.
The alto clarinet is longer and sounds lower than the Bb soprano. It has a long long straight neck and curved bell. The neck and bell are made from metal, while the body of the clarinet can be made from wood, plastic, or hard rubber, like other clarinets.
The alto clarinet has is pitched in the key of Eb, and has a range from Eb3 to G6. The alto clarinet uses the same fingering system as other instruments in the family but often includes a dedicated Eb key, and a half-hole or vented key controlled by the left index finger. This half-hole gives better intonation to the altissimo register.
Alto clarinets are commonly used in orchestras, symphonies, and bands. They add depth and color to the clarinet section. Most modern composers include optional parts for the alto clarinet. Some pieces rely on it heavily
- Lincolnshire Posy, by Percy Granger, includes an alto clarinet solo.
- Threni, written by Igor Stravinsky used the ultra-rare alto clarinet in F.
- Stravinsky also used an Eb alto in Elegy for J.F.K in 1964.
- Symphony No 2 in Apollo and The Seaman by Joseph Holbrooke includes a fairly elaborate alto clarinet part.
Bass clarinet is in the key of Bb, just like the soprano. However, it plays one full octave below the soprano. Bass clarinet has a range from low Eb to C7. although some professional models can reach low C. They use the same key and fingering systems as other clarinets. Like the alto clarinet, the bass includes an Eb key, and vented keys for the left hand to improve the tone of altissimo notes. Some newer bass clarinet models use a double register key system. This is similar to a saxophone register key and opens two vent holes when the register key is pressed.
It has a straight body, a curved metal neck, and a curved metal bell.
Bass clarinets are used in a wide variety of settings, including concert bands, marching bands, solo pieces, clarinet choirs, jazz, and movie scores.
There are a lot of well-known pieces that use bass clarinet. Here are a few that you’ve likely heard of.
- A Boy Like That from Westside Story (1957), Leonard Bernstein
- The Firebird, (1910) Igor Stravinsky
- The Nutcracker (1892) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Grande symphonie funebre et triomphale, Op.15 (1840), Hector Berlioz
- Tannhauser (1845) Richard Wagner
Eb Soprano Clarinet
The Eb soprano clarinet (called terzino in Italian and some European scores) is pitched a perfect fourth higher than the Bb soprano. The instrument is about 19 inches (49 cm) long from the mouthpiece to the bottom of the bell.
This clarinet is in the key of Eb and has a range from E3 to G6.
In the early 1800s military bands used this clarinet for its high, piercing tone. It’s still used occasionally in military bands, but it’s no longer a staple instrument.
The Eb soprano is not used in school bands, but it is used in orchestras, concert bands, marching bands, and clarinet choirs. Soloists also record on this clarinet.
It’s difficult to find a good beginner model because the majority of Eb clarinets are made and marketed to professional musicians. Some instrument makers market cheap Eb clarinets for children, however, these instruments have a simplified fingering system, and don’t include the trill keys.
Less Common Clarinets
These are clarinets that are used in orchestras that you have not likely heard of.
This is the second-largest and second lowest instrument in the clarinet family. It’s pitched in the key of Eb. The contra-alto plays one octave lower than the alto clarinet. Most models have a range that extends down to Eb, while some models can reach the C below that.
Contra-alto clarinets were first manufactured in the early 1800s. These early models were called contrabasset horns. They were one octave lower than the basset horn and were pitched in the key of F.
Contra-alto clarinets in the key of Eb were developed and became popular in the late 19th century.
Like the contrabass clarinet, the contra-alto is used primarily in concert bands, clarinet choirs, and the occasional orchestra. There are few parts written specifically for the contra-alto, and it usually covers baritone saxophone or bassoon parts.
The contrabass clarinet is the largest, and lowest clarinet in regular use. Very little is known about the invention of this instrument. What we do know is the first one was invented by a man named Dumas of Sommieres in 1808. It’s believed he was a goldsmith.
