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Just for fun, I want to begin learning woodwind instruments. Unfortunately, I have to put some financial constraints on that project. Therefore, I am looking into learning how to play the recorder, because it is a relatively inexpensive mistake to make - in case I fail. However, if I am at least semi-successful, I might want to get other instruments like a flute, clarinet or saxophone.

For this reason, I was thinking it would be a good idea to know which instruments share the same (or almost the same) fingering, so I will have it easier to transition between them. If I am getting a soprano recorder, for example, how can I find other matching woodwind instruments?

(Of course, I do realize that to know how to actually play an instrument, there is more to it than just the fingering. However, it has to make things easier, right? If I'm totally mistaken here, please let me know.)

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  • IMO the fingering is the least of your problems when you are learning a new woodwind instrument. Controlling your breath to achieve a nice tone over the different octaves is much more of a challenge. Feb 25 at 13:05

5 Answers 5

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Those wind instruments that are frequently "doubled" are usually the ones that have identical fingerings. For instance, the 2nd or 3rd flute in a professional orchestra will often alternate playing the piccolo part, because the piccolo is essentially a regular flute shrunk to half size (there are minor differences because not all parts of the full Böhm system can be miniaturized accurately). Similarly, the clarinet in B and A, but also in C and E flat and even the bass clarinet play almost identically.

In fact, not having to learn new fingerings when doubling is the major reason why many instruments use transposing notation in the first place - so whenever you find an instrument that is traditionally written as transposing, that is probably one of them.

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  • I do not think the question was meant like "What families of instruments have the same fingerings?" but rather "if I learn this instrument, what other instrument can I learn without having to learn a totally different fingering system?", where "this instrument" is most likely recorder.
    – Lazy
    Feb 24 at 19:34
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Saxophones have the most similarities of fingerings. Alto and Tenor, and Bari, all have the same fingering concepts, and are widely used instruments. (Soprano seems to be an outlier in that family...)

Clarinets have similar fingerings, but the Bb clarinet is the only really common one of that family.

C flute and piccolo, as @Kilian Foth answered.

We could claim that, in principle, violin, viola, cello, and bass have the same fingering scheme... but, at the very least, the bass' open strings are a fourth apart, not a fifth.

I do not know about fingering system differences between "baritone" and "tuba/sousaphone".

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  • The bass clarinet is common enough that I won a pass to switch to it in elementary school and still played it in my other 2 school concert bands. There seems to be 1 or 2 bass clarinet players in every Albertan school band, in my experience, along with a bass clarinet part in every concert band piece.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 24 at 3:38
  • While I agree that Saxophone is a good choice for a recorder player I think you have misunderstood the question. The question is not about families with the same fingering, but about different instruments sharing a similar fingering, e.g. instruments that finger similar to a recorder. By the way soprano sax fingers just the same as any other sax out there.
    – Lazy
    Feb 24 at 19:32
  • Violin and viola have similar fingerings, but the cello.is different from them because of the bigger distance between the notes. Also the hand position is different. Feb 24 at 19:59
  • As a pianist who plays a lot of chamber music, I have noticed that some viola players coming from the violin have difficult with double stops because of the bigger distances. I played the Bb clarinet in grade school, bass clarinet in high school and contrabass in college, finding the progression very easy, mainly because the lower instruments rarely have very high notes written for them (all clarinets have basically identical fingerings).
    – DjinTonic
    Feb 28 at 13:10
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Usually with most wind instruments the "basic" diatonic fingering is the same, but they will differ in how you play chromatic notes and how they overblow. Reed instruments with cylindrical bore like clarinets will behave like a closed flute and overblow into a 12th instead of an octave, which makes them somewhat harder to learn.

Thus regarding reed instruments I’d suggest going single reed (double reed is harder) and conical, which means something like Saxophone.

