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What Are The 5 Main Types Of Recorders?

I had music lessons at school until the teacher considered I would be better off doing something else. That was just me, not anyone else in the class. I think it was because I had made him look stupid in the classroom one day. 

He played a classical piece of music to us. I was distracted, and he jumped on me. “If you would listen for once, then you would know what this is.” “I do,” I answered, “it is the Death of Ase from the Peer Gynt suite by Grieg.” And then followed that with, “He was a Norwegian composer.”

He was unaware that my sister, who was at the Royal Academy in London, played it at home. I knew it well. That was the end of my music lessons.

The Recorder

What are the 5 Main Main Types Of Recorders

But in that short time, I came across the recorder. At the time, I didn’t realize there were different types of recorders. I don’t even know which of the five main recorder types it was, but that didn’t matter. 

I thought it was just a kid’s instrument given to those who couldn’t play anything. The same as those given the triangle or a tambourine. How wrong I was. I listened to a girl in the class play one day. It was beautiful, a real instrument. I was excited to learn. 

Unfortunately, before I had a chance, our teaching hero banished me to the pottery class. Never mind, I went back to the school some years later for a reunion with a different hat on. He was still there and didn’t know what to say when he saw me.

Not A Toy

That is certainly what it isn’t, even though, in some circles, it is considered to be. Although you can get small versions for young children, it is an instrument that goes back centuries. 

Through the Renaissance and the Baroque Periods, it gained its fame. And even into the Classical and Romantic Periods. The likes of Bach, Handel, Purcell, and Vivaldi don’t write music that features “toys.”

It was a favored instrument 

In the courts of England and the rest of Europe from the late 1300s, it is still being played today. And that playing standard can be very high indeed.

As I said, there are five types of recorder. They are Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. All recorders but each of them has a unique sound. Let’s take a look at them individually.

The Sopranino Recorder

Sopranino Recorder

This is the smallest type of recorder and also has the highest pitch with a functional range of F5-F6. It certainly isn’t a recorder that you will come across very often and not an instrument to play a recorder solo. 

The sound is higher in range than other common recorders. So, it can be a little shrill, almost like a whistle.

For Recorder Ensembles And Consorts

A consort is a grouping of like instruments to form an ensemble. It was popular in the 16th and 17th Centuries and is sometimes still seen today. It’s in this environment or as an added extra to a quartet that you might find the Sopranino Recorder.

The usual composition of the recorder quartet is soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The Sopranino is sometimes added to the group. This is to play ornamental counter-melodies in the higher ranges to embellish the soprano recorder’s melody line.

Not The Easiest

The Sopranino recorder is very small and lightweight, measuring only 7.87 inches. So, it is easily portable. That gives us two downsides to playing this instrument. 

First, it can be difficult to get a nice rounded sound from the higher notes. Second, with it being so small, the finger holes are very close together. Therefore, it can be quite difficult to make the correct contact to produce the notes.

Nevertheless, it can be great fun to play. And as there aren’t too many around, that could be to the advantage of anyone playing the C recorder. A good example of the Sopranino recorder is this Aulos A507B Sopranino 3-Piece Recorder.

The Soprano Recorder

Soprano Recorder

Of those included in the recorder family, the Soprano recorder is the most popular kind of recorder. It is also sometimes called the “Descant” recorder. It is the third smallest of the recorders measuring 11.81 inches.

The Finger Spacing

What makes this a popular recorder, especially amongst young students, is the finger spacing. It is usually the recorder given to young music students from about eight years as the finger-spacing is quite small. Therefore, it is easier to play for smaller hands.

It utilizes the traditional English or Baroque finger patterns. However, some can also use the later German style of finger placement. There are different schools of thought as to which is the better finger placement to teach young children.

You will quite often find the Soprano recorder as part of a four-part ensemble including Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. The Sopranos will be playing the highest notes. 

The Range

The Soprano has a range of C5 – C7, which is a full octave above the voice of a human soprano. When composing for this recorder, the notes are written in music form an octave lower than they sound.

Yamaha makes excellent instruments across the whole spectrum of music, and their recorders are no exception. An example of an excellent Soprano recorder is this Yamaha YRS-23 Soprano Recorder.

The Alto Recorder

Alto Recorder

The alto recorder is sometimes also called a “treble” recorder. Historically it was also known as the Common or Consort flute. In size and range, it sits between the Soprano and the Tenor Recorder and usually measures about 17.71 inches long.