The second version of a contrabass was called a batyphone. It was invented by Wilhem Friedrich Wieprecht and patented in 1839. Wieprect was the overseeing director of all the military bands in Prussia. He used his influence to have the court instrument maker create his batyphone. In actual music, the instrument was practically useless, and it was quickly discontinued.
In 1889 instrument maker Fontain-Besson started the production of a pedal clarinet. This version was 10 feet long and combined a cylindrical bore with a conical bore. The body of the clarinet was curved and doubled around itself twice. It had 13 keys. The fingerings for this pedal clarinet were the same as for other instruments in the family. This model was the basis for the contrabass clarinet we use today.
In the late 19th-century clarinet manufacturer Leblanc began producing contrabass clarinets with much better success.
Today’s contrabass clarinet is pitched in the key of Bb. It sounds two octaves below the Bb soprano clarinet and has a range of Eb below the staff to altissimo G. The body of the modern contrabass is 108.3 inches (275 cm). That is just about nine feet.
There are two types of contrabass clarinet. The “paperclip” model is so named because it folds in on itself, and resembles a giant paperclip. The straight model looks like a very long bass clarinet.
Contrabass clarinets are made from metal, wood, resin, and resin. Selmer, Leblanc, Vito, Yamaha, and other big-name instrument makers sell good quality contrabass clarinets.
The contrabass clarinet is used in orchestras, concert bands, clarinet choirs, and as a solo instrument. I marched a one in my junior high school marching band, but it’s incredibly rare to see someone marching a contrabass clarinet.
The A clarinet is the second most common soprano clarinet. This clarinet is commonly used in orchestras, and symphonies, but you won’t find it in concert or marching bands. A clarinet was a common instrument in European classical music. This instrument is so important that most professional clarinet players own both a Bb soprano and an A instrument. You can even buy cases designed to hold both instruments.
The basset clarinet looks a lot like the Bb soprano, but it’s longer and includes several extra keys for the lower hand. The additional keys allow the basset clarinet to reach low B, below the Bb clarinet’s bottom note of Eb. The full range of the basset clarinet is from E3 to C6. Most basset clarinets are pitched in the key of A. Basset clarinets in the keys of C, Bb, and G were made, but they are very rare.
The oldest basset clarinet dates to around 1770. The instrument was played by Anton Stadler (1753-1812). Mozart wrote both Clarinet Concerto in A Major K226 and Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 for the basset clarinet.
The basset clarinet is not a popular one today, although it is used in some orchestras, symphonies, and as a solo instrument.
Despite the similar names, the basset horn is an entirely different instrument from the basset clarinet. The basset horn has an alto/tenor range, while the basset clarinet is a soprano instrument.
The basset horn is pitched in the key of F. It’s used primarily in orchestras that play classical pieces.
Basset horns are not common instruments, but several well-known companies make them. Buffet Crampon, Stephen Fox, Hammerschmidt, Leblanc, and Selmer, are known for making good quality basset horns.
Some clarinets are rarely used, and difficult to find.
Ab Piccolo Clarinet
The Ab piccolo clarinet is also called the sopranino clarinet. It’s pitched a minor seventh higher than the Bb clarinet. Its range is from Low E to altissimo G. With practice, and a willingness to invent your own fingerings, a skilled clarinetist can reach higher notes.
The piccolo clarinet uses the same key systems and fingerings as any other clarinet. This instrument is the smallest in the clarinet family, at only one foot long.
Ab clarinets today by soloists, clarinet choirs, and for a very select few classical pieces. Historically they were used by Italian military bands.
Ab clarinets are difficult to find. You can find them used, but only four clarinet makers still produce them. Buffet Crampon makes them for special orders. Ripa Music in Italy, https://www.ripamusic.com/en/, Orsi Wind Instruments in Italy https://orsiwind.wixsite.com/wind-instruments, and the German instrument maker Schwenk & Seggelke https://www.schwenk-und-seggelke.de/_en/index.php are the only companies who make them.
Mouthpieces and reeds are available from Vandoren.
