Clarinet vs. Flute: What’s the Difference?

Comparing the clarinet and flute is one of the most common topics among people who are trying to decide which instrument they are interested in learning.

Clarinets and the flute are both part of the woodwind instrument family, but only the clarinet is still made out of wood.

The flute is most commonly made out of silver, but used to be made out of wood. 

Key Differences

Mouthpiece

The mouthpieces used by the clarinet and the flute are completely different. The clarinet uses a ligature to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece. The reed is necessary tocreate the sound for the instruments.

The flute doesn’t have a reed at all. They have a head joint that features a lip plate that you blow across in order for the sound to come out.

Tuning

The clarinet has a barrel that is used for tuning and can be purchased in several different sizes. The flute doesn’t have a barrel, but instead features a head joint cork that is used for tuning. Both methods are pretty easy to complete on your own.

Making Sound

The way these instruments make their sound is probably the biggest difference between the two.

A clarinet makes it’s sound by vibrating the reed in the mouthpiece. A flute makes noise when you blow properly into the mouthpiece and press the right keys along the body.

Key Similarities

Woodwind

The flute and the clarinet are both in woodwind instruments. The woodwind instrument family typically only consists of instruments that use wooden reeds to make noise, and the flute is the only instrument that is an exception.

Because of their connection with the woodwind family, the flute and the clarinet will usually play parts that are similar to each other in an orchestra.

Keys

The flute and clarinet both have keys. When the keys are all open on either instrument, the air only has to travel a short distance and the pitch increases. When all the keys are closed, the pitch will decrease due to the air needing to travel further. The sounds you hear from these instruments do not come from the bottom, but the key holes.

Articulations

Both the flute and the clarinet have the ability to use a double-tonguing technique, doubling the speed of the articulation. They can both also use a flutter tongue technique, which is when the tongue vibrates quickly to create a buzzing sound. 

Dynamics

When a clarinet and a flute are being played at the same exact time, the dynamics completely match. The construction of the two instruments make for comparable dynamics where both instruments can play balanced notes.

History

Development of the Clarinet

The clarinet was designed based on a pipe used by peasants that used only one reed to be played. The peasant pipe was shorter in length than the clarinets we are used to seeing today. It also didn’t have a bell, and had seven tone holes.

The first invention of the clarinet was in the 1700s by a man named Johann Christian Denner. It featured 8 tone holes, two keys, a bell, and a wider bore. The barrel and mouthpiece were one piece.

Denner made constant changes to the clarinet over the years with his son, Jacob. In 1740, the two solved a problem with the clarinet by making it longer and adding a third key that was used with the right hand and another bell. These modifications made it possible for three octaves to be played with ease.

After that, constant improvements were made. These improvements were usually made to features like the size of the bore, the diameter of the clarinet, the undercutting of tone holes, and the taper.

In 1812, the 13-ket clarinet was invented by Iwan Muller. This design was considered to be revolutionary due to the beveled tone holes that were flush with the clarinet.

The pads were commonly made from wool and leather, which made a major improvement to acoustics and air leaks. Muller was also the first to incorporate metal to hold the mouthpiece and reed together.

Development of the Flute

The flute is one of the oldest instruments. There isn’t very much research to be found on the invention of the flute, but the Renaissance flute is the one that resembles the current flute.

It had the shape of a cylinder and featured six holes, making it easy for instrument makers to construct a modern flute. 

Theobald Boehm designed a new model of flute that was invented in 1832. This design was wodden and shaped like a cone instead of a cylinder. It also featured rings that helped the tone of the instrument.

Boehm modified the flute to have a more cylinder shaped design in 1846, and this led to improving the timbre.

A parabolic head joint was also added to make tuning octaves easier and more efficient. The tone holes were also made larger to allow for complete covering with fingers. 

Appearance

Flute

The flute is the only woodwind family instrument that does not use a reed. There are three parts to a flute: the body, the head joint, and the foot joint. There is no padding or cork, so there is no need for grease or lubricants. 

Today, the flute is around 27 inches and has about 18 keys. The body is cylindrical and generally made out of silver or another kind of metal. Flutes can also be sold with open or closed holes.

Clarinet

The clarinet is made of five parts: the barrel, the top joint, the bottom joint, the bell, and the mouthpiece. Each part is assembled together by a simple twisting motion. The clarinet uses a single-reed within the mouthpiece.

