Clarinet vs Saxophone – Which one should you learn first?

To choose between a clarinet and a saxophone to learn first, consider two main things; which one are you more interested in and which one is easier for you to play. Read on to find out more about the difference between them.

From beginners to band directors, the clarinet vs saxophone discussion is a common one. Clarinets and saxophones are single-reed instruments in the woodwind instruments family that require reeds to produce sound. Although clarinets and saxophones have similarities like being used in the same musical setting, sound production and changing notes by covering tone holes, these two instruments are simultaneously wildly different. Their main differences lie in range, appearance, sounds and even history. Both instruments are the most commonly used woodwind instruments and in most cases, experienced performers can play both. In this article, we will further discuss the clarinet and saxophone so, read on to learn more.

What are the differences between a clarinet and a saxophone?

Since there are different types of clarinets and saxophones, for this comparison, we will compare the most commonly used clarinets and saxophones which are the Bb clarinet and the alto saxophones.

Instrument quality. Clarinet. Saxophone.
Uses. Can be used in all musical settings but is commonly used in jazz, bands and orchestras. Commonly used in jazz, bands, quarters and popular music.
Range. For soprano; D3 – Bb6. For alto; Db3 – Ab5.
Main parts. Has 5 main parts; mouthpiece, upper and lower joints, barrel and the bell. Has 4 major parts; neck, body, U-shaped bow and bell.
Size of the instrument. 26 inches (66cm). 3.9 feet (1.2m).
The number of keys. Has 17 keys. Has 20 keys.
Sound description. Produces rich, soothing and direct sound. Produces deep, round and strong sound.
Use in ensembles. Typically used ornamentation and melody. Commonly used for occasional melody and harmony.
Material. Typically made of wood or plastic. Typically made of brass with a lacquer finish.
Invention period. Around the year 1700. Around the 1840s.
Other types of the instruments. Bass clarinet, A clarinet and the Eb clarinet. Tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones.
The estimated price of the instrument. $2500 for intermediate-level clarinet. $4000 for intermediate-level saxophones.

Clarinet vs Saxophone – How do they compare?


The clarinet is made of wood or plastic and it consists of 5 main parts; the barrel, upper and lower joints, mouthpiece and the bell. These parts have corks on the ends to simplify the assembling process. Clarinet mouthpieces are made of either rubber, plastic or glass and the keys of the instrument are located on the upper and lower joints. The clarinet’s barrel connects the mouthpiece of the clarinet to the rest of the clarinet.

Saxophones are typically made of brass and then covered with yellow lacquer and they consist of 4 main parts; the mouthpiece, neck, U-shaped bow and bell. On the right side of the saxophone, it is covered by 20 keys. The instrument’s neck curves from the mouthpiece as it goes down and then curves back up towards the end to form the U-shaped bow and then the bell points forward. Unlike the clarinet that can be taken apart, the saxophone is one large piece. The only part of the saxophone that can be detached from the instrument is the ligature and reed, the mouthpiece and the neck strap.

Similar to the barrel of a clarinet, the saxophone’s neck bridges the mouthpiece to the rest of the instrument and the mouthpiece can be made of either glass, rubber or plastic. Saxophone keys typically have leather padding underneath and they are used to cover the instrument’s tone holes.

Concerning appearance, the clarinet is better as it is relatively small and some parts can be detached for easy transportation and storage.

Range and sound

When it comes to range, the clarinet’s range is between D3 – Bb6 and the saxophone’s range is between Db3 – Ab5. Although both instruments have the same lower range, the clarinet is weaker in that range thus the airy sound quality they are famous for. Additionally, despite clarinets having easier access to wider ranges, saxophones can stay powerful throughout all ranges. Overall, the clarinet’s range is wider or more expanded in comparison to that of saxophones.

In regards to sound, both instruments have the potential to produce different sounds depending on how they are played and the setting they are being used in. For instance, in jazz, a saxophone can produce an intimate, sentimental and sweet sound or a powerful, “in your face” and raucous sound. The clarinet on the other hand produces a pure, soothing and direct sound.

Both instruments are equally good in terms of the sound they produce because they both produce nice and articulate sounds.

