Flute Vs Recorder: A Guide to the Differences

By Jade Bultitude
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Understanding the flute vs recorder is an interesting topic as from the outside these two instruments actually seem quite different.

The word ‘flute’ is used to describe a variety of different instruments, but essentially it refers to an instrument in the woodwind family that produces a sound by blowing air over a small opening. Nowadays you will usually see the term flute to describe the modern concert flute. The biggest difference between the flute vs recorder is that the sound of a recorder is produced using a fipple and the sound of a flute does not have a fipple.

flute vs recorder

What is a flute?

The term flute is used to describe a reedless woodwind instrument. The sound is produced by blowing air over an opening and the pitch is change by covering holes along a tube. There are a few categories of flute, the side blown flute, end blown flute, fipple flutes and non fipple flutes.

Side Blown Flute

The side blown flute, otherwise known as a transverse flute is held horizontally. Air is then blown over the top of the embouchure hole to produce sound.

picture of flute player playing wooden flute copy
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung from Berlin, Deutschland, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

End Blown Flutes

An end blown flute is held vertically, pointing down. Air is then blown into the top.

Ney copy
Zimbricchio, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fipple flutes

Fipple flutes have a mouth piece that constricts the air that can go down it. These flutes are held vertically.

fipple copy
Joan, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Non fipple flutes

These flutes have no constriction and the sound is simply produced by blowing air over an embouchure hole. This is how most modern day flutes are played.

Nowadays when we say flute we are referring to the concert flute. The concert flute is a transverse flute, in the key of C and can reach around three and a half octaves of notes.

flute horizontal copy

What is the recorder?

Henry Bolingbroke who later became Henry IV of England had listed within his possessions a ‘fistula nominee ricordo’ in 1388. What he was referring to was a pipe, the word ricordo is the first use of the instruments common name recorder.

The recorder is a flute-like or whistle-like instrument that has a very clear and sweet sound. The recorder was used throughout the renaissance and baroque periods and it was only during the 17th century that it began to be replaced by new instruments such as the flute and clarinet.

The recorder was popular for many centuries from the fourteenth to the mid eighteenth. The recorder went by so many different names that you will see on different pieces of music. Some examples are Flute a Bec because of the mouthpiece resembling a beak, flute douce because it had such a sweet tone, the English flute because the English used it so much and many more.

When Handel or Bach wrote flute or flauto they meant treble recorder. If they wanted the flute as we know it today, they would say transverse flute.

How does the recorder make a sound?

The recorder had a sweet sound production but how did it actually produce the sound?

The recorder is held vertically and has an internal duct that directs the air over the tone hole. Recorders typically have seven finger holes, four for the lower hand and three for the upper hand. There will also be a thumb hole. You may see a recorder referred to as a fipple flute.

diagram of recorder
–pbroks13talk?, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Flute Vs Recorder: The transition

The transition from recorder to flute took more than a century. The flute took hold in France first and Germany was next by the turn of the eighteenth century. The flute only really became popular in England after the accession of George I in 1714. The flute reached Italy around 1715 but took a decade to catch on. It is actually very difficult to know when the flute officially took over the recorder as the recorder was referred to as the flute in many compositions!

Some composers were specific with which instrument they intended but others were very vague.

medieval flute concerto copy

With music that was vague as to whether they wanted you to use the flute or recorder you can look more deeply at the actual notes. F3 on the flute was very unstable and so if this was seen in music it would be safe to say that the recorder was the intended instrument. The flute was also better in sharp keys and tonalities and not so good in flat ones. The keys of G major, D major, A major, E minor and B minor were popular for flute pieces. And on the flip side, F major, C major, D minor and A minor were better for recorder.

These are only guidelines though and strict rules – plenty of composers broke the rules! Bach in particular wrote High F for flute in the obbligato to the tenor aria in his cantata no.78 – a note that was nearly impossible to play for most flutists.

Bach’s music was interesting as he chose which instrument to use based on emotional and programmatic significance. The recorder for intangible emotions such as religious devotion and resignation to death. He preferred the flute for more personal emotions and would often combine it with the oboe d’amore whereas he would often combine the recorder with the viola.

Francois A. P. Garsault reported in his Notionnaire ou Memorial rasisonne that the transverse flute was used for accompaniment but the recorder merely for amusement. The transverse flute became the choice for profressional musicians where the amateurs played the recorder as not skilled enough for the one keyed flute.

