Flute vs. Recorder (What’s the Difference?)

As far as musical instruments go, the flute and the recorder are quite similar.

They are both a part of the woodwind family of instruments, and both are played by blowing air through a hole in the instrument and placing your fingers on it in distinct patterns.

Each instrument is played either on its own or in wider ensembles and serves a similar purpose in those situations.

Their sounds are similar to each other but have enough differences to be distinct from one another. 

However, the similarities end there. These two instruments are quite different. There are many things that make a flute and a recorder very different instruments.

So what makes the difference when talking about the flute and the recorder? Read on to find out!

Sound

As both the flute and the recorder are woodwind instruments, they are in the same family, and therefore on a grand scale, have a similar sound, or timbre. However, there are slight differences between the two. 

The sound of a recorder is very clear and sharp, almost similar to the chirping of a bird. The notes are very distinct and separate.

Melodies played on this instrument are easily audible and the notes are very easy to differentiate and notice. 

In contrast, a flute sounds soft, rich, and almost wind-like or whispery. When a flute melody is played, it almost melts into itself and pinning down when one note moves to another is a bit harder than with the recorder. 

These differences mostly come not from the design of the instrument, funnily enough, but from the material, each individual instrument is made out of.

Recorders are more often made of wood and plastic, while flutes are always metal.

The metal of the flute allows the tone of the flute to be more complex, with more variety and depth than that of the recorder.

The wood and plastic of a recorder are more suitable for a simpler sound, although high-quality recorders can have a rich sound as well. 

How They Make Sound

How the two instruments actually make these distinct sounds, however, is quite similar. Each has a wedge in its mouthpiece which is designed to split the air you put into it.

Some of the air goes out the hole in the instrument, while the remaining air goes through the instrument and makes noise. 

The splitting of the air causes a vibration that moves in and out of the holes in each instrument. This is what makes the sound.

As you shift your fingers around the keys or holes, this vibration changes, and therefore the sound changes as well. 

This process is the same for the flute and the recorder.

The only real major difference is that while the recorder’s holes are covered by the fingers directly, the flute is too long for this. That is why it uses felt-tipped keys to control where the airflow is directed. 

The Instrument Itself

There are a number of surface-level differences that can be observed between the flute and the recorder that make them vastly different instruments. These things affect how the instrument sounds and how to play it. 

One of the major differences between the flute and the recorder is the difference between holes and keys.

The recorder has holes that need to be covered to express different notes. In contrast, the flute has keys that need to be pushed down. 

Another key difference between the two instruments is that the recorder is held straight out extending from your mouth, while the flute is held sideways.  

The recorder is short and easy to transport, while the flute is a longer instrument that needs to be disassembled and reassembled regularly.

This makes the flute a bit more of a headache to carry around and play, while the recorder is convenient and always ready to go. 

However, the flute’s longer build allows it to house more notes than the recorder. The range of the flute is much larger than that of the recorder because of this, so the flute is not without its strengths as well. 

The range of the recorder is generally 1 octave or 2 octaves. This means that the instrument can cover 2 full scales, say from a low C to a high C.

Meanwhile, the flute can cover 3 full octaves or three full scales. This is a much wider range that allows the flute a lot more versatility in the melodies it’s able to play. 

How to Play: Flute vs. Recorder

Playing the recorder and playing the flute are two very different processes. There are some similarities, but a whole lot of differences as well.

While your fingers are on the same notes and holes or keys, this does not necessarily mean that playing both instruments is the same. 

The only similarities will be that you are blowing air into the instrument through a hole by your mouth, and placing your fingers on different parts of the instrument (even what these parts are specifically is different) in order to make a sound come out. 

In fact, playing each instrument is a very different process, from the way that each is held, to the method in which air is blown in, both instruments have their particular methods in which they need to be played in order to make music. 

Playing the Recorder

In order to play the recorder, you must first seal the mouthpiece with your lips without letting your teeth touch the recorder.

This will allow all of the air to go into the instrument. It should also be noted that you should blow gently, as to not make the sound too sharp and loud to express the notes you want the recorder to express. 

Sit down with your back straight and facing forward. This posture will allow you to get the best flow of air into the recorder.

Then, hold it straight out and point down from your lips towards the floor. Make sure it’s at an angle where air moves through easily, but it is still comfortable for your fingers to shift around on the different holes.

It is also helpful for beginners to be able to see at least some of the holes that are further from their eyes as they play. 

As far as where your hands go, there is a very specific way to place them. Your left hand should be on top, or closer to your face than your right in all circumstances.

If this feels uncomfortable, you should not switch, and instead, practice until it feels natural.

Your left thumb should cover the hole on the bottom (and uncover it when necessary as well). Your left hands remaining finger should cover the first four holes starting with your pointer on the hole closest to your face, and down towards the end of the recorder in order.

Your right hand’s first three fingers should cover the remaining holes on the recorder.

Related: Best Tenor Recorder For Small Hands

Covering certain holes and leaving certain ones open will create different notes. This is why the recorder can play such a variety of notes.

Finding a specific guide on how to play all the notes is easy enough. Simply do a search for a recorder fingering chart. Here is a great recorder fingering chart to get you started!

Flute Assembly

The flute however is a bit different. First, it is normally not assembled in the case where it is kept and needs to be put together before being played. 