The shape is the same as the Soprano but as the dimensions are larger. The result is a lower pitch for similar finger patterns. Its lowest pitch is F4, and its range is F4 to F6. Whilst it is F as we know it, a few hundred years ago, it was pitched in G. This evolved into the F we have today.

The F Scale

The basic scale of F means that the Alto is a fifth lower than the Soprano Recorder. It is a fourth higher than the tenor. The Soprano and the Tenor both have basic scales of C. Therefore, with the Alto, the so-called ‘F finger patterns’ are used, similar to the Bassoon.

When written, the notation is usually recognized as sounding on pitch. Although it is often written an octave lower than the way it sounds.

Often A Solo Instrument

In recorder ensembles or consorts of four recorders, the Alto is often given the melody parts. They are also sometimes seen as the recorder for older students. Or younger students that have progressed. 

This doesn’t mean there is a strict hierarchy of recorders linked to ability. It is just that the Alto offers more in the way of harmonic elements than the Soprano recorder. A nice example of an Alto recorder is this Silverstar Professional Alto Recorder.

The Tenor Recorder

Tenor Recorder

Once again, the Tenor recorder has the same basic build as the Soprano and the Alto recorders. One of the differences, though, is the length. The Tenor recorder measures about twenty-five and a half inches in length. Being longer, it will give you a deeper sound than the Alto.

The Range

The Tenor is the next down in size from the Alto. As with the Soprano, the Tenor is based in C, but its pitch is a full octave lower. It is based on C4 and has a range that extends from C4 to C6. Being a full octave lower means, you can use the same finger patterns as you would for the Soprano.

I mentioned one of the differences being the length. Another major difference is that this recorder is given an extra key. This allows you to reach the lowest notes, which may be beyond the reach of some. These notes might be C and C sharp and sometimes D and D sharp.

Musical Notation Of The Tenor Recorder

Musical notation for the Tenor recorder, unlike most of the other recorder sizes, is written as it sounds in its pitch. In other words, it is not written either an octave higher or lower than it sounds.

As an instrument, it is not as common as the Soprano or even Alto recorder and isn’t usually seen in music schools. You will usually find them being played as a part of a Recorder ensemble.

An example, if you are interested in buying a Tenor recorder, is this Aulos Tenor Recorder.

The Bass Recorder

The Bass Recorder

Of the five standard recorders, the bass recorder is the largest and the instrument with the lowest tone. It is set at F3 and will sound one octave below the Alto recorder. 

This will give it a practical range of F3 to F5. There is one recorder lower in pitch, the great bass or Quart-bass, but that is rarely seen.

Extra Keys

The Bass recorder is 35 inches long, and because of its length, the lowest note, the F, will need an extra key. On some Bass recorders today, you will find keys provided for F sharp, G, and G sharp. You may also find them with keys for C and C sharp.

Because of its length, some Bass recorders are designed with a bent neck to make the playing experience more comfortable.

In The Recorder Consort

They are usually found in the Recorder Consort or Ensemble, providing the bottom-end to the music. While they are common in that environment, they are rarely seen in music schools and elementary programs for music. An excellent Bass Recorder is this Yamaha YRB302BII Bass Recorder.

Wood Or Plastic

The Recorder has been traditionally a wooden instrument, and even today, it is the favored material. The majority of professional or high-level players will be seen using all types of recorders made from wood.

Plastic recorders arrived in the 20th century and became popular mainly because they were durable and were, in most cases, much cheaper. Let’s take a quick look at the Pros and Cons of both materials.

Recorders Made from Wood


  • Has a better quality of sound.
  • A smoother, warmer tone.
  • Holds its tune very well.


  • More expensive.

Recorders Made From Plastic


  • Less expensive.
  • Not affected by dampness.
  • Tend to be longer-lasting.
  • They often sound louder.


  • The sound is a bit thin and not as good.

If you are interested in learning the recorder, then here is some material that is going to help.

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Types Of Recorders – Conclusion

Some still consider the recorder to be a ‘toy’ instrument, but that is not the case. When you hear it played well, it becomes a serious instrument with a big contribution to make. It might be the first instrument you ever came across. For some people, it will be the only instrument they ever play.

It has come a long way since its first beginnings as a one-piece instrument. Followed by the two-piece recorders during the Renaissance, and finally, in the Baroque Period, it became three separate pieces.

If you’ve forgotten how good it can be and how good it can sound, refresh your memory and pick one up again. Likewise, if you have never played one, then try. You won’t regret it.

Until next time, let the music play.

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