Flute vs Recorder (5 Key Differences To Know)

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  • Learn the main differences between the flute and recorder
  • How is each instrument played?
  • Is one instrument more serious than the other?
  • Also, learn about the 13 different types of flutes!

The flute and the recorder occupy two very different niches in the musical world.

The flute is regularly included in symphonic orchestras, whereas the recorder is more likely to be found as part of a recorder ensemble in an early music concert.

The recorder is easier and faster to pick up for a beginner, making it a common first instrument for elementary school music students.

On the other hand, the concert flute requires a whole set of muscular adaptations to play, thus requiring years of work before a beginner can graduate to advanced playing.

These are just a few of the many differences in these instruments that a prospective player should consider before deciding which instrument to learn.

Read on for the rest!

Flute vs Recorder: Sources Of Confusion

Although the flute and the recorder are different wind instruments, plenty of people confuse them for one another.

The German word for “recorder” is “Blockflöte,” while the word for “flute” is simply “Flöte.”

Adding to the confusion is the pentatonic flute vs. recorder question.

The diatonic flute is more similar to the recorder than the concert flute in sound production, as it is played frontways with blown air instead of transverse using the embouchure.

The fingering, too, resembles a simplified recorder fingering.

Though the instruments are shaped similarly, their modes of sound production vary quite dramatically, as do the places they hold in music history.

The concert flute is the more popular of the two, also known as a “transverse” flute. It is held horizontally, perpendicular to the player, who blows air over it, whereas the recorder is blown directly.

Very little new music was written for recorders during the Classical and Romantic periods, but it regained popularity in the early 20th century and featured prominently in the early-music revival movement.

It is also worth noting that not all music is included as part of the historical record constituted by the canon of formal Western Art Music.

The flute recorder dualism highlights the importance of inexpensive musical instruments in informal music-making outside the high art domain.

This type of music-making is not always recorded and remembered by high art institutions.

The Main Differences Between The Flute And The Recorder

1. Materials And General Characteristics

First of all, a very clear difference lies in the way the flute and recorder are made.

Concert flute instrument makers tend to make flutes out of metals such as copper-nickel, silver, and/or gold (though flutes, particularly historical reproductions, can also be made of wood like grenadilla).

Concert flutes are about 67 cm long and 1.9 cm in inner diameter and are made up of three interlocking sections: the head joint, with the embouchure hole; the middle joint with the main keys; and the foot joint with the keys for the right little finger. 

On the other hand, the recorder is generally made of wood (although student instruments are typically made of plastic), with a thumb hole and (usually) seven finger holes.

Plastic and wood recorders can often be disassembled into two or three recorder parts, making for easier cleaning and storage.

Recorders also come in several sizes, including the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorder. The larger recorders are far more likely to be made from several pieces of wood and disassemblable into several recorder parts.

The soprano recorder tends to be 32 cm in length, the alto is 48.7 cm long, the tenor is 64 cm long, and the bass tends to run around 91 cm in length. 

2. Sound: Production And Tessitura

Another difference between the flute and the recorder resides in the sound.

With the flute, the sound is produced by blowing over the mouth hole, activating the air in the tube.

The instrument is functionally in C (therefore not transpositional) and has an effective range of just over three octaves.

One of the most significant challenges of this instrument is that control of the sound is achieved primarily by the player’s lips.

Therefore the development of the embouchure is an integral part of the flutist’s training.

The powerful treble sound of the flute makes it a key member of orchestral and chamber music. Popular musicians, such as Lizzo and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, also make use of the flute.

On the other hand, recorders have a more limited range but are often part of a recorder ensemble made up of the abovementioned different recorders.

While one recorder is limited to a range of about two octaves, the full ensemble with four recorder parts covered can stretch to over four octaves beginning around C3.

Without the projection of the concert flute, the recorder enjoys considerable popularity because of its mellow sound, at least among mid-range forward instruments.

