People with moderate musical knowledge can readily distinguish woodwind instruments from valve or brass instruments. However, the woodwind family itself encompasses a vast number of instruments with varying features and sonic qualities. Two of the most common instruments in this category are the flute and the clarinet, both known for possessing a peculiarly similar keywork system.
What are the differences between flute and clarinet? The differences can be formulated as follows:
- The sound of both instruments is starkly different.
- Clarinets have reeds. Flutes don't.
- Clarinets are end-blown instruments. Flutes are side-blown.
- Flutes overblow at an octave, while clarinets overblow at a twelfth.
In this article, we'll discuss these differences and more. But first, let's boil down the similarities.
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What Are The Similarities Between Flutes And Clarinets?
Apart from their already-mentioned classification as woodwind instruments, the flute and the clarinet have a very special feature in common: Their keys.
Once upon a time, both instruments either didn't have keys or only had a few installed in strategic places.
The clarinet would sport two keys – courtesy of Jacob Denner – so that it could be overblown to render higher harmonics and reach lower fundamental pitches. Meanwhile, flutes in the baroque period were designed with one key that allowed for a full chromatic scale.
Theobald Boehm entered the scene in 1847 and created an intricate mechanism that enabled players more versatility in their execution. This was later known as the “Boehm system”, and the flutes he designed would acquire the moniker “Boehm flutes”.
The mechanism found on the clarinet was developed and implemented by Hyacinthe Klosé and Louis-Auguste Buffet in parallel with Boehm's design, but it was not entirely made from scratch.
Although the keywork present in the clarinet is very similar and is commonly named the “Boehm system”, the Bavarian inventor was not directly involved in its creation. Rather, it borrowed several important features from the Boehm design (such as the “long axle” connecting keys positioned at different locations). It could be said to be an offshoot from earlier Boehm models with some important twists.
What Are The Differences Between Flute And Clarinet?
Let's unpack the differences mentioned above to understand how flutes and clarinets differ from one another.
Difference 1: Sound
This distinction is difficult to be missed, even when not listening to both instruments side by side. The clarinet has a distinctively fuller and cleaner sound, while the flute produces notes on a higher frequency and with more “debris”, as it may.
The underlying principles of these distinctive sonic qualities are related to the blowing mechanism (which we'll get to explain later on) and the anatomy of both instruments.
The first trait you would notice is the taper at the end of the clarinet. This is called the “bell”, a feature that's completely absent from the flute.
But the clarinet's taper is not only present below the lower joint but also around the barrel and mouthpiece. Across the body, you will notice a straighter pattern, with the lower part of the body corresponding in width to the upper joint,
This profile grants the clarinet a peculiar sound that's not quite like the saxophone nor the flute, albeit the presence of a reed (more on this later) would undoubtedly make it more akin to the former.
Speaking of registers, it's worth mentioning that, while the flute has a similar pitch range to the clarinet on paper – with both being in the soprano range – the clarinet manages to reach a minor seventh lower than the flute while being able to play just as high.
However, it must be stressed that the clarinet's tone at the higher ranges struggles. Meanwhile, flutes can deliver much more wholesome and stable notes at those registers, which is why ensembles entrust flutes with high notes in lieu of clarinets more often than not.
Another important distinction between both clarinet and flute lies in the fact that flutes are not, for the most part, transposing instruments (save for some specific flute types) since they're made in the key of C. Clarinets, in contrast, are mostly made in the keys of B or E flat, meaning that their C is not pitched the same way as the piano's C (or “concert pitch” as it's usually called).
Transposition consists of the practice of writing music for an instrument by focusing more on fingering positions rather than on the absolute pitch rendered in those positions. So, for example, if an instrument's initial position plays absolute E flat (as is the case with some saxophones), that note would be written as C on the staff. This is supposed to facilitate the work of performers.
Difference 2: Blowing Mechanism
This is the second yet most obvious difference. Clarinets are single-reed instruments with an entirely different blowing mechanism than what is found on the flute.
Flutes are blown through an embouchure hole in the lip plate at a certain angle so that, as the air hits an edge, It splits and bounces through the inner tube and creates the air column.
Related article: How Many Holes Does A Flute Have? (Different Flute Types)
On the other hand, clarinets will project air through their bore via interactions between the vibrating reed and the mouthpiece's upper lip, creating the corresponding soundwaves.
The reed is a slab of organic wood-like grass that's shaped with one side thicker than the other to balance tone and playability. This reed is sometimes conjoined with another to create a windway (in the case of double-reed instruments). Clarinets, being single-reed, would have theirs inserted on a mouthpiece instead.
For many flute beginners, the embouchure is one of the hardest things to master. Many students will be discouraged from playing, considering how steep the difficulty is during the initial stages of learning.
On the clarinet, sounds are easier to produce, and the embouchure required is much more comfortable, albeit increasingly painful during prolonged playing or rehearsal sessions.
Nevertheless, it bears pointing out that clarinets have three particularly weak notes, called “throat notes”. As the name suggests, these notes resonate at the instrument's “throat” instead of at the bell, yielding a weak delivery.
To circumvent this, expert clarinetists offer various alternative fingerings to get fuller throat notes, but they increase fingering difficulty as a result.
Difference 3: Position
Flutes are different from most woodwind instruments in that they are blown sideways. This means airflow will mostly follow a horizontal pattern, roughly perpendicular to our body.
Flutes are held horizontally and to the flautist's right side. The instrument finds support in the base of our left index finger, the right pinky (resting on D#), the right thumb, and our chin.
However, this doesn't always follow. Contrabass flutes, which are admittedly rare, are held straight, even while also blown sideways. This particular configuration obeys special ergonomic rules, which are beyond the scope of this writing.
Clarinets, in this regard, follow the standard approach to virtually all other instruments of the same family, being held in front of our body and perpendicular to our forearms. These instruments are supported by the thumb rest, where we place the right thumb. Additionally, we can install a neck strap to transfer some of the weight from our thumb to the back of our necks.
Difference 4: Overblowing
Overblowing generally refers to the process of opening the route for delivering notes at higher registers.
In the case of flutes, overblowing is achieved by moving the lips forward as you blow. In the case of a clarinet, you “overblow” via a vent activated by a register key, various register keys, or a combination of various keys, depending on the type of clarinet in question.
One of the biggest challenges faced by clarinet students is that the instrument overblows at a twelfth. This means that all amateur clarinetists must memorize fingerings for the same notes at different registers. Saxophonists and flautists do not have this handicap since their instruments “overblow” at an exact octave, so the fingerings will be largely the same.
Flute students will struggle less in the fingering department, but more in the embouchure one. However, once they've learned the basics of the flute's blowing mechanism, shifting between different registers should not pose a major issue.
Other Differences Between Flutes And Clarinets
These are other less relevant differences found between flutes and clarinets:
Build material: Most flutes nowadays are made of metal, whereas clarinets are made either of plastic (budget models) or wood. This does not mean you won't find metal clarinets or plastic flutes, but we're simply pointing out the trends.
Use case: Clarinets are oftentimes played in classical and jazz music, but rarely in other forms of popular music such as rock or pop. Apart from being standard academic instruments, flutes are more widespread in other musical genres.
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