While the saxophone and the flute are both members of the woodwind family, there are significant differences between the two.
Thus, deciding which one to play is somewhat like choosing between apples and oranges.
Saxophone and flute are traditional instruments in concert (or symphonic) bands. Both are members of the woodwind section — with alto and tenor sax and alto flute as the most commonly played. Flutes are unique from sax and other woodwinds in that they do not require a wooden reed to produce sound.
Both of these instruments offer musicians a rewarding challenge in mastering them, yet they each provide a unique experience.
Keep reading to learn the differences between the sax and the flute and what to expect as a player so you can decide which one is best for you.
Table of Contents
Sound and Construction Material Differences
The saxophone is considered a woodwind because its inventor, Adolphe Sax, originally created his namesake instrument from wood.
During one of his many attempts to create a new instrument, Sax essentially widened the body of an oboe and replaced its double reed with the single reed-mouthpiece combo that clarinets use.
Soon thereafter, primarily for financial and manufacturing reasons, Sax swapped the wooden aerophone body for a brass one.
Yet, as the sound production design is a woodwind’s defining characteristic, the label prevailed.
Ever since, brass has remained the alloy of choice for saxophone manufacturers. Many are also then plated with a gold finish.
Indeed, the evolution from wood to brass and numerous other amendments to the original invention improved the instrument’s sound.
These resulted in a fuller, richer tone, a louder sound, and ultimately, the unique, unmistakable timbre saxophones are known for.
The flute has undergone a similar evolution, with some of the first versions made from different woods. While you can still find wooden or even plastic flutes (or make your own!), most flutes are made of various alloys.
Beginner flutes are typically made from nickel and coated with silver. More professional-level instruments are made from silver, gold-plated copper, and even platinum.
Take note, however, that gold and (especially) platinum flutes have a much stronger resistance when played than nickel or silver flutes and therefore require a stronger player to produce a quality sound.
Many players who learn to master a nickel or silver flute struggle to replicate their quality of tone and resonance on the heavier gold and platinum flutes.
Differences in Embouchure
Embouchure is one of the most significant differences between the sax and the flute.
Notably, the flute and its embouchure are unique from all other woodwinds. It’s considered an aerophone, as there are no reeds for sound production, and players must concentrate their air differently.
Flutes produce sound when air resonates over and through the mouthpiece and through the body.
With the body held horizontally and sticking out to the side, flutists place the airhole in the headpiece under their bottom lip and blow across the top to produce sound.
The resulting vibration then creates a tone depending on which finger holes are open or closed.
A flutist’s embouchure is similar to whistling or blowing air over the top of a straw.
Your lips are slightly pursed, and you blow at an angle to push air inside and across the airhole.
Players slightly pull back the corners of their lips (resembling a frown or a grimace) to better control the airflow. This is a common technique when playing higher pitched notes, as these tones require a faster, more focused stream of air.
Conversely, lower-octave notes benefit from a slower airflow, which is achieved by dropping your jaw slightly and loosening the pucker in your lips.
The embouchure needed for a saxophone is similar to a clarinet, as both use a single flat, wide reed and mouthpiece to produce sound. The only difference is the angle at which the instrument is held.
While the clarinet reed rests on the player’s bottom lip, as though in front of the bottom teeth, a saxophone reed rests directly on top of the lower lip and protrudes almost perpendicular to the player’s face.
This allows for a more relaxed, natural jaw position when your mouth is wrapped around the mouthpiece.
Unlike the pursed lips of a flute player, the lips of a saxophonist’s embouchure are often pressed together to form a tight seal around the mouthpiece.
In turn, this allows for the concentrated airflow necessary to make the reed vibrate and produce sound.
What Are the Differences in Fingerings Between Sax and Flute?
The differences in fingerings between sax and flute are very minimal. The main differences are how you hold and support each instrument, which affects the orientation of your hands, and the saxophone has palm keys (that is, keys you press using your palm), whereas the flute does not.
The flute uses the Boehm system for fingering, and the fingerings for sax are closely related to that.
For both instruments, players use fingers from both hands in many note fingerings, as each finger is responsible for pressing certain keys to produce specific notes.
Also, most half-steps in the chromatic scale only require one or two fingers to change position.
What Kinds of Music Can You Play on Sax and Flute?
You can play many similar kinds of music on sax and flute. Both are commonplace in jazz groups, concert bands, and orchestras, and they have even found their way into mainstream rock and pop music.
Generally, outside of symphonic music, the sax is more commonly found in jazz and other house genres, not to mention its unabashed association with, shall we say, sensual music.
