Oboe vs Clarinet Compared: Their main differences

The clarinet and the oboe each have their own unique history, construction, and playing techniques. These two instruments may seem to have a lot in common, but they actually grew and blossomed as two distinct branches of the woodwind family tree. 

The Main Differences Between Oboe and Clarinet

Although the oboe and clarinet seem almost identical at first glance, there are a number of major differences that distinguish each instrument’s sound, operation, and place in musical ensembles. 

The main differences between oboes and clarinets are:

  • Oboes use double reeds, whereas clarinets use a single reed
  • Oboes have a narrow shape with a bell that does not curve out, whereas clarinets have a longer cone with a bell that curves out
  • Oboes have a more sharp and crisp tone, whereas clarinets have a more rounded intonation

Reed Type

  • This is the biggest difference between the oboe and the clarinet. They are both parts of the reed subgenre of the wind instrument family, which means their sound comes from the player blowing past a thin piece of wood that vibrates into the instrument’s body and changes depending on which openings are activated along that tube. 
  • However, the clarinet uses a single reed. This is one layer flattened and secured against the open part of the mouthpiece. The player then tucks their bottom lip over their teeth to blow into the mouthpiece and uses their tongue to stop the airflow between the tip of the reed and the mouthpiece as needed. Clarinet reeds are cut to different thicknesses for a subtle variety of sound and player preference and can easily be chipped and broken during transport and usage, but they don’t require any special treatment other than careful handling. 
  • Oboes, on the other hand, require what are called double reeds. These are not just two clarinet-type reeds, but rather their own unique style where two small, thin pieces of cane are melded together at their sides and fastened to a metal tube with a cork at the end that goes into the instrument. This forms a small open cone.
  • Double reeds come in a variety of stages of completion, and many professional oboe players prefer to make their own for personal intonation and playability adjustments (in contrast to clarinetists, who generally buy their ready-made because there is much less variety in shape and tone with single reeds). Synthetic reeds are available for stronger durability, but most professional oboists prefer naturally-made reeds for their more subtle tone capabilities. 
  • Players achieve sound on an oboe by tucking both sets of lips over their teeth and blowing into the double reed’s opening. Since this type of reed basically acts as the instrument’s entire mouthpiece, oboe players use much more micro-control of their mouth muscles to produce the notes and intonations they want than single reed players do. This means oboe players usually take longer to master the embouchure control needed to produce clear playing. 
  • The structure and usage of double reeds also make them more fragile. New ones need to be soaked in water to soften the reeds before playing, and their general storage must be more enclosed than single reeds, which means each double-reed takes up more space than single ones. They are also more expensive than single reeds.

Bell and Body Shape

  • Both the clarinet and the oboe look like tubes ending with a rounded opening, but subtle differences in their shapes create a noticeable tone contrast between the clarinet and the oboe. This bottom opening is called a bell, and it helps protect the instrument’s sound and better shape the lower-register notes. While both oboes and clarinets have one in the same place for the same purpose, their shape differences are crucial. 
  • Clarinet bells have a larger diameter and are flared at the end of a cylindrical bore, or body shape. This helps create the rounded intonation clarinets produce. 
  • On the other hand, oboes are shaped like a very narrow cone, and their bells do not flare out, shaping the instrument’s crisper-sounding notes.  
  • The clarinet is also typically about an inch and a half longer than the oboe (27.5 inches vs. 26 inches).

Intonation

  • The tiny structural adjustments between the clarinet and the oboe account for sounds that are very distinct from each other. This becomes the most obvious difference between the two instruments as soon as they’re played. 
  • Tone differences come from what’s called the bore, or the open space inside the instruments’ bodies. A clarinet’s overall cylindrical shape means that the sound waves produced inside carry odd harmonics. This means that a played note echoes with frequencies of notes in intervals of thirds, fifths, sevenths, etc. As mentioned above, the flared bell at the bottom of a clarinet helps produce lower register notes; it also sometimes adds even harmonics, depending on the note. All of this combines to give the clarinet a mellow tone over its wide range. 
  • The oboe’s bore is conical, with about a two-degree slant on each side. This, plus its flatter bell, produces all harmonics, both odd and even, which combine for its distinct sharp sounds. Players can manipulate these harmonic combinations through fingering and embouchure adjustments. The oboe has a similar note range to the clarinet, but the physics of its structural differences create a sound unique from the other instrument.

