Saxophones and flutes are both woodwind instruments. While I might be stating the obvious from the point of view of experts, this fact could get easily overlooked by newcomers, perhaps owing to the fact that these instruments are very different from one another, all similarities considered.
To illustrate, let's enumerate some of the differences between saxophones and flutes:
- The saxophone has a mouthpiece. The flute has a headjoint.
- The saxophone has a reed, while the flute does not.
- The saxophone has register keys, the flute's register changes are solely dependent upon mouth positioning.
- The flute has a cylindrical body, while the saxophone is conical.
In this article, we'll be narrowing down these differences, among others that may be seen as minor. But, first, let's examine both instruments in their own right.
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What Is A Saxophone?
Saxophones are woodwind horns that are considered part of the reed subgroup.
The reed (a single reed, to be more precise) is one of their most important components, consisting of a piece of cut cane that is adjusted to a mouthpiece and fastened by a ligature. The interaction of the reed with the mouthpiece's upper lip is what allows air to be projected in a relatively orderly manner and to produce a distinguishable note.
The saxophone was invented by Belgian instrument designer Adolphe Sax (hence the name “Saxophone”) in the 1840s and patented in 1846. The horn was designed from the concept of the bass clarinet in an attempt to improve upon it, but it ended up being considered as a different instrument altogether.
Saxophones have a conical design. Most of them are built with an upward curve at the bottom that stretches towards their tail end (called the “bell”), which is their most resounding part. The smallest saxophones – from the soprano to the soprillo – are manufactured with a straight design (for the most part), similar to the clarinet and oboe, albeit retaining a conical chassis.
There are currently six saxophones that are being mass-produced. Four of these six are primarily featured in a wide array of musical settings, namely (from smallest to largest): The soprano, the alto, the tenor, and baritone or “bari”.
To learn more about the different types of saxophones, check out my article How Many Different Saxophones Are In The Saxophone Family?
What Is A Flute?
The flute (also known as a “transverse flute”) evolved from a very ancient line of instruments made from animal bones (presumably since the Paleolithic era). It's essentially a variation of the recorder, which is vertically-oriented (and also called “flute” or “sweet flute” in some regions).
The earlier flutes (up to the baroque flute) lacked keys, and they could only play a limited number of semitones. Theobald Boehm came up with an elaborate keywork for what would become the modern flute between 1831 and 1847. This system would later be adapted for clarinet and other instruments later on (including the saxophone, which was basically born with this type of configuration).
Flutes are held horizontally and side-blown, so a player's breath would hit the opposite rim of the headjoint, producing an air column that would travel across the tube and produce a soundwave with a specific pitch.
The flute family is quite large. The concert flute is the most common, but you may also find (from small to large): The piccolo, alto, contralto, bass, contrabass, and subcontrabass flutes. Of these, the piccolo, concert, and bass flutes are the most mainstream.
What Distinguishes Saxophones From Flutes?
Now that we've established some of the most relevant details about each instrument, let's consider their differences. We'll be mainly elaborating on the differences we already listed above.
First Difference: Playing Method
As disclosed earlier, the saxophone and flute, despite both being woodwind instruments, have significantly different playing methods. The saxophone has a mouthpiece, while the flute has a headjoint.
The saxophone's mouthpiece is a wedge-shaped extension that houses a reed, which, as explained before, is a very important element in the saxophone's output. This mouthpiece would be introduced in the players' mouths as they blow air inside. Air then passes through its chamber and prompts the reed to move, forcing it to interact with the mouthpiece and to set a column of air particles into vibrating motion across the tube all the way to the tone holes and bell.
The flute's headjoint serves a similar purpose, but it's not introduced inside the mouth. Rather, it supports the players' lower lip as they blow inside the embouchure hole. The stream of air would then strike the edge, creating a vibrating air column that is projected both outward and inward.
Additionally, the flute is played sideways, while the saxophone is oriented vertically/straight-forward.
Second Difference: Reed
This was already touched upon when explaining the first difference, but, as you might have noticed already, we didn't mention the presence of a reed in flutes. This is because they lack a reed mechanism by virtue of the playing method employed. Contrary to the saxophones, a reed doesn't serve any purpose in a flute's setup.
Third Difference: Register Keys
Register keys (or octave keys), as the name suggests, are responsible for bringing the pitch to a higher register. Saxophones overblow at an octave (distinguishing themselves from clarinets that overblow at a twelfth), so you would expect to render the same note 12 semitones (one octave) higher when triggering the octave key mechanism.
Saxophones normally carry two-octave keys – one at the body and one at the neck – which are activated depending on the specific fingering utilized.
Flutes, as of this writing, are not designed with octave keys. The simplest reason is that they don't merit one. Flute players can change octaves seamlessly by bringing their lips forward as they play.
For more information, check out my article Is Flute Fingering The Same As Saxophone?
Fourth Difference: Shape
The flute is cylindrical, while the saxophone is conical. Conical bodies have a gradually-increasing diameter.
Typically speaking, a conical bore tends to produce a more expressive tone (similar to a human voice) due to pressure variations. In contrast, the tone of cylindrical bores tends to be more focused and round.
The flute's cylindrical bore might enable them to cope with the challenging embouchure they demand, whereas, theoretically, saxophones would struggle less to deliver relatively clean sounds within a conical framework.
Let's consider a few more, albeit more minor, differences between saxophones and flutes:
- Saxophones don't have keyholes, while many professional flutes are “open-holed”, meaning that their keys have a hole in the middle for additional effects.
- Flutes have a generally wider pitch range, spanning three octaves. The saxophone, under regular playing, would only deliver two-and-a-half octaves, but this range could be increased by triggering the altissimo range (attained by tampering with the fundamentals of a note to emphasize the higher overtones).
- Flutes are traditionally smaller and lighter than saxophones.
See How Flutes Compare To Other Instruments
- What Are The Differences Between Flute & Clarinet?
- What Are The Differences Between Flute & Recorder?
See How Different Saxophones Compare To Each Other
- The Differences Between Soprano & Alto Saxophones
- The Differences Between Soprano & Tenor Saxophones
- The Differences Between Soprano & Baritone Saxophones
- The Differences Between Soprano & Bass Saxophones
- The Differences Between Alto & Tenor Saxophones
- The Differences Between Alto & Baritone Saxophones
- The Differences Between Tenor & Baritone Saxophones
- The Differences Between Tenor & Bass Saxophones
- The Differences Between Baritone & Bass Saxophones