Fingering system and embouchure

The fingering system used in both clarinets and saxophones is similar and in regards to embouchure, the clarinet’s is firm and tighter compared to the loose saxophone’s embouchure.

Both instruments are good since they use the same fingering system.

History of the instruments

The clarinet is a descendant of the chalumeau, which was an ancient peasant pipe that played with one reed. The clarinet was invented in the 1700s by one Nuremberg instrument maker named Johann Christian Denner. Johann’s clarinet was longer compared to the chalumeau and included 8 tone holes, a wider bore, 2 keys, a bell and a register key and the barrel and the mouthpiece were combined. With the help of his son and his brother, Denner made more improvements to the clarinets and over the years, other musicians added to what Denner had invented, eventually creating the modern clarinet. Today, the commonly used clarinets are the A, Eb, bass and Bb clarinets.

The saxophone was invented in the 1840s by one Belgium instrument maker, famous for his expertise in brass and woodwind instruments, named Adolphe Sax. Around 1846, saxophones became famous among the French military bands and over the years, the instrument got recognition around the world. Today, the commonly used saxophones are the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones.

In this category, both instruments are good since they both have interesting histories and were both invented by instrument makers.

Sound production

Both instruments use reeds to produce sound, what differs is the angling of the instrument and the player’s throat positioning during a performance. For clarinets, the player’s throat position shifts depending on which register they are playing. For saxophones, the player’s throat needs to remain open to allow all the air from their diaphragm to travel to the instrument’s mouthpiece.

A saxophone is better when it comes to sound production since they are easier to produce sound with.

Clarinet vs Saxophone – Comparison overview

Clarinets’ overview

Clarinets are 26” long single-reed woodwind instruments made of either wood or plastic and consist of 5 main parts. Clarinets have 17 keys to control pitch and they produce sound when the reed vibrates creating soundwaves in the instruments that are then amplified by the bell. Depending on which kind you get and where you get it from, a clarinet can cost you anywhere from $500 to $3000.


  • Can be used in all musical settings.
  • They produce rich, direct and soothing sounds.


  • Reeds used require regular changing therefore, you will have recurring costs overtime to maintain the instrument.
  • Can be quite pricey.
  • Clarinets made out of wood are delicate and easily damaged with humidity and temperature.


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Saxophone overview

Saxophones are single-reed woodwind instruments comprising of 4 main parts with 20 keys to control pitch and tone. Saxophones are generally made of brass and coated with lacquer and they produce sound when reeds vibrate and the vibrations are projected by the bell. Saxophones are curved at the mouthpiece area and also towards the end.


  • They are durable as they are made of brass and lacquer-coated.
  • They produce a soft, pure and beautiful sound.


  • Regularly buying reeds is a recurring expense.
  • Buying a new saxophone is quite expensive.


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Verdict: So, which one is better? – Clarinets or saxophones

Both clarinets and saxophones are equally good considering the more similarities they have than differences. This is no wonder most players who have experience in one of these instruments can easily transition to the other without much hassle. Also, both instruments produce beautiful, articulate and rich sounds.


What are some of the similarities between clarinets and saxophones?

Some of the similarities between clarinets and saxophones are that they are both from the same musical family; the single-reed woodwind family, they are used in similar musical settings, notes are manipulated the same way and maintenance is similar between the two instruments.

Which instrument should I play, a clarinet or a saxophone?

If you’re torn between the two instruments, try both of them to discover which one you enjoy more and is easier for you to play. It is advised to refrain from buying a new instrument if you aren’t 100% sure that is the instrument you’d like to play in the long term. In the first few months, rent or borrow and when you’re ready, you can purchase your own.

Charlotte Moore is a Clarinetist by profession and has over time offered lessons on how to play the clarinet among other musical instruments. And while a majority of clarinet players are well versed with the process of settling with a good clarinet among other accompanying features. There is little information about clarinets. The reason why Charlotte prepared comprehensive experts touching on the various facets of the clarinet. The consolidated information will offer more insight on everything clarinets including the best stand to use, and the best plastic clarinet that you can invest in, among other information. Charlotte Moore is a devoted mother of two and a professional clarinet player.

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