The C soprano clarinet is very much like the more common Bb soprano. It has a similar range and uses one of the three common fingering systems. These clarinets were used in compositions by Hayden, Mozart, and Mahler. Beethoven and Schubert used the C clarinet in their music as well. However, The C clarinet fell out of use in the early 20th century.
Recently there has been a renewed interest in playing older, classical pieces on the instruments for which they were originally written. This interest has renewed the use of the C clarinet.
Finding a good new C clarinet is difficult. There are not a lot of instrument makers producing this clarinet. Buffet Crampon makes them.
A new Buffet Crampon Prestige C Clarinet costs about $8,500, while a good used Buffet E11 C clarinet costs less than $1400.
Amati Kraslice made good used C clarinets. Their model 354S runs just over $1000.
Top Clarinet Recommendations
Best Bb Clarinet
The Yamaha YCL-255 is an excellent beginner Bb clarinet. It’s a plastic model, so you don’t have to worry about wood cracking when you take the clarinet outside or into a dry environment.
You can use it to learn as a beginner, or it makes for a nice backup model when you upgrade. Yamaha is one of the best musical instrument makers, and this student clarinet is one of the best out there.
It offers a fantastic sound and response, and it comes with a good mouthpiece. While you’ll need to buy reeds separately, that means you can choose the right reed for you and your needs.
- Great for beginners
- Good sound
- Not the best for professionals
Best Clarinet in A
The best clarinet in A is the Buffet E11, and it’s perfect for advancing players. This model is grenadilla wood, so you can get a warm, rich sound.
And the silver-plated keys help keep the clarinet from getting too expensive. You can even adjust the thumb rest to make playing this clarinet more comfortable.
The double-skin pads close completely so that you can produce pitches easily. And everything comes in a case so that you can store and transport your clarinet.
- Great for intermediate players
- Nice sound
- Not on Amazon
Best Eb Clarinet
The Yinfente Eb clarinet is an intermediate model at a beginner-level price. You can get a fantastic sound thanks to the rosewood body, and you get two different barrels to use.
Unfortunately, you will need to take good care of the instrument so that the wood doesn’t crack. But as long as you do that, you can play the clarinet for a long time.
It’s a great option for the casual player who wants an Eb clarinet but can’t afford to spend more money. The instrument even comes with a case to protect it when you aren’t playing.
- Good for casual players
- Nice sound
- Can crack
Best Alto Clarinet
If you want to give yourself the best start to the alto clarinet, you need the Leblanc Model 7165. This clarinet offers a mellow tone quality and an even response from the low to the high notes.
The ABS resin has a wood-like finish, so you can fit in with the rest of the clarinet section. Nickel-plated keys keep the instrument relatively affordable, and they don’t affect the playability.
You can use the same fingerings as on your Bb clarinet, and the one-piece body makes assembly a breeze. Plus, you get a case, mouthpiece, and other accessories to take care of your clarinet.
- Good sound
- Same fingerings as other clarinets
- Not on Amazon
Best Bass Clarinet
The best bass clarinet is the Yamaha YCL-221, and it’s perfect for beginners. It features a low Eb key, which extends the written range of the instrument down a half step.
You also get other features that you’d normally find on more expensive models. The ABS resin keeps this instrument affordable, and it’s easy to maintain.
That material also makes the clarinet lightweight and easy to play. It also responds well, so you can use it to learn how to play a bigger clarinet.
- Great for students
- Good quality
- Not wood
Best Contra-Alto Clarinet
The Leblanc Model 7181 is a contra-alto clarinet similar to the alto from the same brand. It features the same ABS resin body, which lets you get the best sound for a good value.
This instrument looks like wood from afar, and it can sound similar to more expensive models. Nickel-plated keys, bell, and neck also help with cost and weight.
You can easily put this instrument together with the one-piece body. And everything comes in a case so that you can protect the clarinet in storage and transportation.
- Great value
- Looks and sounds good
- Hard to find
Best Contrabass Clarinet
Leblanc is one of the best low clarinet brands, and the Leblanc Model 7182 is great. You can use it to get a dark and rich tone to help fill out the lower section of a band or clarinet choir.
