Many people, when deciding whether to learn clarinet or saxophone, struggle to choose between them. There are several factors to consider when choosing an instrument to study: Is one harder than the other? Which kinds of music utilize this instrument regularly? Is it relatively simple to learn to play this instrument? How much does it cost to invest in the instrument and related accessories? Is it comfortable to hold and to play?
The best way to decide which instrument is the right choice is to go to a shop and try some out—especially if one wants to experiment with how an instrument sounds and feels. Lisa’s Clarinet Shop has a showroom for exactly this purpose, as do many music stores. Here are some other points to consider:
- Clarinets have a smaller mouthpiece and reed than saxophones do, and therefore require a smaller embouchure with more “focus” or pressure from the facial and jaw muscles to create the embouchure. Saxophones have larger mouthpieces and reeds, so less of this pressure is required, and more embouchure flexibility is necessary to play the instrument well. On clarinet, the embouchure should stay basically unchanged, whether the notes are high or low in register, which is one of the aspects that makes playing clarinet unique. This can be more difficult for beginners, but is easily mastered over time. Likewise, saxophonists learn a basic embouchure, and then gradually learn the flexibility needed to master their instruments. More information about the two types of embouchures can be found here.
- Clarinets are the only instruments that overblow the interval of a 12th (an octave and a half). The other woodwind instruments overblow at the octave. Adding the register or octave key to a fingering on most woodwind instruments, including saxophone, will produce the same pitch an octave higher. On clarinet, when the register key is added to a fingering, it produces a note an octave and a half higher. Clarinet fingerings are therefore a bit more complex than fingerings on a saxophone. They are not usually a major challenge in learning the instrument—just one of its quirky characteristics.
- Saxophones are bigger than clarinets and made of metal, so when equipping a student, especially a beginner, they are slightly more expensive. (Most beginner clarinet students start on plastic instruments that only cost a few hundred dollars.) Reeds, mouthpieces, ligatures, swabs, etc., are comparable in price. Petite students may find the size and weight of saxophones to be overwhelming, even with a neck strap, so sticking with alto saxophone or starting on clarinet and then switching in a couple of years is a good option for them.
- Clarinets and saxophones are used in many types of music. Generally, clarinets are considered “classical” instruments, and saxes are “jazz” instruments, but both instruments are used in both genres, and can be found in all kinds of popular and folk traditions as well. If a student wants to play mostly jazz, they should consider saxophone first; if they are more interested in orchestral music and classical traditions, they should consider clarinet first. If a student has the interest and the time, there’s no reason not to explore playing both instruments, as being a “doubler” is a great way to explore many different types of music from different musical-instrumental viewpoints.