Clarinet vs Oboe (What are the Differences?)

A clarinet explicitly represents a progressive vagueness, while an oboe implicitly represents a traditional charm in the woodwind family. This sentence may seem like a confusing metaphor but I think it can be helpful to have a general idea about the concept of these two instruments, before comparing them by their physical specifications and historical backgrounds.

If you’ve never seen a clarinet or an oboe before, they’ll probably seem very similar to you at first sight. They have the similar black, long and thin body tubes with silver keys on them. Also, the postures of a clarinet player and an oboe player while playing their instruments, seem similar. So, what are the differences between the clarinet and the oboe?

Do they also sound similar? Do they produce sound in the same way? Do they have the same mechanism? Are they made from the same materials? Is the oboe more difficult to play than the clarinet? These are usually the most common questions which essentially come to mind.

In this article, my intention is to give simple and clear answers to these questions, by explaining the differences between the clarinet and the oboe. Hopefully, in this way, you may have a deeper interest and a new vision, referring to both instruments. I would prefer to see firstly the physical differences between the clarinet and the oboe and to go on later with the conceptual and historical differences.

Single-Reed vs Double-Reed

The clarinet is a single-reed instrument, while the oboe is a double-reed instrument. This difference makes clear that the clarinet and the oboe produce sound in different ways and with different techniques.

A single-reed can’t make any sound on its own. You can’t blow into a single-reed. This means, a setup consisting of a mouthpiece and a ligature is needed for a single-reed to produce sound, while a double-reed is the mouthpiece itself and it doesn’t need any other accessory to produce sound, you can blow into it.

Producing Sound with the Clarinet vs Producing Sound with the Oboe

Producing sound with the clarinet may be slightly easier than producing sound with the oboe. Because when you blow into the mouthpiece of the clarinet, you have a larger room for the air to run into the instrument compared to the space you have with the small double-reed of the oboe.

Clarinet produces sound with the vibration of the single-reed caused by the air blown from the mouth of the performer into the mouthpiece, while oboe produces sound with the vibration of two reeds against each other caused by the air blown from the mouth of the performer into the double-reed placed between their lips.

Basically, woodwind instruments use the keys for producing various pitches but the characteristics of their sounds depend on their embouchures and tube forms.

Clarinet Embouchure vs Oboe Embouchure

The clarinet embouchure provides a larger room to the air that you blow into the instrument, compared to the oboe embouchure. Besides, as the clarinet embouchure is for a single-reed instrument, only the lower lip should cover the lower teeth to avoid ruining the reed while surrounding the mouthpiece. On the other hand, the oboe embouchure gives an extremely small room to the air that you blow into the instrument, and the both upper and lower lips should cover the teeth around the double-reed.

As you can imagine, the oboe embouchure is comparatively tiring for the lips.

The Cylindrical Tube vs The Conical Tube

Besides the reeds, another difference between the clarinet and the oboe that influences their sound, is their form. The clarinet has a unique cylindrical tube (it means that one end is closed and the other end is open like a stopped organ pipe), while the oboe has a conical tube just like all the other woodwind instruments.

The clarinet has the capacity to go lower sounds (an octave below), by having the same length with a conical instrument.

The Clarinet Sound vs The Oboe Sound

A clarinet sounds like harmonica and organ because of its cylindrical tube, while an oboe sounds like an ancient and still current, Anatolian double-reed wind instrument, zurna (actually, oboe is the developed version of a similar (maybe the same) ancient double-reed wind instrument that is called “shawm”).

In the meantime, I agree with Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf) that, if we pick an animal for each instrument in the orchestra, the clarinet sounds like a cat, while the oboe sounds like a duck.

The sound of clarinet has gentle, brilliant, dark, bright, caressing, rich characteristics, while the sound of oboe has especially acerbic, bright, powerful and robust characteristics. This is why the clarinet can be suitable for all genres of music, while the oboe can not. And from another point of view, the oboe’s acerbic timbre is divine and angelic, while the clarinet’s darker timbre is vocal and throaty.

