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Difference Between a Clarinet and an Oboe

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Clarinets and oboes are two of the most popular woodwind instruments, adding a much-appreciated suite of sound colors to any orchestra, while their music, on their own, is similarly enjoyable. Due to their similarly-tubular bodies, silver keys, timber, and method of playing, these two instruments are easily confused for each other.

How is a clarinet different from an oboe?

The main difference between a clarinet and an oboe is discernible through a closer inspection of their bodies: the clarinet’s tube is cylindrical, with a single reed and a flared bell. It is also slightly longer. An oboe’s bore is conical, double-reeded, with a rounded bell. 

Perhaps the most notable difference can be found by listening to the instruments being played; oboes have a bright and warm sound, while the clarinet makes darker and deeper notes.

What is a Clarinet?

A Thomann Selmer Signature Bb-Clarinet 18/6

Among other woodwinds, the clarinet, alongside the saxophone, is distinct for possessing only a single reed.

The most commonly used type is the Bb soprano clarinet, although clarinets used to comprise the largest family of instruments in earlier musical eras. 

The clarinet’s distinctively eclectic variety of rich timbres is a product of its cylindrical bore, with clarinetists able to move between the chalumeau, clarino, and altissimo (respectively, low, middle and high) registers. 

Additionally, the clarinet possesses the most extensive range of pitches out of all other woodwinds, although the quantity and organization of keys can make it difficult to play certain passages at times.

What is an Oboe?

A Yamaha YOB-241 Oboe

The oboe, a staple of classical and folk music, is a double reed woodwind. 

Most oboes are produced to play treble or soprano notes, with the soprano oboe being the most popular type. 

Oboes are reputed for being one of the most difficult woodwind instruments to learn and master, due to their double reeds, complex techniques, and relative obscurity compared to other woodwinds.

Despite this, the oboe remains beloved for its bright and penetrating sound quality, which makes it stand out more easily among other instruments. Its timber is deep and rich.  

Due to its distinctive sound, the ‘A’ note played by the first oboe is used to tune orchestras.

Differences between Clarinets and Oboes

Reeds

Clarinets use a single reed, in conjunction with a mouthpiece, to produce sound, as single reeds are incapable of creating the instrument’s sound by themselves. When blown, the reed produces a note from the vibrations of air passed through the mouthpiece.

Oboes have double reeds which vibrate against each other through the blowing of air to create sound. Inspecting an oboe will reveal the lack of a mouthpiece, as the oboist blows directly into the reeds. 

It is customary for expert oboists to fashion their own reeds to accommodate their own style and technique.

Embouchure

Lipping, or “embouchure,” refers to the placement and use of the parts of the mouth to play a wind instrument properly.

It is more challenging to achieve a good embouchure with the oboe, as the oboist has to pull their lips over their teeth to avoid damaging the delicate reeds. 

More minute adjustments of the mouth and jaw muscles are necessary to alter the instrument’s sounds. Oboists must also expend more concentrated pressure on the tip of the reed.

The single-reed clarinet, aptly, uses the single-lip embouchure, which is achieved by simply resting the bottom lip against the teeth and placing the reed on the lip. The top teeth are settled over the mouthpiece. This placement is far less taxing on the clarinetist, and overall less difficult to play. 

Tone Quality

Clarinets give off a dark, full-bodied and rounded sound that can be mellow or focused. Its tone is especially rich in the lower ranges. 

Oboes, on the other hand, have a brighter timbre. While a clear tone in a clarinet might not be ideal, it becomes attractive when played by an oboe. 

Bore

Clarinets have a cylindrical bore which enables them to attack a broader range of sounds, including notes that are a full octave below what an oboe can manage. 

This cylinder tubing is different from the oboe and other woodwinds, which use a conical tube.

Bell

Both instruments have bells, the openings which amplify and provide balance to sounds as they leave the clarinet’s or the oboe’s body.

Oboe bells are smaller, thicker and flared at the end, similar to a trumpet, but more rounded. Meanwhile, the clarinet has a prominently flared bell.

