Although flutes and oboes are both woodwind instruments, they are vastly different. The construction material, color, shape, tone, and keywork are all different. There are also notable differences in playing position, sound quality, the use or absence of a reed, and range.
The materials used to make the oboe and flute are one of the most noticeable differences between the two instruments. The oboe is usually made of grenadilla wood, also known as African Blackwood, with the exception of the metal keywork. Oboes made of other woods, such as rosewood, are used less frequently. The body and keys of most Western concert flutes are made of metals, most commonly silver-plated brass, rather than wood. Depending on the tone quality and aesthetics desired, some professional-level players perform on nearly entirely silver flutes, while others use gold in the mouthpiece lip rest joint or keywork.
Because of the different materials used in their construction, the oboe and flute have different colors. Oboes have silver-colored keys and are black in color. Flutes are usually silver in color, but depending on the metal used, they can be yellowish-gold in color.
The shape of an oboe or flute, regardless of the materials used in their construction, is another distinguishing feature. A flute has the appearance of a straight tube. The bore of the instrument, or the internal chamber through which air moves, is cylindrical. From the outside, the oboe appears to be shaped like a tube, but the bore is conical on the inside, tapering toward a flared bell. The flute does not have this flare.
When comparing the oboe and flute keywork, the oboe has more keys and holes. The flute usually has at least 16 holes, while the oboe usually has at least 22. The number of holes on an oboe or a flute is determined the model and grade of the instrument.
Moving on to the oboe and flute’s actual playing, a Western classical flute is a transverse, or side-blown, instrument, which means it is held and played horizontally. This necessitates holding the instrument to the right side. The oboe is a wind instrument that is blown from the end. The player blows downward into the top end while holding the instrument at a 45-degree angle in front of his body.
Oboes, on the other hand, are “double-reed” instruments. The oboist folds a piece of bamboo cane over a tube and ties it in place to make a reed. He then clips the cane’s tip to split it into two separate pieces. After shaping the two independent pieces of cane that make up the entire reed, the oboist places it in his mouth and vibrates it with a stream of air.
Reeds aren’t used in flutes. Flautists blow air directly into the flute instead of using a reed to make it vibrate. The air inside the flute vibrates as a result of the player’s airstream, and some of this vibration is emitted as pitch through the flute’s end and tone holes.
Because of the impact the bore has on the behavior of the air column, the bore of any instrument has a significant impact on the overall tonal quality of the instrument. The tone is also affected whether or not a reed is used. Oboes can be very loud, piercing, and duck-like in sound, but they can also be very warm and sweet. Flutes have a piercing or mellow sound depending on their register, and they lack the sandy quality that a reed produces.
The oboe and flute have similar ranges, but the flute has a slightly larger range than the oboe. The oboe ranges from Bb3 to G6, though C4 to Eb6 is a more comfortable tessitura. The flute’s range is roughly three octaves, from B3 to C7. However, not all oboes can reach Bb3, and not all flutes have a long enough foot joint to produce a B3. Notes above these general ranges are possible, but they are rarely played because they are difficult to play in terms of facility and tone preservation, and they require the performer’s complete competence.