Flute vs Piccolo vs Clarinet vs Oboe (Differences & Which Is Best For You)?

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  • What are the differences between flute, piccolo, clarinet, and oboe?
  • How do flute, piccolo, clarinet, and oboe make a sound?
  • What is the hardest woodwind instrument to play?
  • All your questions — answered.

The flute, piccolo, clarinet, and oboe are all woodwind instruments, but each one has its own unique set of characteristics.

From the differences in reeds to the wildly varying fingering systems  — this article will clear up the confusion between these woodwind instruments. We will:

  1. Explore the differences between flute, piccolo, clarinet, and oboe
  2. Discuss what those differences mean for the player
  3. Look into what makes each instrument challenging 
  4. Explore tone, fingerings, range, embouchure, and transposition.

Flute vs Piccolo vs Clarinet vs Oboe: Core Differences

  • While they are all woodwind instruments, flutes and piccolos do not use reeds, whereas clarinets and oboes do.
  • Clarinets use a single reed, and oboes use a double reed.
  • The piccolo is the highest sounding of the four. Flutes are larger than piccolos and do not sound as high.
  • Oboes cannot play as high as flutes, while clarinets can play lower and higher than oboes.

Now, let’s dive into each of them in more depth.


The flute is a high-sounding woodwind instrument that produces a sound by blowing air across a sound hole.

This is similar to blowing into a glass bottle to make a sound. 


Tone is essentially the sound an instrument makes. Music teachers often refer to the “characteristic tone” produced by an instrument.

The characteristic tone of the flute comes from blowing across the sound hole. The tone sounds different depending on what the flute is made out of.

Most of the time, traditional C flutes are made of metal such as silver or nickel-silver (although they are still considered woodwinds).

Sometimes a different metal is used, such as gold, but these flutes are not as common and are usually more expensive.

Flutists might also play on a flute made of more than one metal. For example, a flute could be made of silver but have a gold-plated lip plate or keys. 

Suppose a flute manufacturer does not specify the metal used to make the instrument. In that case, chances are the flute is made from a mix of different materials and probably will not be very durable.

Also, “silver plated” does not mean made entirely of silver; if that is the only identifier, it usually means it will not be as high quality.

Quality instruments specify what materials are used, so there is no question about what went into making the instrument. 

You may see many other types of flutes besides the traditional C flute. Some might be made of wood, or some might be of different sizes.

Large flutes will produce a lower pitch, and smaller flutes will produce a higher pitch. All are still technically flutes since you blow across a sound hole to make a tone. 


The flute can typically play as low as B3 (the note below middle C on piano) and as high as C7. This essentially gives the flute a three-octave range. 

The extreme low register can be difficult to play because of how much air you need to use, but you also have to use “warm air,” similar to the air you use to fog up a glass window.

This makes it more of a challenge, especially if you are trying to play louder. The extreme high register is more difficult and used in the advanced flute repertoire. 

Keep ranges in mind if you are producing music for flute as well, since writing music in different registers can improve your mix. Still, it can also reduce the quality if you are not careful (different instruments sound better in certain registers). 


Using different fingerings on the flute changes what note you play, similar to pressing different keys on a piano or different frets on a guitar.

There are usually 12 keys on the flute.

You play different notes on the flute by pressing down keys (small, round pieces along the flute’s body). The keys cover or open holes in the body of the flute. 

Generally, pressing down more keys lowers the pitch, and leaving keys open makes a higher pitch.

There are other combinations as well that allow you to play more notes.

Once again, you are usually limited to three octaves on a traditional C flute, but they can play all 12 chromatic pitches in each of those octaves, allowing you to play songs in all keys. 


Embouchure is the way you have to form your mouth to play a woodwind instrument.

Your lips and facial muscles will develop in a certain way depending on what instrument you practice.

Flute embouchure involves making the sides of your mouth more firm while blowing a stream of air down into the flute head joint.

Playing higher or lower on the flute feels different, but you generally use the same embouchure. 


Flute sheet music is written on a traditional treble clef.

Some instruments have to play music transposed for them, but the flute is not one of them.

The sheet music flute players read from sounds called “concert pitch,” meaning it is the same as piano.

This gives you less to worry about if you are producing music involving the traditional C flute because there are no extra steps needed between what you write and how a flutist plays it. 



Piccolo is in the same family as the flute.

