Differences between the Flute and the Piccolo

One of our visitors asked us:

Is the piccolo the same thing as the flute, just smaller and higher pitched?

While those two differences are definitely the most glaring, we can think of a few more. The following is a (not necessarily complete) list of differences between the flute and the piccolo.

  1. Size. The piccolo looks just like a miniature flute; in fact, the word piccolo is Italian for “small”! To be precise, a modern concert flute is about 67 cm (26”) long, while a piccolo is only about 32 cm (13”) long.
  2. Pitch. Because the piccolo is about half the size of a flute, it sounds one octave higher. Music for the piccolo is notated one octave below the actual pitch, so the piccolo can be considered a transposing instrument.
  3. Material. Most flutes today are made of silver-plated brass, nickel silver, silver, or gold. When it comes to piccolos, there are two basic types: metal piccolos, that respond easily but have a more unrefined sound, and wooden piccolos, which have a sweeter sound and more dynamic flexibility. Metal piccolos are commonly employed in marching bands, while wooden piccolos are mostly used by advanced players, and tend to be more expensive. They also require more care, as wood is susceptible to cracking.
  4. Range. Piccolos don't normally have a foot like concert flutes, and for this reason the lowest note they can play is D4 (sounding as D5). Flutes, on the other hand, can play down to C4 (or even B3 on some models).
  5. Fingerings. The basic fingerings are exactly the same for both instruments, but alternate fingerings exist to adjust the intonation or responsiveness of some problematic notes on the piccolo.
    Another thing to consider is that, since everything is smaller on the piccolo, your hands and fingers are closer together, which can make some fingerings feel more awkward than on the flute, especially if you have large hands. (Nonetheless, many professional piccolo players are men with big fat fingers, so small hands are by no means a requirement.)
  6. Embouchure. Most flute players that double in piccolo have different embouchures for each. You have to be willing to learn a new embouchure if you're going to play the piccolo, but it's not as hard as you may think.
    In his book Artistic Flute Playing, piccoloist Roger Stevens writes: “The flute embouchure is of a size that is quite normal for the average human being: theoretically, the piccolo embouchure should be approximately half the size of the flute embouchure. Since one doesn't find ‘little people’ especially designed for piccolo playing, the player’s responsibility then is simply one of accustoming themselves to playing within the limits of the compromise.” Downsizing the aperture, then, would be the appropriate adjustment needed to match the smaller size of the embouchure hole for the piccolo.
    Another notable difference is that piccolo players normally place the piccolo higher on the lips than they would a flute.
  7. Intonation. Intonation is by far the most difficult aspect of playing the piccolo. For one thing, many notes have a natural tendency to be too sharp or too flat. Not only that, but even the slightest embouchure adjustment can make a big difference in high frequencies. For these reasons, learning to play in tune can take a long time. On the other hand, the piccolo can be a great way to train your ear.
    Another consideration is that while the piccolo takes much much less air than the flute, it requires much more support for higher notes.
  8. Function. Piccolos are not for shy players; in fact, when you are playing a piccolo, it is impossible to hide! Because of their high tone and unique sound, piccolos often play solo parts, while flutes usually play in groups and can blend with each other. Since piccolos are more difficult to play in tune than a flute, it is rare to see more than one playing at a time; and when that happens, it usually means a good headache for everyone involved.
  9. Repertoire. The flute and piccolo repertoires are not interchangeable. The flute is a very versatile instrument, well suited for most types of music; piccolos, on the other hand, are best suited for marching band and orchestral works. Pieces for solo piccolo or for piccolo and piano are relatively rare.
  10. Practice. An essential accessory to piccolo practice is a pair of earplugs, especially when you practice high, loud passages. There even exist special “high fidelity” earplugs that reduce exposure to the ear drums without altering the quality of sound.
    Because of how critical intonation is for piccolo players, practicing with a tuner is also much more important than it is for flute players.