The woodwind family of instruments share many similarities between the individual members, and some distinct differences as well. Two notable instruments often confused for one another, the soprano saxophone and the clarinet, share a general look and size but have far more that separates them than makes them similar.
How are the Soprano Saxophone and Clarinet similar?
Aside from the obvious elements a casual observer may notice like a similar size and resemblance, there are actually quite a few commonalities between the two, mostly stemming from the fact that they share similarities from the general woodwind family of instruments.
Like many woodwinds, both the soprano saxophone and the clarinet create sound with a single vibrating reed attached to the mouthpiece, along with pressing keys to cover and uncover tone holes which changes the frequency and pitch.
Both clarinets and saxophones are found most commonly in concert bands and jazz ensembles, as well as in contemporary, popular music.
The tone holes on most woodwinds are covered by pads. The saxophone, for example, has tone holes that are covered by pads underneath the keys when pressed down. Some tone holes are open or closed by default and others must be opened or closed by pressing specific buttons.
Some clarinet tone holes (and oboe tone holes, too) are not necessarily covered by pads, but instead by the fingertips of the musicians. The clarinet will have a combination of holes covered by pads and some by fingertips.
The saxophone mouthpiece and clarinet mouthpiece are very similar. Both are made from similar materials that can include plastic, rubber, or glass, and both create the sound with vibrating reeds that transmit the sound waves through the body of the instrument.
While the purpose, construction and general function is the same, there are some differences, however. The clarinet has the cork on the mouthpiece itself and fit’s into a tube on the body of the clarinet, whereas the end of the saxophone neck is wrapped in cork that the mouthpiece fits over. For this reason, the two can not be used interchangeably.
How are the Soprano Saxophone and Clarinet different?
More separates the soprano saxophone and clarinet than connects them together. While there may be a familiar look at a glance, the size, shape, and construction of the instruments are very different. Beyond that, the sound produced will have significant differences as well.
Despite similarities at a glance, the soprano saxophone and clarinet are actually different shapes with different parts.
The saxophone is a conical tube, the entirety of which is made up of the mouthpiece (including the reed and ligature) and the body. The body of the saxophone, not including the mouthpiece, has four main parts that include the neck, body, the bow, and the bell. Unlike other saxophones, soprano saxophones do not have the U-shaped bow.
The clarinet is cylindrical, and includes five separate parts that require assembly. The five parts of a clarinet include the mouthpiece, barrel, top joint, bottom joint, and the bell. Each part must be assembled together by inserting the top of one end into the bottom of another.
The saxophone and clarinet are made from different materials. The body of the saxophone is one piece typically made from brass metal and usually covered in lacquer. The clarinet, on the other hand, is usually black and typically made of either grenadilla wood, plastic, or metal. The materials used to construct the instrument will generally affect the cost.
The tone holes on the clarinet are located on the upper and lower joints, very similar to the body of the saxophone. However, where the saxophone is one solid piece, the body of the clarinet is two separate pieces assembled together.
The bell on a saxophone is very similar to that of a clarinet. Both project the sound out of the instrument through the bell. However, the clarinet’s bell will detach and reattach, whereas the saxophone bell is simply part of the one-piece body.
Sound & Range
The soprano saxophone and clarinet sound very different. While both have a very rich tone often associated with woodwind instruments, they each produce a very distinct tonal quality that is unmistakable.
The soprano saxophone is a Bb instrument. This means that music for the soprano saxophone is written at an interval of a major 2nd above concert pitch. The soprano saxophone has a range of Ab3-E6, putting it more in line with the clarinet compared to other saxophones.
There are multiple types of clarinets, just like there are multiple types of saxophones. Music for the Eb clarinet is written at an interval a minor 3rd above concert pitch. The Bb clarinet and bass clarinet is written a major 2nd above concert pitch.
Technique & Difficulty
Like any instrument, it takes years of practice to master. The difficulty level will be comparable but the two instruments are played very differently. The embouchure of the clarinet is very condensed, firm and tight, whereas the saxophone will require a much looser, long and open embouchure.
The voicing for the soprano saxophone vs clarinet are very different since the mouthpieces are angled differently. When playing the clarinet, the position of the throat will change depending on the register whereas playing saxophone will require always having the throat in a more open position.
A great teacher can help master embouchure techniques, throat positioning, and learn the nuances to excel regardless of which instrument you choose. With a saxophone and clarinet teacher from Forbes Music, playability is never a question.
The cost of a clarinet vs soprano saxophone will vary significantly. Beginner soprano saxophones have a wide range in cost that will generally range from $750 up to $2,500. A step up from the beginner models will cost likely under $3,000, where professional level saxophones will cost over $3,000.
Clarinets, however, tend to be less expensive. Beginner clarinets can range from $500 up to about $1,000. The next level up, an intermediate level clarinet will fall in the range from $1,000 up to approximately $2,000. And professional level clarinets will most likely cost over $2,000.
How do I know which is right for me?
Factoring the sound, timbre, and style of music of interest, the answer lies with each individual student and consumer to decide which is the preference. We all will have different interests and preferences, and to that end, there is no right or wrong answer.
Both the clarinet and soprano saxophone are incredibly versatile with beautiful sounds. Consider the style of music you’re interested in, the role in the ensemble you wish to play, and what, if any, technical preferences you may have when starting to learn. If you need help deciding, companies like Forbes Music work with incredibly special music teachers experienced in saxophone and clarinet who can help students understand the differences and nuances of each, and the best way forward to get the experience you want.