The tone of the piccolo is very similar to the flute, but since the piccolo is much smaller than the flute, it produces a higher sound (one octave higher than the traditional flute).

In some instrumental groups, the piccolo joins the flute section to cover the higher register of the frequency spectrum. 


The piccolo range is almost the same as the flute (about three octaves), but piccolos usually only go to D4.

Piccolos usually do not have a “foot joint,” which allows flutes to play low C or B (see image below of flute foot joint).

The highest range is not usually used as the middle register of the piccolo is already very high.  


The fingerings are the same as the flute, so there are no differences between the flute and piccolo.

However, the fingerings will feel different because the keys are so much smaller and closer together.

People who already play the flute have a hard time with the piccolo because of the big size difference. 


The embouchure on the piccolo is similar to the flute, but since the piccolo is so much smaller, the embouchure is not quite the same.

The head joint is the part of the flute or piccolo where you blow air into.

Since piccolos have a much smaller head joint, this makes the embouchure feel different, even though conceptually it is the same.

Flute players who try to switch to piccolo might still have a difficult time adjusting.


Piccolo music is written on a treble clef staff. Unlike the flute, the piccolo music you see is not exactly what you hear.

The piccolo sounds an octave higher than what is written.

If a flute and piccolo play from the same sheet music, they can play the same notes, but the piccolo will sound one octave above the flute. 



The clarinet is a common woodwind instrument that uses a mouthpiece and a single reed to produce a tone.

Reeds are usually made from arundo donax cane, a tall plant grown in different parts of the world. The wood from the reeds is cut in a way where one side is thinner. 

The reed is attached to a mouthpiece, usually made of plastic or hard rubber (ebonite). You use a ligature to hold the reed on the mouthpiece.

The clarinetist blows air into the mouthpiece, and the reed vibrates to make a sound.

The mouthpiece is attached to a barrel and the body of the clarinet, which has holes and keys similar to the flute, and the air travels through the clarinet. 


Clarinet has the largest range of traditional woodwind instruments, spanning nearly four octaves.

Traditional Bb Clarinets can play from low E below the staff (concert D3) to high C (concert Bb6).

Clarinets are divided into different registers called chalumeau, throat tones, clarino, and altissimo. Each register has its own unique character.

Many times, the concert band repertoire will include three Bb clarinet parts to fill in the orchestration and highlight the different sounds possible with the clarinet.

There is also usually a bass clarinet part (a separate instrument in the same family). 


Fingerings are similar to the flute and piccolo, but your hands must do more to cover many of the holes with the clarinet physically.

Generally, you lower the pitch by covering keys and raise the pitch by leaving keys open (some keys cover holes, and others open them).  

There are also more keys on a clarinet, giving it a wider range of fingering combinations.

For instance, there are four keys just for your right pinkie and another four keys for your left pinkie.

Granted, the number of keys makes certain sections of music easier to play rather than harder, but it does give you more to remember early on. 


Clarinet embouchure involves placing the mouthpiece into your mouth, putting the bottom lip over your bottom teeth with the reed against your bottom lip, and your top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece.

This embouchure is very different from the flute since you are actually putting the mouthpiece into your mouth rather than blowing air across the tone hole of the flute or piccolo.

Some people may have an easier time with one another depending on their unique physical traits and amount of practice.  


Clarinets are usually in the key of Bb, which means sheet music needs to be written up one whole step to sound in concert pitch.

Sometimes, you will see or hear clarinets in the key of A or Eb; those clarinets need music written in a different key to sound in concert pitch. 



Oboe is a double-reed instrument.

This means that instead of a single reed and a mouthpiece creating the tone, there are two reeds tied together on a “staple,” which is a small, tube-shaped cork that you put directly into the oboe.

These reeds are placed into the oboe player’s mouth, and the oboe player blows into them to create a tone. 

Reeds play a huge role in playing the oboe. Reeds play a big role with other instruments as well, but there is much more pressure on the oboe.

This is because there are two reeds that need to be finely adjusted; there is also no mouthpiece like with the clarinet (saxophone is also another single reed instrument with a mouthpiece).

Another double reed instrument is the bassoon. 

Since the oboe is a higher-pitched double-reed instrument, it is much more difficult to control the sound, but with time, lots of patience, and hopefully a great mentor, you can make it sound beautiful.

Unfortunately, that comes after lots of squawking, and some compare it to a goose in pain.