It has three parts, the main body, where the main tube of the flute and most of the keys are held. 

A head joint, contains the mouthpiece. 

There is also afoot joint, which has a metal pin that lines up with the keys. 

Each of these parts needs to be assembled one at a time. In order to do this, you must do it in steps. 

First, slide in the head joint. This is the part of the flute that you breathe into, and goes on the end of the instrument, pointing towards you.

Push and twist the head joint into place, it should slide in quite easily. Make sure it’s tight, as you don’t want air escaping or the flute loosening while you play it. 

Next, make sure the hole in the head joint is lined up with the first key of the flute.

Even if it needs to a tad bit looser or tighter than where it stopped naturally, this is okay. Lining up the head joint’s hole and the flute’s first key perfectly is essential in making sure that your flute plays with the proper tone. 

Similar to the head joint, you must next place the foot joint into your flute. Push it into the bottom of your flute, furthest away from your face, and twist until it is tightly secured to the main body of the flute. 

Then, again similarly to the head joint, rotate it until the long metal pin that is on it lines up with the keys of the main body of the flute as well. 

Playing the flute

Now that your flute is assembled, you actually get to play it! In order to do so, you’ll need to follow the following steps.

Playing the flute is a precise process that requires lots of practice, so don’t quit just because it does not sound quite right on your first try!

First, as opposed to the recorder, you’re going to want to hold the flute sideways, with the head joint by your mouth, and the rest of the flute extending out.

You want to control the keys that are closer to your mouth, or by the head joint, with your left hand. Similar to the recorder, you’ll need to find the first key on the bottom of the flute’s body to place your left thumb over. 

Then wrap the rest of your fingers around the flute so that they are ready to play keys on the top. Proceed to put your index finger on the second key, your middle finger on the fourth key, and your ring finger on the fifth key. 

The space between your thumb and index finger is where the flute should rest and be supported. 

Likewise, control the keys further from your face, by the foot joint, with your right hand.

Use your right thumb as further support for the bottom of the flute, as there is no key on the bottom further down the instrument. Place your pointer finger, middle finger, and index finger on the bottom three keys of your flute. 

Hold the flute straight, perhaps tilted slightly down. Push air through it with your mouth and press down different keys in order to make different notes come out.

This is easier said than done, however, as there are a few complexities when it comes to playing the flute. 

Firstly, the fingering charts are a bit more complicated than the recorder but still readable. Here’s a great one to get you started. Secondly, there is a very particular mouth shape that needs to be taken when playing the flute. Read this to get you started on your mouth position.

Difficulty of use

The recorder is the easier of the two woodwind instruments to play. You may have already known this, as the recorder is one of if not the first musical instrument most students are taught to play.

This is because plastic recorders are easy to understand, easy to play, and widely available as well as manufactured in high numbers.

All of this makes them the perfect instrument for teaching children how to play music. This however does not mean it’s not a serious instrument, and not worthy of learning as an adult.

The recorder can still be used in many different ensembles, or played on its own and sound just fine. 

The flute on the other hand is a much more difficult woodwind instrument to learn and master. This is because of the complex mouth positions, a wider range of notes, and different ways to blow air through the instrument.

All of these make the flute a more versatile and complicated instrument, thus making it much more difficult than the recorder to play. 

The main difficulty of playing the flute is probably the mouth position. This will take a lot of practice and need to be consistently worked on to make the flute sound the way you want it to sound. 

This not only includes the shape of your lips, which is important, but also the way you push air out of your mouth, and the positioning of your tongue inside of your mouth as well.

All of these things need to be shifting constantly, so someone who is brand new to woodwind instruments may struggle at first with mastering the mouth shape for playing the flute. 

Dynamic Control

One of the most important differences between a flute and a recorder is what’s called dynamic control. Dynamic control is the ability of an instrument to have a wider range of sounds, from rich to sharp, and from loud to quiet. 

The flute’s ability to increase and decrease its volume on a wider scale than the recorder allows it to be stronger when playing with other instruments.

This is because the recorder is not as loud, and is sometimes drowned out when playing with an ensemble of other instruments that might be louder, such as strings, brass, or percussion. 

Plastic recorders are often thought of as being very loud because of their squeaky, abrasive sound. This is inaccurate though, as recorders start to be drowned out when they are being played among groups of louder instruments. 

Conclusion

The flute and the recorder are very similar instruments. They are both from the woodwind family, have the same fingers placed on the same notes, and function in similar ways as far as how they actually produce the sound.

They have similar but not exactly the same tones, and are both used in similar ensembles and groups.

However, these instruments are also very different. The difference in range, timbre, and price is extremely important when considering which of these instruments you want to pick up and learn.

The flute is harder to learn and master and is much more expensive. Meanwhile, the recorder is easy to learn and is a lot cheaper. 

The flute is has a wider dynamic control, a wider range of notes, and a richer, fuller sound.

Many people use these as reasons to pick the flute over the recorder.

The recorder has its own strengths though, and its ease of access and classic sound is great for many different ensembles and situations.

Overall, both of these instruments are great woodwind instruments and deserve to be practiced and played with great care.

If you’re a beginner, it is normally recommended to start with the recorder. If you’ve played music before, the flute could be more your speed.

In any event, there are great reasons to pick each instrument, so you can’t go wrong with either!

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