Unlike the flute, it is very easy to make the recorder sound since the sound is produced by blowing air into a duct that directs it to the rim. 

3. Playing Position

Another particularly noticeable difference is the playing style, as the flute is held in an asymmetrical position that goes from the mouth to the right shoulder.

In contrast, the recorder is held vertically, with both hands in front of the upper body.

The recorder parts company with the concert flute here to join the domain of the “fipple flute” family, which includes the likes of the Native American flute (similar to the pentatonic flute we discussed earlier as part of the pentatonic flute vs. recorder question) and the penny whistle.

The fingering is also different: while the transverse flute fingering is a somewhat complex system (which it shares with other wind instruments), the recorder fingering is more straightforward.

While the typical concert flute has keys to cover the holes, flute instrument makers also produce keyless flutes that feature the same open holes found on the recorder. 

4. Use In Music

The transverse flute, as mentioned above, plays a key role in the standard full orchestra setup.

Besides this, it is also used in Bossa Nova (Brazilian Jazz), other Latin jazz forms, and in some progressive rock (for example, in Jethro Tull).

The recorder also parts ways with the flute in this respect, in that it is far less widespread in jazz and rock.

One noteworthy exception comes to us in the form of Stairway to Heaven, which uses the recorder. For more on this legendary (perhaps even infamous?) tune, check out this article.

Because it is much easier to play and cheaper than the flute, the recorder is a widely popular educational and amateur instrument and, over time, has attracted a skilled body of professionals as well. 

New avant-garde works of the 1960s demanded extended techniques and a high degree of technical accomplishment from recorder players.

Among the best works are several written for Frans Brüggen: Rob du Bois’s Muziek (1961), Louis Andriessen’s Sweet (1964), Luciano Berio’s Gesti (1966), and Makoto Shinohara’s Fragmente (1968), the latter of which is influenced by the Japanese shakuhachi. 

5. Price

Another fundamental difference between flute and recorder is the price.

While you can get a recorder for $20, $30, or $40, an intermediate-level concert flute, not even a professional instrument, will run you around $700.

A professional transverse recorder can cost anywhere upwards of $2,000.

Recorder vs Flute: Which Is Right For You?

There are many differences between the flute and the recorder: difficulty, materials, repertoire, sound, and price.

These differences might be the best guide in deciding one over the other.

Your ear should always be your guide when comparing instruments. It is always best to choose an instrument you enjoy listening to, as you’re more likely to practice an instrument if you like its sound.

The best place to start is by listening to live music, checking out local music schools, trying the instruments, and watching videos.

If you enjoy the sound, the effort and difficulty involved in learning an instrument (whatever it is) will be more of an adventure than a burden.


Which Is Easier To Learn, The Flute Or The Recorder?

To play music on the flute, one must develop their embouchure. Differences in finger holes, articulations, and the like are not as significant a divide in flute vs recorder as the differences in embouchure.

Any child picking up a recorder for the first time can produce a sound with it, but this is not the case with the flute, as the embouchure is key.

Can Flute Music Be Played On Recorder?

Both instruments share part of the tessitura (meaning there are some notes in common), allowing one to play certain music on both instruments.

The concert flute has a wider register, with the lowest note being C4, as compared with the lowest note of a soprano recorder being C5.

The concert flute also has more timbral, dynamic, and articulatory possibilities than the recorder, so one would not be able to play just any flute music on the recorder.

Is The Recorder Considered A Serious Instrument?

Yes! Any instrument can be taken seriously, and the recorder is no exception.

There is a tremendous amount of decent music written for recorders and brilliant musicians playing it.

Wrapping Up

Regardless of their common origin, the flute and the recorder have taken different paths.

As they have developed both in form and in how composers and musicians use them, they have grown to fill separate niches, with neither entirely overshadowing the other.

Want to learn about other instruments? Check out our complete guide to Types Of Musical Instruments!