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Clarinet vs Saxophone: Which Instrument Is Easier To Learn?

As someone deciding which woodwind instrument to learn, it's often hard to pick between clarinet or saxophone. In this blog, I'll be comparing a few things you ought to know before deciding which to choose. So, in this head-to-head, it's clarinet vs saxophone, which is easier to learn?

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The saxophone, usually made from brass, can come in various sizes. Pictured above is the lightest of the family, the soprano saxophone, which weighs around 1.3kg. Compare this with plastic clarinets, which weigh around 650g.

The soprano saxophone, despite being the lightest, isn't the most ideal saxophone for beginners to start with, however, because it's notoriously difficult to tune. Most beginners tend to start with the alto saxophone, which is bigger and weighs 2.5kg on average. That is unless you go for an Alphasax, which shaves off some of that weight by removing some of the more advanced keywork that beginners won't need until they've progressed further with their playing, making it weigh 1.86kg. This is still heavy but I have a seven-year-old learning on one of these and with 30-minute lessons, they're doing well.

Whether you're on clarinet or saxophone, it's always sensible to invest in support for the instrument in the form of a harness/strap. Saxophones come with a neck strap but getting a harness is always better as back support evenly distributes the weight more than your neck. A clarinet sadly doesn't come with a strap so if you find you or your child are struggling with the weight, there are strap options out there that connect to the thumb rest.

While weight is important, with that comes size. Looking at the above picture, you'll see that even the soprano, the smallest saxophone, is wider than the clarinet, with keys that stick out further. For smaller hands, this might not be ideal.


When it comes to weight and size, the winner is the clarinet when comparing 650g to the more tone-reliable alto Alphasax's 1.86kgs and factoring in the clarinet's smaller shape.


Both clarinet and saxophone have the index, middle, ring fingers, and thumbs in about the same positions. While there are differences with the rest of the keywork, your little fingers and wrists will be moving around in similar ways too. If you have weak little fingers, or stiff fingers in general, faster songs will be a struggle, regardless of which instrument you choose. Having said that, both instruments have their weak points which I'll talk more about.

Looking again at the above picture, you'll notice that the clarinet has what looks like metal rings on the top. These are holes that you have to cover with your fingers to produce the notes. If you haven't covered the hole properly, the sound won't come out and you'll get squeaks and other odd sounds. The saxophone doesn't have these holes. Instead, you can see pearl keys that cover pads, doing all the hard work for you once you've pressed the key. There are clarinets available that have keys covering the holes, called Plateau Clarinets but these can be pricey. If you're struggling though, it might be worth it.

I spoke earlier about finger dexterity. The little fingers have a bit of work to do and depending on how your fingers feel and their length, this part may sway you. The clarinet is the smaller instrument so the keys will feel closer together. I have a couple of adult tutees who find this quite challenging when pressing the exact key they need but, if you don't suffer from any stiffness, this improves with practice. The saxophone is the bigger instrument and the keys have a bigger surface area but, because of this, you're required to stretch your little fingers further. The saxophone being wider also isn't ideal for children with smaller hands as some of the keywork sticks out causing you to accidentally press something you shouldn't. Having said that, the great thing about the Alphasax is that it removes these keys since they're not needed for beginners, making it a great option for those with smaller hands.

Lastly, a technical point that you'll only notice when you're further into your progression. Playing scales on saxophone is much easier than it is on clarinet. The reason they're easier is that when you press your thumb down on the octave key, the fingering and notes are still the same on the saxophone, they just sound higher. On clarinet, this isn't the case. While the fingering is still the same, the notes change completely when putting the thumb down on the octave key. Needless to say, scales require more thought on clarinet.


It was close. Both saxophone and clarinet have their positives and negatives when it comes to fingering. Yes, the clarinet is smaller and ideal for smaller hands but the Alphasax can help younger players take up the saxophone. Those with dexterity problems will find issues on both instruments but, having had an arthritic tutee transition from clarinet to saxophone because they struggled with the holes, I saw and heard the improvement they felt when playing the sax. It helps too that scales are easier on the saxophone.


Both saxophone and clarinet have a fairly similar embouchure (mouth position). You place about a cm to an inch of the mouthpiece in your mouth. Place the top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece and make an 'oo' shape so the lips are wrapped around the mouthpiece. The difference is that on saxophone, you tuck a little of your bottom lip over your bottom teeth to cushion the reed from your teeth and then use your lip muscles to create a little pressure in the embouchure.

On clarinet, this is exaggerated further by pulling more lip over your teeth, like you're applying lip balm. In comparison, it generally feels like the clarinet has a tighter embouchure. Having said that, because it's a smaller mouthpiece, I've never noticed anyone struggling more so to get a note out on clarinet over the saxophone or vice versa.


Beginners on either clarinet or saxophone will struggle to get a note out at first because the lip muscles haven't been used in this way before. With the right instruction, you'll be producing a note in a matter of minutes so be patient. It's normal to feel an ache in your cheeks afterwards as well, just don't overdo the playing. Practice for no more than 15 minutes at a time to begin with.


Because the clarinet is a shorter and thinner instrument, even the bottom notes tend to come out with relative ease. There are only two troublesome notes and they're not even introduced straight away to beginners. You'll have a good understanding of how the instrument works by the time you get to them.

The saxophone, however, is a larger instrument. The alto, for example, is both longer and wider. Because of this, the air has further to travel. While the bottom notes aren't introduced in the early stages, I have found that saxophone beginners have to be more mindful of their breathing, air support, and diaphragm use.


Playing these instruments will improve your stamina and breathing technique but if you're someone who tires quickly or you're thinking about a younger person, clarinet would be the better option because of its smaller size requiring less stamina.



Having gone through all of the above points and reaching the verdict of the clarinet. It really does depend on your circumstances. For a young child, I would definitely recommend the clarinet for its lighter weight, ease of playing, and closer keys for the smaller fingers. Covering the holes will be a challenge for anyone as will getting used to the note differences over the octaves but you'd get used to it with practice.

For an older child or adult, it depends on your dexterity and lungs. Notes in both octaves are the same on sax, making scales easier, and the keys are spaced out better for those with bigger hands. In that scenario, it might even be worth thinking about the tenor saxophone, which is bigger than the alto, so everything is spaced out a little further but it will require more stamina as well.

Regardless of what you choose, learning an instrument isn't meant to be easy, it's meant to be rewarding. You can't have that without a challenge but hopefully, this blog has helped you gain some insight into which instrument might be best for you.


If you're looking for clarinet lessons or a saxophone teacher near you, I offer face-to-face music lessons in Wells, UK and online music lessons to anyone worldwide. Feel free to get in touch!


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