Keep in mind, though, there is a large learning curve for all instruments, so those who are dedicated will push through the challenges and find community with other oboists working through the same issues. 


The range on the oboe spans from Bb3 to F#6, giving the oboe about a two-and-a-half octave range.

While the range is not as wide as the other woodwind instruments above, the range that is possible on the oboe is extremely important to orchestras, wind ensembles, woodwind quintets, and other groups. 

The lower range of the oboe overlaps with the upper tenor and alto voice, then spans into the soprano range, making it a great choice for playing melodies.

The oboe also has the widest range of audible overtones in its sound, almost like a natural saturation allowing it to cut through and be heard even in large groups.

When played well, nothing else will replace the sound of the oboe. 


The fingering concept is similar to the other woodwind instruments, but oboes have something called “half hole” fingerings.

You alter your fingers slightly in certain registers to play higher or lower. 

You slide to half-hole fingerings to go up in range and back to regular fingerings once you reach the next register.

This might make learning new fingerings more of a challenge, but again, each woodwind instrument will be new at first. 


The oboe uses a double lip embouchure, which means the oboist needs to put both the top lip and the bottom lip over the teeth to produce a sound.

The lips cover the teeth, so you do not bite the reed. This embouchure can be challenging for many people and can take a while to adjust. 

Transposition and Tuning 

Oboe does not transpose sounds in concert pitch. What oboists see on the music is what you hear, so there is no need to alter sheet music.

If you see an ensemble like an orchestra or wind ensemble perform, you will usually hear the oboe player tune the group before performing.

The oboist plays a reference pitch (usually an A for orchestras and Bb for wind ensembles) then everyone else adjusts their instruments around that reference pitch.

Because of the overtones on the oboe, it is easier for everyone to hear the reference pitch when tuning together. 

Which Instrument is the Hardest?

While all of the different instruments have their own unique challenges, the instrument we say is the hardest is the oboe.

The oboe has the most factors that go into producing a good sound on the instrument before learning fingerings. Half-hole fingerings can also be very challenging to get used to. 

The world of double reeds has a vast amount of information, and even every reed will have its own subtle differences.

Additionally, serious oboists usually make their own reeds, giving them a wider skill set needed to keep up with their craft. 

Thankfully, if younger musicians decide to play oboe in college, there are many scholarship opportunities and extra financial aid since the oboe is so vitally important to many ensembles.

People also know a great deal of effort and practice into playing the instrument well.

Because there are not as many oboists, you will likely find many performance opportunities when people are searching to hire an oboist. 


Is the flute higher than oboe?

This is a tricky question since the lower register is the same, but the flute can extend higher than the oboe.

Sometimes, composers will have oboes and flutes play the same part, but when split into harmonies, the flute usually plays higher than the oboe.

Which is harder: oboe or flute?

As mentioned above, the oboe is considered harder. The flute can still be very difficult, but you will not encounter as many issues with making sounds early on. 

What is the hardest woodwind instrument to play?

Oboe is considered the hardest woodwind instrument to play, but it also comes with the many other perks mentioned above for those that put in the time. 

What is a good beginner flute?

The Yamaha YFL-222 Student Flute is an excellent, reliable model for beginners. 

What is a good beginner piccolo?

To be direct, the idea of a beginner piccolo is not a good idea. Since it is similar to the flute, it is better to start with it, then try piccolo once you’ve established good habits.

Many “beginner piccolos” advertised for very low prices will not give you a positive experience in the long run, and the materials will not hold up.

Once they wear down, you will likely not be able to get the instrument repaired. 

What is a good beginner clarinet?

The Yamaha YCL-255 Student Clarinet is an updated version of their standard student clarinet, but it is an international version they make that is more affordable. 

What is a good beginner oboe?

The Yamaha YOB-241 Student Oboe has a long-standing reputation for excellence.

While one may think this seems expensive for a “beginner” instrument, buying cheaper oboes will be exceedingly frustrating as there are already so many other factors that can affect progress.

Luckily, there are many great rent-to-own options or the possibility of buying a used instrument. 


If you are interested in learning to play flute, piccolo, clarinet, or oboe, hopefully, this article helped to learn about the differences between all of them and answer some of your questions!

Whether you are playing the instrument, writing music for the instrument, or producing music that includes one of these instruments, hopefully, you benefited from the information here.

Best of luck with your musical endeavors!