The clarinet has cork pieces on the ends to make the assembly easier and quicker. When the cork starts to dry out, you can add cork grease to moisten it up and continue using your clarinet.

The modern clarinet is just under 24 inches long and has a cylindrical bore. The most common materials that a clarinet is made of are metal, plastic, or grenadilla wood. Clarinets that are made of plastic are most common for beginners.

Sound and Range

Flute

The notes that a flute uses are the same notes that are used on a piano, making it what is called a concert pitched instrument. The range extends from C4 to D7 in treble clef. Some flutes also feature a B foot that allows a B natural note.

The lowest register of the flute is a very rich and mellow sound that is difficult to project. The middle range is a sweeter and smoother sound, while the middle-high range projects sound extremely well. The highest register is a very high pitch, piercing, thin sound.

Clarinet

The clarinet is made to play in the key of Bb. it is a transposing instrument, a concept that is important for anyone playing the clarinet to understand. The range extends from E3 to G6 in treble clef.

The clarinet offers a very full sound, but it is hard to project. The low tones are the most difficult to play on the clarinet. Low tones will usually soud unstable and strange.

The clarion register provides a very pure sound and is very often described as sweet and lyrical. This register is also most commonly associated with the voice of a singing human. The highest register, like the flute, is a high pitch, piercing sound.

How They Make Sound

Clarinet

The clarinet has a mouthpiece that the player blows directly into, but this is not where the sound comes from. There is a reed attached to the mouthpiece with the help of a ligature that will need to be tightened just enough for the reed to stay attached, but still has enough room to vibrate.

The player will rest the clarinet very gently inside their mouth with the reed facing their bottom lip. The player will then blow with control into the instrument and across the reed. The reed will vibrate with air moves in the right was over it.

You have to be extremely coordinated in the way that your lips, tongue, and mouth work together to control the airflow. If you blow too hard or too soft, the instrument will let out a squeak that does not sound good. 

The vibration of the reed is what causes the clarinet to make its sound, so if it is not installed properly or you do not control your air, you will not get a pleasant sound.

Flute

A flute basically works with physics, which is completely different than how the clarinet works. While you still need to have extreme control over how your mouth, lips, and tongue work together, they do so in a different manner.

Instead of blowing into a mouthpiece like the clarinet, the player will need to blow across and into the embouchure hole. This will make the aire move inside the flute and alternate extremely quickly between leaving and entering the flute.

The player will very gently place the lip plate against their bottom lip, allowing them to blow properly across the hole. 

Holding Position

Flute

Flutes are held horiontally and to your right side. There are four main balance pointss for the flute to sit on: the right thumb, left index finger, right pinky, and the chin.

Clarinet

The clarinet is held straight up and down and kept in position using the right thumb underneath the tumb rest. It is also common to purchase a neck strap to take some of the weight off of your right thumb and your wrist.

Clarinet vs Flute: Which is Easier?

Clarinet

Clarinets are very complicated instruments, featuring up to 24 keys. It can be difficult to use all of your fingers efficiently and press keys so your notes don’t sound funny.

Clarinets squeak when they aren’t played properly, and it is a very unpleasant squeak. It can take several years to master the keys in order to not have to deal with the squeaking, but even professionals have a squeaking incident now and then.

The mouthpiece of the clarinet is extremely touchy, and you need to be super solid when you press the keys, making sure there are no gaps. 

Flute

The flute is also challenging because of the control and support you need with your breath. Flutes provide very little resistance, meaning players have to learn how to exert their air in the proper way to make a sound. You need as much air as possible to make a flute sound as pretty as a professional!

Which is Easier?

Both instruments have their own challenges and they are just about equal in difficulty. They both take years and years of practice to master. Flutes are easier to learn because it doesn’t require as much finger work as the clarinet does.

The flute is also easier than the clarinet if you are just starting out. A flute will help you learn how to control your breath and press the keys at the right time to make the right notes.

Considerations When Choosing

Size of the Player

If you are just beginning to learn a woodwind instrument, or your child is interested in getting started, it is important to consider size. For example, if your child is interested in the clarinet, it might not be the best option because they have tiny hands.

Teeth

If a child is interested in learning how to play a woodwind instrument, it is important they they have all of their adult teeth in the front. It is difficult to properly play the instrument if you are trying to navigate around some missing baby teeth.

