Flutes and recorders are very close relatives in the woodwind family, but they are also very different once you start detailing many of their features.
What are the differences between flute and recorder? The differences may be summarized as follows:
- The flute is cylindrical, while the recorder is tapered.
- Flutes are played through an embouchure hole. Recorders have mouthpieces.
- Flutes are played horizontally. Recorders are played vertically.
- Flutes have keys, while recorders don't.
In this article, we'll be elaborating on these differences and other distinctions not explicitly mentioned in the answer above. But, first, let's go over some important points.
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Are Recorders Flutes?
Many sources specify that recorders are flute-like woodwinds but not flutes proper. However, this assertion is a bit misleading when considering how recorders were historically perceived. Both instruments were developed in parallel, and they were both called “flute” at one point.
Linguistically speaking, some countries specifically designated the recorder with the word “flute”. As a matter of fact, the recorder was simply called “flauto” or “flauta” in Italy and Spain, respectively, until well into the 18th century. What in English is merely known as flute was called flauto traverso (transverse flute) to differentiate it from what was, at that time, the “mainline” flute (recorder).
The prominence of the recorder as the flute par excellence remained throughout the baroque period. Then, the baroque flute quickly gained momentum due to the addition of a key in a specific spot, which made it possible for players to get all semitones from the instrument within its pitch range. Just like that, the dominance of the recorder was beginning to wane in favour of the revamped transverse flute.
Nonetheless, the baroque flute still retained a mostly keyless design with a similar tapered body. It would not be until Theobald Boehm entered the scene that the flute, as we know it today, began to appear.
Nowadays, in various Romance languages, the recorder is called “sweet flute” (“flauto dolce” or “flauta dulce), while the word flute became the common denominator for the transverse flute. This change has to do with how popular the transverse flute became in contrast to the recorder, which, since then, has been relegated to chamber and folk music.
The Differences Between Flutes And Recorders
Now, let's turn our attention to the differences exposed at the beginning of this article:
Difference 1: Shape
This difference is readily apparent upon first inspection. Even if you don't distinguish their external features, the shapes of both instruments are immediately noticeable.
Theobald Boehm – Bavarian musician and inventor – originally designed his flutes with a tapered shape while retaining the traditional wooden build, just as how recorders would be built to this day.
Musicians who tried these early Boehm models observed that these features gave the instrument a more “brassy” sound. At that point, Boehm opted for a cylindrical build to eliminate those overtones and give it a more whistle-like timbre.
Hence, as can be ascertained from the historical data given above, the flute's shape was closely related to its tonality, meaning that the decision to build the flute with a cylindrical body was not merely aesthetic. This also lends credence to the theory that shape is far more influential to the flute's acoustics than build material.
Flutes still have a slight taper at the head joint, with the open end being just barely larger (by about 2-3mm) than the crown end. This design was supposed to give the flute a better response across all three octaves.
Difference 2: Blowing Mechanism
Both flute and recorder have very similar acoustics, though the way we blow both instruments differ greatly.
Recorders have more in common with other traditional reed instruments like the oboe and the clarinet without actually having a reed installed. In fact, the part of the instrument whereby we push air is called the mouthpiece, which is the same word we use for both the saxophone's and clarinet's windway.
The name “mouthpiece” denotes a component that supports our mouth and is introduced therein. A common synonym used for these contexts is “fipple”.
As we blow on the recorder, with the aid of the fipple, the air that enters the inner tube is directed onto the edge of the bore via a duct, which prompts the vibration of air particles inside the canal. Recorders, for this reason, are named “duct flutes” (or fipple flutes).
Transverse flutes don't have a mouthpiece, as in, they don't carry any component that is placed inside the mouth. Instead, flutes have a section called the “head joint”, which sports a lip plate and a moderately big “embouchure hole”.
In the case of flutes, our lips would serve the same function as the duct in recorders and carry the burden of directing air towards the edge. This makes flutes harder to play, for we have to compensate for the glaring absence of a physical duct by positioning our lips at accurate angles.
On a positive note, the flute would have a much more dynamic and emotional range than the recorder since you will ultimately decide how the air travels instead of relying on a duct to do that for you. In light of this, flutes have been much more popular than recorders in pop and jazz/rock circles.
Difference 3: Position
This difference is closely related to the one just described but focused on the way we maneuver the instrument as a whole rather than on a specific aspect of our execution.
Owing to the very nature of the blowing mechanism, it would be expected that the way the instruments are oriented should follow and respect the orientation to which airflow travels. Only exceptionally do we find that this is not the case, but these exceptions stem from ergonomic concerns.
One example of these exceptions is the contrabass flute. While the blowing mechanism is essentially the same as with concert flutes (as in, side-blown), the design alters the orientation of our airflow, which ultimately travels in a vertical direction after following a horizontal loop. This makes it possible for the contrabass flute to remain somewhat playable.
Still, as a rule of thumb, the flute is held sideways or horizontally, in line with its side-blown character, while the recorder is held vertically, following the orientation of the duct.
Difference 4: Keys
This may be one of the most obvious differences, though this doesn't mean that recorders are devoid of keys in all cases. In fact, you'll often find that bigger recorders such as the tenor and knick tenor have keys installed. Many great bass recorders have an entire keywork arranged similarly to a flute's keywork, with some distinctions.
Yet, the general rule is that flutes have keys while recorders typically don't. You should be capable of discerning the contrast between flutes and recorders using this criterion, albeit not in isolation.
At one point, flutes didn't have any keys. The keys were implemented as a way to simplify playing in any key. The aforementioned Theobald Boehm was initially interested in pursuing this endeavour of finding mechanisms that could make the existing transverse flute a more versatile instrument.
This was done by adding keys that could open and close remote tone holes. Most flutes up until that point were only able to close as many tone holes as the fingers would allow, which is why these were made with six to eight tone holes.
Related article: How Many Holes Does A Flute Have? (Different Flute Types)
The recorder retains these mechanics, so it's harder to play from a fingering perspective. Playing chromatic scales on the recorder requires a handful of tricks, such as half-covering the tone holes, a method that demands a substantial amount of dexterity.
Boehm streamlined this process by drilling more holes and having them open and close via conveniently-placed levers that would operate distant keys or many keys at once, linking them through rods strategically situated across the flute's surface.
Other Differences Between Flutes And Recorders
To wrap up this article, let's briefly go over the other noteworthy differences between flutes and recorders:
- Build material: Recorders are mostly made of wood, plastic, and, in rarer cases, ivory. Modern transverse flutes are made of metals such as silver alloys. You can occasionally find flutes made of plastic or wood, though they're rare exceptions.
- Pitch range: Flutes have a range spanning three whole octaves. Recorders can deliver notes across two or two-and-a-half octaves.
- Tone: The recorder has a warmer and more sugary tone than the flute.
- Tone holes: Recorders have roughly six to eight tone holes, while flutes can have from 13 to 17 holes scattered across the body and foot joints.
- Tone hole sizes: Flutes have much larger tone holes than recorders, contributing to the difference in sound.
- The bell: Recorders have a conical bell at the end, whereas flutes consist of a straight tube with no taper at the tail end.
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