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  • @Aaron Should have been Duodecime, but there my german got the better of me. We like to call intervals in latin based expressions, so Prima→Prim(1), Secunda→Sekund(2), Tertia→Terz(3), Quarta→Quart(4), Quinta→Quint(5), Sexta→Sext(6), Septa→Sept(7), Octava→Oktav[e](8), Nona→Non[e](9), Decima→Dezim(10), Undecima→Undezim(11), Duodecima→Duodezim(12), Tredecima→Tredezim(13), Quattuordecima→Quattuordezim(14), Quindecima→Quindezim(15), and so on. It is nice because a) it sounds cools and b) it saves all of the –th you get with the english way (in german this would mean tons of –te).
    – Lazy
    Feb 24 at 20:07
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TLDR: get a good quality soprano baroque recorder. If at all possible book a few lessons with a teacher. And play at least 15 minutes every day.

The recorder family basically comes in two different fingering systems, generally known as the baroque fingering and the german respectively. There are subtle differences on some notes which may make you believe the German system to be easier, which is not. Tuning is generally better for the baroque fingering.

The recorder family basically comes in two different tunings, as a C instrument or as a F instrument. The F instruments are, in my mind at least, played transposed. So get a C instrument, a good starting point will be a Soprano recorder (the one about a foot long). It is tuned in C and when you see a C (sic) tone you play a C. The lowest note, all fingers is a C.

As for fingerings the second octave and above is different from the first octave, as for most wind instruments. And the recorders second octave is in my experience different from every other wind instrument. Meaning essentially that you should not take that into account.

One wind instruments that come closest to the recorder in fingering in the first octave is the flute. In the second octave and up it is different.

Another wind instrument that is close in fingering in the first octave is any of the saxophone family (alto, tenor, baritone and to a degree the soprano and bass). They come with a twist though, that if you read and play a C the sound coming out will be either a Eb or Bb depending on instrument -- this is very easy to get used to. From an acoustic "theoretical" point of view the Saxophone family is the "best" instrument with least problems in tuning and sound production.

The clarinet family of instruments have quite different fingerings in the lowest octave.

The oboe family of instruments have similar fingerings in the first octave. They take a lot of work on the double reed and you need a teacher to get you started there if you want to make any real progress (I know, there are exceptions of course, but very rare).

And the bassoon is very different in fingering (I play mostly bassoon and contrabassoon).

The whistle family has different fingerings, but I find it generally easy to convert.

There are further wind instruments but they are less common in Western music. I like the Ocarina as example.

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I would categorize woodwind fingering systems into three main categories:

  1. The traditional system, used by the recorder and more primitive instruments, which can still be recognized on the modern oboe and some clarinets
  2. The Boehm system, originally developed for flute, which came to be used on most modern clarinets as well as the saxophone
  3. Bassoon

The traditional system basically plays a D major scale when removing one finger at a time from the bottom. Originally, the oboe followed this fingering system exactly, but over time added keys to reduce the number of awkward cross and half-hole fingerings needed to play the full chromatic scale. In particular, pinky keys to achieve D♯ and G♯ proved immediately useful and simple to make.

Theobald Boehm invented a mechanism for flutes for automatically closing pads, and used this to convert the fingering for F♯ into F♮ (while leaving F♯ still easy to play). In conjunction with an extension to low C, this meant that the instrument tends to play a C major scale instead, which seems more natural. Adolphe Sax utilized this fingering system on the saxophone, and so did many clarinet makers. Oboists stuck to tradition.

So for most woodwind instruments, D, D♯, E, G, G♯, A, and B are fingered the same. There's a schism about what to do with F and F♯, there are a few different ideas about what to do with B♭ (with most instruments having multiple options built into their keywork), and C and C♯ at the top of the scale are also different across instruments.

And then bassoon is its whole own thing. It has a similar kind of shape in many ways, but it's shifted by a fourth and has confounding things like flick keys, the whisper key, and despite having an abundance of keys still uses half-holing sometimes. There's a reason that many people double on all of the treble woodwinds but won't touch bassoon.

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