Braces and other orthodontic treatments are not ideal when playing a woodwind instrument, but they can be worked around. Discomfort and a slight amount of pain in your mouth and teeth is pretty normal when you are just starting out, but with the help of orthodontic wax, this can be managed.

Concentration

If your child is wanting to learn how to play the flute or the clarinet, you need to make sure they understand that they know the dedication and commitment it takes to be able to learn an instrument. Kids between the ages of 10 and 12 are at a much higher risk for not listening and not having a long enough attention span.

Maintenance

The maintenance for both of these instruments are similar in a few ways. Whichever instrument you choose to learn, you will need to know how to fix and care for your instrument. However, if your instrument needs a major repair, it is best to take it to a professional.

Flute

In order to make sure your pads are in the best condition possible, make sure you only use light pressure when you are pressing the keys.

Just like any other woodwind instrument, the best way to care for a flute is to make sure you keep it clean and free of moisture. After each and every time you play your instrument, you should swab and dry out the inside with a soft, absorbant cloth that usually comes with the flute.

If you face minor issues with your flute, you might be able to take care of the issue by yourself. A small screwdriver will be useful for just about any screw on your flute that is loose or constantly falling out. You can also use a tiny bit of cleat fingernail polish or glue to make sure the screws don’t come loose again. 

The springs inside a flute can be repaired with the help of a hook, pipe cleaners for the rods, and you can use a small lighter to replace any pads that might have fallen off. A small painbrush can also be helpful with removing dirt and lint from places that are hard to reach.

Clarinet

You blow directly into a clarinet, so there is no doubt that this instrument quickly gets a build up of saliva and condensation. A clarinet swab is a cloth that is attached to a drawstring instead of a rod and should be used after every time you play the instrument.

Before you clean and swab your clarinet, you will need to be sure that you remove the mouthpiece. This will ensure that you are getting all of the saliva out of your instrument. 

You can also find condensation and saliva build up underneath the keys, so you need to make sure you don’t forget about those when you are cleaning. 

If there are screws that always seem to be loose or falling out, you can take a tiny screwdriver to tighten it back up. You can then dab a tiny bit of nail polish or glue to keep the screw where it belongs.

The pads of a clarinet are more fragile and more difficult to access, so it is not recommended to fix the pads of a clarinet with a lighter. You will want to take your clarinet in to be fixed if you notice issues with the padding. 

Clarinets also have corks that help each part attach to each other. To keep these corks in a good condition, you will need to apply some cork grease once they start to become dry.

Clarinet FAQ

How many keys are there on a standard Bb clarinet?

There aer 17 keys on a standard clarinet. Some instruments will have more or have keys that provide more than one function. This makes the instrument very difficult to play.

Do I have to have a reed to make music with a clarinet?

Yes, your clarinet will not be able to work in any kind of way if there is not reed in the instrument. The reed is the reason the clarinet make sounds, so without the reed there would be no sound at all.

Is there more than one clarinet type?

There are over ten types of clarinets, with the most common being known as the Bb clarinet. Another type is the Eb, which is about half the size of the Bb.

How much does a clarinet cost?

If you are on the hunt for a clarinet and you are a beginner, you can expect to pay between $500 and $1,100. Once you get better, you can expect to pay between $1,300 and $2,800. Entry level pro instruments will run you a minimum of $2,000.

Flute FAQ

Will my flute tarnish?

If you do not clean your flute on a regular basis, there is a chance that it might end up tarnished. You can also apply a silver polish to prevent tarnishing.

Is a recorder a flute?

The recorder is in the same family of instruments as the flute, but they are not the same. A flute will most commonly be made from silver, while a recorder is usually made from plastic.

Is there more than one flute size?

There are twelve sizes of flute. There is the regular flute which is used as a concert flute and ranks number four in size. A piccolo is the smallest flute, and the largest flute is over 8 meters long.

How much does a flute cost?

When you are looking for a basic beginners flute, you can expect to pay between $500 and $1,000. Once you get a little bit better, you will pay between $1,400 and $2,500. Entry level pro will cost you at least $2,500, if not more.

Conclusion

When it comes to the clarinet vs the flute, there are so many differences and similarites between the two. The clarinet features more keys and is generally harder to play and learn. The flute is usually silver and made out of some other types of metals and materials.

If you are trying to decide which instrument from the woodwind family you will enjoy and learn the best, you should start with the flute. There aren’t as many keys involved and the instrument is much easier to control than a clarinet.

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