Learning to play the Clarinet vs Learning to play the Oboe

Learning to play the clarinet is not easy, several processes of progress may be discouraging from time to time, while learning to play the oboe is really challenging and the process may be discouraging already from the beginning.

The beginning process of making a sound only with the single-reed and the mouthpiece setup, is relatively less painful and doable, while the process of making a sound only with the oboe’s double-reed is a difficult task. The beginning process is definitely more difficult for the oboe, compared to the clarinet. Also making a beautiful, full sound with the oboe is a big deal. Some people don’t like the oboe’s sound because they’ve never heard a beautiful oboe sound.

The fingering mechanism of the clarinet is more complicated (you have more than three or four optional fingering positions for some notes), while the fingering mechanism of the oboe is more limited.

The register of the clarinet is much wider than the oboe’s register. This means more work for the clarinet to find the ideal sound for each register.

If I make a comparison between the clarinet and the oboe for their tolerance to the lack of sound control; it is definitely more difficult to control the sound with the clarinet than with the oboe. In other words, if you lose control of the lips or the fingers even only for a little moment, the consequence of it will probably be an ugly squeak that you won’t be able to hide, while it is not the case for the oboe even in such moments.

The clarinet students and even professional artists work hard to avoid the squeaks. I can say that it is one of the worst scenarios possible for a clarinet artist on the stage. Still, there are solutions to avoid it.

In addition, as the clarinet has a wider contemporary, jazz and world music repertoire than the oboe has, a clarinet student’s learning process will probably be longer compared to an oboe student’s, even after arriving to an advanced level.

So, I think the learning difficulty rates of both instruments may change depending on the level of progress. In any case, the oboe will always be one of the hardest instruments to learn.

The history of the Clarinet vs The History of the Oboe

The first ancestors of the clarinet (kind of a single-reed instrument with a mouthpiece setup) from the Antiquity and the Middle Ages are from Egypt, from the 3rd Century BC, while the first ancestors of the oboe (double-reed ancestors of zurna in the meantime) are from Mesopotamia, from the 3000 BC. Later, these first ancestors of the clarinet and the oboe, both of them were found out and became popular for Greeks and Romans.

In medieval Europe, the developed version of the single-reed instrument was called chalumeau, and the developed version of the double-reed instrument was called shawm. Actually, these two names were used to indicate both single-reed and double-reed instruments in Renaissance, by bringing them together in the big Shawm Family.

During the 17th century, with the evolution of the treble shawm in France, “hautbois” was invented probably by the families Hotteterre and Philidor. Then, the hoboy/hautbois rapidly became one of the most popular instruments in the French court orchestra and in the 18th century, it was already popular all over Europe as a baroque instrument.

Besides, toward the end of the 17th century (1698) and the beginning of the 18th century, Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) from Nuremberg, invented the clarinet by developing the chalumeau.

During the 18th century, both instruments were developed with the additional new keys and the new tone holes. There were intonation problems that needed to be solved for both instruments.

The production of the clarinets in different tunings, was made with the intention to find a better intonation and sound. In the beginning, baroque clarinets were in C and D. B, Bb, A, Ab and G clarinets were developed and they took place on the market in the second half of the 18th century.

As we can see here, the oboe in this period was already taking its place in the Baroque repertoire with success, while the clarinet was still trying to develop. However, also the oboe needed some kind of sound and construction improvements. Besides the additional keys and holes, the shape of the reed was also changed.

The 19th century was revolutionary for the mechanisms of both instruments. Both clarinet and oboe were introduced in French and German models and systems.

Arda Tuncer is a music producer, composer, songwriter, arranger, and performer. She releases music as part of the music duo, Kronik Leila. She has worked and collaborated with some prestigious orchestras around Europe, while also holding University positions as music theory professor and music research assistant. Arda studied music theory and clarinet at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and completed her degree at the Conservatory of Strasbourg in France.

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