Construction

Clarinets, including professional-grade varieties, are typically constructed from African hardwoods due to their higher-quality acoustics and higher degree of intonation. More affordable types are made from plastic resins or hard rubber.

Clarinet mouthpieces use hard rubber, while parts such as the ligatures use plated metals. The reed is produced from Arundo donax grass canes or synthetic materials.

Oboe bodies are almost always built from wood, and the rest of their parts use similar materials. Their double reeds use Arundo donax canes as well.

Professional oboists commonly make their own reeds to gain greater control over qualities such as timber, intonation, and ease of playing. Inexperienced players, in contrast, can buy synthetic reeds at stores.

Types

Modern clarinets are either of the Bb or Eb transposing varieties, in which the C note will produce a Bb or Eb sound. Types such as the A, contrabass, alto and contra-alto clarinets also exist.

Clarinets today use either the Böhm (French) system or Oehler (German) system for arranging keys.

Four main types of oboes exist: the modern grenadilla oboe, which has a very narrow conical bore; the complex Conservatoire oboe; the famous Wiener or Viennese oboe; and the original Classical version.

Etymology

“Oboe” is derived from its original 18th century French word, “hautbois,” wherein haut means “high” and bois means “wood.”

The clarinet, on the other hand, comes from clarinette, a diminutive form of the French clarine, a type of bell. The word is related to clarion, a kind of trumpet used for war.

Comparison Chart: Clarinet vs Oboe

AreasClarinetOboe
ReedsSingle reedDouble reed
EmbouchureEasierMore exhausting
Tone QualityDark and deepBright and clear
BoreCylindricalConical
BellFlaredFlared and rounded
ConstructionAfrican hardwood or plastic resin with commercially-available reedsGrenadilla wood; store-bought or customized reeds
TypesBb or Eb (common), A, contrabass, alto, contra-altoModern, Conservatoire, Wiener, Classical
EtymologyClarinette, from clarion (war trumpet)Hautbois, from haut and bois (high wood)

How are Clarinets and Oboes similar? 

Clarinets and oboes are both members of the woodwind family of instruments, and thus share many characteristics associated with this category. 

Both instruments produce sounds with the reed’s aid; this sound is derived from vibrations of the air blown into the reed. A clarinetist and an oboist will dexterously press metal keys on their respective instruments to play different notes.

Both also possess tubular bodies and bells at the end, are typically built from wood, and require precise movements of the mouth and jaw to play properly.

FAQ

Is the oboe harder to learn than the clarinet?

Oboes are more challenging to pick up compared to clarinets. 

Playing an oboe properly requires a more precise embouchure, and it takes longer to acclimate to the delicate double reed. Novices often feel exhausted due to the strain of the embouchure on their lips and muscles.

Apart from that, the oboe tends to be a costlier instrument. In contrast, the clarinet is much more forgiving to beginners, and its popularity means that affordable types are more available for new players.

Although the learning curve is steeper at the start for oboists, they can stand on equal ground with clarinetists once their muscles are attuned to the instrument.

What is the bell on the clarinet for?

Clarinets, oboes, and other woodwind instruments have bells at the other end of the tubes that are designed to help sound radiate from their bodies.

It imparts a beautiful finish on long-tube notes that are achieved when most or all of the tone holes are pressed, as well as notes from the clarinet’s middle section. The bell helps make theses sounds more resonant.

Conclusion 

Clarinets and oboes are popular instruments of choice for anyone who wishes to play in the woodwind section of an orchestra, or star in a solo performance.

The key differences between clarinets and oboes are recognized in their structure and sound quality. 

Clarinets have single reeds, cylindrical bores and prominently-flared bells that produce dark and full-bodied tones; while oboes are double-reeded, with conical bodies, and rounded bells that lend themselves to brighter and clearer sounds.

Oboes are reputed to be more technically demanding but are indispensable to orchestras as their distinct A note is used for tuning other instruments. On the other hand, clarinets are much more accommodating for beginners.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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