Like some other models, this one uses ABS resin to make the body lightweight. The resin and the nickel plating on the rest of the instrument keep it from getting too expensive, but it’s still not cheap.
Fortunately, this instrument is of good quality, so you can use it for a long time. It can play down to a low Eb, so you can reach most notes in contrabass clarinet parts.
- Great for advanced players
- Won’t crack
- Pretty expensive
Best Ab Clarinet
Unfortunately, Ab clarinets can be hard to find, but there is one available. The 317Ripa uses the standard Boehm system, so you don’t have to learn new fingerings to play the instrument.
It features an ebony body and solid silver keys, so you can get a warm sound despite the high range. You can adjust the thumb rest to find a comfortable playing position.
If you can get your hands on one, it won’t be too expensive. However, you may not have a ton of places where you’ll be able to play it.
- Sounds good
- Very rare
You can also find tons of different brands that make clarinets, including Yamaha, Selmer, and Jupiter. When shopping for a clarinet, don’t be afraid to try instruments from multiple companies.
That way, you can choose one that you like to play and that you sound good on. But some brands that make Bb clarinets don’t make other members of the family.
For example, Selmer and Leblanc are the two main brands that make contrabass clarinets. Now, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the instrument if you play a Bb clarinet from a different company.
However, you may need to practice a bit more to get those instruments to work well for you.
FAQs About Clarinet Types And Varieties Explained
Answer: Beginners should learn on an ABS resin Bb clarinet from a brand like Yamaha or Jupiter. If possible, start learning on the Boehm system because that’s more common.
When you decide to upgrade or learn a different member of the clarinet family, you’ll already know the correct fingerings to use.
Answer: You can teach yourself the clarinet, but you’ll need to have discipline. That way, you’ll still practice and learn, even when you want to do something else.
If you decide to teach yourself, be sure to get a good method book. Use articles and videos online to help fill in the gaps so that you don’t develop habits that can keep you from playing your best.
Answer: You should play as many clarinets as you want and as you can afford or rent. For some players, that just means playing the Bb clarinet and not exploring other clarinets.
However, other players may find that one instrument boring. Playing the alto or bass can be a great way to expand your skills and keep you from losing your interest in music.
Answer: Saxophones are their own set of woodwind instruments, and they aren’t part of the clarinet family. While both are single reed instruments, clarinets use wood or plastic.
Saxophones use metal, like brass, for the body. The two instrument families also have different sets of fingerings and different written ranges.
Answer: Some clarinets can cost as little as $100 or so, such as if you find a used beginner model. However, professional contrabass clarinets can cost over $30,000.
Other instruments fall somewhere in the middle, and the pricing depends on the materials, level, and other specs. So consider the type of clarinet you want to buy to help set a budget.
Answer: Wood clarinets aren’t better or worse than plastic clarinets. As a beginner or casual player, plastic may be the better option because of its affordability and durability.
However, if you want the warmest, richest sound, a wood model may suit your needs better. If you can’t decide which is right for you, try both and compare them.
Answer: Over the history of the instrument, there have been over 15 different types of clarinets.
Answer: The most popular type of clarinet is the Bb soprano. This instrument is commonly used in concert bands, orchestras, marching bands, and clarinet choirs. It’s also a popular solo and small ensemble instrument.
Answer: The most common type of clarinet used in American Schools is the Bb soprano clarinet with a Boehm fingering system.
Final Note On Clarinet Types and Varieties Explained
When starting the clarinet or learning more about it, you should have clarinet types and varieties explained to you. Then, you can determine which instrument is the right choice for you and your needs.
For example, a plastic Boehm Bb clarinet is the best for beginners. However, other players may prefer different sizes, systems, and materials. Keep that in mind when choosing your next instrument.
Looking for more interesting readings? Check out:
- How to Find the Best Flute: All You Need to Know!
- How to Find the Best Violin
- How to Find the Best Cello: All You Need to Consider
- How to Find the Best Beginner Flutes
- Best Mendini Flutes Guide You Will Love!