Fingering and Tone Holes

  • Both the oboe and the clarinet have a metal system of buttons and levers attached to their instrument bodies that players press in specific combinations to alternate their airflow, and therefore change the notes that come out. This is another detail that seems very similar on both instruments until you take a closer look. 
  • The clarinet starts with a straight line of open holes, called tone holes, going down its body from the barrel to the bell. These tone holes are rimmed with metal circles that are attached to each other, and the player’s fingers must cover the entirety of whatever tone hole combination makes up the note they are going for, or the sound will be off. For the most part, the clarinet player progresses through the notes in a linear fashion, getting one note lower down the scale with each successive tone hole that is covered. 
  • There are metal levers between some of the tone holes and at other places on the instrument for players to press to make a note sharp or flat, a bit like the black keys between the white ones on a piano. There are also a few levers and extra tone holes that clarinet players use to take their notes up or down an octave, although a lot of that shift requires embouchure manipulation in tandem. 
  • The oboe, however, boasts a much more intricate system. Its tone holes have covers that the player depresses onto them individually as they change notes, and although the basic idea of note progression is similar to the clarinet’s, the oboe is packing a lot more extra hardware for players to manipulate at once. 
  • This complicated fingering system comes from compensating for the oboe’s natural timbre. It’s prized for its uniqueness, but it also means that without any manual adjustments, the oboe is very limited in its range. As oboes grew from their double-reed pipe beginnings, composers in the baroque and classical periods wrote an increasing number of parts that required oboe players to figure out how to hit more and more notes. (J.S. Bach was especially prolific with his oboe solos.) 
  • This resulted in the modern standardized version of the key system, which still requires intricate and counterintuitive fingerings that can be difficult for beginners to get under their belts. Learning how to go from note to note on an oboe takes more time than the clarinet, and new oboists must be patient when it seems like their fellow orchestra members are progressing faster than they are.

Orchestral Tuning Role

  • Traditionally, the entire orchestra is tuned to an oboe’s A. This stems from the development of equal temperament tuning, which is the modern Western tuning system of dividing each octave of soundwaves into twelve evenly-spaced intervals (rather than relying on acoustically pure intervals, which are more finicky to calculate). 
  • Oboes became the standard tuning instrument for this because their reed construction plays a large part in staying in tune, and this is more stable than relying on, for instance, string tension or pure embouchure adjustment as other instruments require. 
  • The note A is used because all string instruments have an open A, which can be tuned to a perfect match with each other without worrying about minute finger placement variations.
  • The use of the oboe for orchestral tuning rather than the clarinet is simply because the oboe became a regular part of symphony orchestras before the clarinet did. Because of this, the first oboist in an orchestra is the section leader of the woodwinds, although few woodwind sections go without at least a standard B flat clarinet nowadays.

FAQs

Question: Are the oboe and clarinet closely related?

Answer: The oboe and the clarinet are both wind instruments that require players to blow across reeds to create sound, putting them both in the woodwinds section. They are both similarly (although not identically) shaped and come from reed pipe ancestors. However, clarinets branch off towards the single reeds, such as saxophones, and oboes go with their fellow double reeds, such as bassoons. 

Question: If you can play one, can you play the other?

Answer: Not automatically. These two instruments each have their own unique skills and techniques, so mastering one does not mean you can jump over to the other with no adjustment. However, learning the clarinet is sometimes advised as a beginning point for those who eventually want to learn how to play the oboe. It’s a simpler way of learning general reed-based woodwind playing — but it’s also not the exact equivalent of playing the oboe, so switching takes some re-learning of certain techniques.

Question: What types of music feature the clarinet, oboe, or both?

Answer: The clarinet and oboe have very similar note ranges, and they are both heavily featured in woodwind section music in orchestral environments. Because of its sharper, more unique sound, oboe music may feature more solo spotlights. This is especially true of Classical-era music, which saw a flourish in oboe composition, a lot of it from Bach. 
Clarinets show up a lot in jazz music because of their smoother sound. Many jazz clarinet players take off on an improvised solo, then blend seamlessly back into the group for the rest of the song.
Since they are tuned in the same range, clarinets and oboes can share sheet music, although they usually have different parts that showcase each instrument’s individual strengths. 

Final Buying Decision

If you are trying to decide which of these two instruments to learn, we recommend starting with the clarinet. Its single-reed makes for simpler embouchure control and overall reed care, so if you’re new to these instruments, it’s a faster start and a more shallow learning curve than the oboe. 

It can be very difficult to get a sound out of an oboe if you come into it with no experience playing a reed instrument, and that can discourage your practice before you can start playing actual music! 

(For this reason, many school bands begin players on the clarinet and migrate them to the oboe after they’ve mastered a certain level of basic reed skill. Clarinets are also used in marching bands, while oboes are not, so you may be using one in the non-orchestral part of the year if your ensemble switches over.) 

Our favorite basic clarinet model is the Jean Paul USA CL-300 Student Clarinet. It’s an accessible price ($199.99) without compromising on quality, and you can find it here on Amazon

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