The flute, on the other hand, is more likely to be heard at a renaissance festival outside the opera house.
Still, both instruments have plenty of sheet music available in numerous genres.
Notably, there have been many famous flute players from the 20th century and beyond, including James Galway, Bobbi Humphrey, and Ian Anderson — the latter a member of the popular ‘70s rock band Jethro Tull.
And while Kenny G. and Lisa Simpson are probably some of the more prominent household names when it comes to sax players, the saxophone is particularly popular on the music charts.
Check out this YouTube video, 10 Most Epic Sax Solos of All Time (1958-2017). Hits include the party favorite, Tequila, by The Champs, and George Michael’s Careless Whisper.
Where Can You Practice Each Instrument?
You can practice sax and flute practically anywhere. Both can be played in your home or apartment without being too disruptive to others. You can also easily play either instrument without support while standing, eliminating the need for a chair and expanding your options for a practice space.
However, keep in mind that saxophones can get loud in volume, and flutes reach some rather high pitches.
For these reasons, more secluded practice spaces (with doors you can close) might be appreciated by your roommates.
Cost Differences Between Sax and Flute (New and Used)
The cost differences between sax and flute can be pretty significant, though that’s to be expected given the differences in materials and size.
There are also significant price ranges between beginner, mid-range, and professional quality instruments.
For instance, you can find a good quality beginner flute for under $100 brand new online. However, the least expensive beginner saxophones start at around $200.
The prices also vary based on the brand you buy.
Consider the common standards for most band students: the silver-coated stainless steel Gemeinhardt Flute (2SP) (available on Amazon.com) and the nickel and silver Yamaha YFL-222 Intermediate Flute.
Each cost several hundreds of dollars more than a nickel Glory Flute (available on Amazon.com), yet all are considered “band approved” and have good resonance for beginner and intermediate players.
The same is true for saxophones. A popular choice for beginners, the Yamaha YAS-280 Student Alto Saxophone can set you back at least $1,300, whether new or used, and the Yamaha YAS-62III Gold Lacquer Professional Alto Saxophone is almost three times the cost. (Both of these are available on Amazon.com.)
Whereas the beginner brands, such as Glory Professional Alto Eb SAX Saxophone and Mendini By Cecilio Eb Alto Saxophone (available on Amazon.com), cost just a few hundred dollars, and most beginners won’t be able to tell the difference in quality from a Yamaha.
These particular options also come with additional reeds, cleaning kits, and other accessories that could cost hundreds extra to purchase separately, making them an excellent buy for new players.
Many will argue that your Gemeinhardts and Yamahas will always produce a “better”, “fuller”, or “warmer” sound than other brands, but that’s not necessarily true.
While the materials and craftsmanship make a difference in any instrument’s overall quality and sound, it isn’t significant enough to matter until you’re more experienced in your technique.
Keep in mind that you can also shop music stores and online vendors for used instruments, as you’re likely to find a good quality instrument at a reasonable price. However, the costs can also range widely.
And beware of shopping bargain sites, such as eBay, as a low price for a used instrument could mean a worn-out instrument that’s likely in need of some kind of repair.
More often than not, it’s best to leave buying used instruments online for the vintage collectors.
Honestly, you can find good quality beginner instruments at very affordable prices, so you may just want to consider buying new ones.
You can always decide to shell out some serious dough for a nicer quality instrument later on once you’ve mastered some technique.
Tips on How To Choose Between Sax and Flute
Sax and flute each have their own appeal, and choosing only one or the other is probably easiest done by flipping a coin if you’re genuinely on the fence about it. Nonetheless, here are some aspects to consider:
- Flutes are lighter and smaller. If the weight and size of your instrument are a concern (due to travel, storage, or personal strength), then the flute may be the better choice.
- Still, most sax players wear a neck strap to help support the instrument’s weight while they play.
- There is also a thumb rest on the body of the sax to make it easier for players to hold for long durations.
- Sax is more versatile. If you want to play various genres or join a non-symphonic band, you may have more options with sax.
- Flutes are easily overpowered by other instruments and are better suited for sonatas and small wind ensembles, as far as groups go.
- You need to replace reeds on a sax. Reeds go through normal wear and tear and must be changed from time to time. If you’re not careful, the mouthpiece is also prone to damage and can be costly to repair. Keep in mind that if you choose to become a saxophonist, you’ll have this additional cost to endure.
Should both these instruments appeal to you, you’re in for a treat regardless of the one you choose!