History of the Recorder

In 1511, a book about musical instruments which was dedicated to the Bishop of Strasbourg illustrated the recorder with an image that more or less looks like what we know today. Meaning, by the beginning of the sixteenth century the recorder had finished its evolution. The recorder was a actually developed in the Middle Ages or even earlier, it is for sure one of the oldest musical instruments

medieval recorders copy
Sebastian Virdung, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The recorder began life as a low class instrument and it was during these early stages of its life where most of the development happened.

Early recorders were made from one single length of wood but it was quickly discovered that the central bore of the instrument would be more effective if the recorder came in a three parts.

recorder three parts, head, middle and foot joints

We saw earlier that the recorder ended up having seven holes but when it was only used for folk music the recorder had only three finger holes.By the time it was noted by Henry Bolingbroke it had the seven holes that we are used to.

Although the recorder lost it’s popularity in the 18th century, during the classical and romantic periods, recorder music did see a return in the twentieth century!

What Are the Main Differences Between the Recorder and Flute?

Let’s take a look at the main differences between the recorder and flute.

Playing Position and embouchure hole

Perhaps the most obvious difference is with the playing position, the way you play it and hold it. The recorder is played vertically, pointing down and the flute is played horizontally, held out to the side.

man playing flute copy

Flutes will be held out to the right, regardless of whether you are left handed or right handed. You will then press your lip against the lip plate and blow over the top. Learn more about how to get the perfect flute embouchure.

wooden recorder player copy

To make a noise on the recorder on the other hand you must blow through the mouth piece.

Holes and Keys

The other key difference is that the flute has keys to press, whereas the recorder you simply cover finger holes.

The keys on the modern flute allow you to play chromatically more easily.

silver flute copy
Tubamirum, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The fingering system

The fingering system of the flute and recorder are fairly similar. The more holes you cover, the lower the note you will play.

However, on the recorder you will find that there are more forked fingerings. Meaning you miss a hole out in-between two that you are pressing.

diagram of recroder and flute fingering chart

Another difference in the fingering system is that the flute keeps the same fingerings whether playing the C flute, piccolo, alto flute or bass flute. If you want a ‘G’ you simply do the G fingering!

The recorder is different, as there is a different fingering for each different type of recorder!

The range

Another big difference between the flute and the recorder is the range that they can play.

Typically, the flute has a larger range than the recorder. The flute will span about three octaves whereas the recorder will only span about two octaves.

flute and recorder ranges

Instrument Materials

The materials used for each of these instruments is quite different. Typically, the recorder is made of wood with student models being made out of plastic.

The flute on the other hand is most commonly made of metal. Nickel with a silver plating is the most common material for a beginner, with professionals opting for solid silver, gold or platinum!

Some companies do indeed make grenadilla wood flutes but this is less common. The piccolo on the other hand is most usually made out of grenadilla wood!

Can Flute Music Be Played On the recorder?

This is a great question to ask and it has a complicated answer. The flute and recorder do share a lot of repertoire, particularly from the baroque period. However, due to the much larger range of the flute, the recorder is not able to play all of the repertoire originally intended for the flute.

Each of these instruments have a larger family behind them of larger and smaller instruments.

The western concert flute family includes

  • piccolo
  • concert flute
  • Alto flute
  • Bass flute
  • Contrabass flute

The recorder flute family includes

  • The garklein recorder
  • Sopranino recorder
  • The soprano recorder (or descant recorder)
  • The tenor recorder
  • The bass recorder
  • The great bass recorder

And actually many more..

Flute vs recorder is an interesting topic, they are both wind instruments and both come from the same origins. The recorder flute was developed first but now the two instruments, flute and recorder live along side each other. Transverse flutes came before the western concert flute and there is a whole interesting history showing the development from transverse flute to western concert flute.

Both the flute and the recorder are fascinating wind instruments! Although the recorder seems to have got a name of not being a serious instrument it is very capable of being able to play music in many different genres. Unfortunately, we most commonly see the recorder in schools which is where it has got its reputation of not being a serious instrument – 30 squawking recorders in a room is enough to put any one off! The ease at which recorder flutes produce a sound is also what gives it this reputation. Fipple flutes such as the recorder are easier to play as the air is directed for you.

Western concert flutes on the other hand is a non fipple flute and this means that it can take a little bit more skill to produce sound as flute players are in charge of the air direction.

However, I believe both the western concert flute and recorder, whether a fipple flute or non fipple flute, present their own challenges. To produce a sweet flute sound is much easier whereas recorder players need to control the air a lot more.

Which instrument do you prefer?

Photo of author
Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.