Home » Music » Fife vs. Piccolo – STOP Calling Them Flutes! (All Differences Explained)

Fife vs. Piccolo – STOP Calling Them Flutes! (All Differences Explained)

Performer Life is supported by its readers. If you buy something with our links, we may earn a commission.

PartsOne pieceTwo pieces
Shape of holesRoundKeys
Bore diameterSmaller boreBigger bore
SoundShrillerLess shrill

If you are a fan of flutes, you may have seen, used, or heard of the instruments fife and Piccolo.

These are from the flute family, but some trivial differences set them apart from the typical flute. They are both musical instruments that can be used to play music.

The Piccolo is basically an instrument used quite similarly to a flute, but it is smaller and plays an octave higher. On the other hand, the fife is another musical instrument in the shape of a small, shrill pipe.

It resembles the piccolo flute and is used mainly in combination with the drum, mostly in military settings.

Although not too popular, knowing what an instrument is and how it plays are good to add to your knowledge.

This brings in the question, how do you play a fife? Or, you may wonder, how much does a fife cost? These are all easy questions that you will shortly get answers to.

Apart from knowing the basic information about the fife and Piccolo, you can also find out what is a fife made of, how does a piccolo play, or if a fife is like a piccolo? Let’s put all these

An Overview- Piccolo and Fife and Flute

The Piccolo is quite a popular addition to the flute family. It is a tiny but powerful instrument with the mechanics of a piccolo. Let’s find out more about them.

Fife vs. Piccolo

If you look closely, the fife is a narrow-bore instrument with a woodwind body. It was commonly used in the fife and drum corps in earlier times. Like the flute and Piccolo, the fife is also a transverse instrument.

The fife has a loud, piercing sound but not as loud as the Piccolo. Since the fife has a smaller bore than a piccolo, its tonal sounds are quite different than a piccolo’s.

Apart from the timbre difference, the fife and Piccolo are also different in the number of fingers that can be used.

Both the instruments are based on a woodwind, 6-hole concept; however, the fife does not comprise regular keys for pressing down.

The fife only has holes that you typically find on a recorder. Moreover, its length is much more different than a piccolo’s.

On the other hand, a piccolo produces a shrill sound. Therefore, it will give you quite a tough time when being tuned. But why is it so challenging since, overall, it is a small instrument?

You may not have noticed earlier, but the Piccolo is smaller than several other instruments. Thus, the most trivial embouchure changes can modify the pitch to a great level.

Furthermore, the intonation tendencies within the Piccolo are also quite different than those of a flute. So, the notes that are sharp when played on a flute may be completely flat on a typical piccolo, and vice versa.

Piccolo Vs. Flute

Now that we briefly know the prime differences between a fife and a piccolo, let’s talk about why the flute and Piccolo are considered different instruments.

The Piccolo is almost half the size of a flute, so the good news is if you know how to play the flute, you will not have to start from the basics when playing the Piccolo.

The Piccolo plays an octave greater than from where it reads. Therefore, the main difference apart from the size between a piccolo and flute is that the latter is not simply transposing instrument, but the former is.

Another difference that you can notice is that the Piccolo has an intonation quite different than the flute. Therefore, their frequencies and tones are pretty dissimilar.

Fife vs. Piccolo- The Main DifferencesFife vs. Piccolo- The Main Differences

Now that we have discussed the basic differences between a fife and a piccolo, let’s dive deeper into them and see what features set the two musical instruments apart.

Structure- Fife vs. Piccolo

Perhaps the structure is the easiest difference between the fife and Piccolo. The Piccolo features keys, while a fife showcases holes. This also applies to the less expensive fifes, like the Yamaha fife and other similar models.

You can also get your hands on simple system piccolos if you prefer keys over the typical fife holes. A good option is the Pearl 105 piccolo with keys.

Moreover, though both look almost the same on the outside, they are both different in size but smaller than the regular C-flute.

Materials- Fife vs. Piccolo

Both the fife and piccolos can be made from a wide variety of materials, depending on the manufacturer, the usage, quality, and price.

The entry-level piccolos are mostly made of metal, plastic, or a combination of the two materials. On the other hand, the professional-level piccolos are mostly wooden.

Similarly, fifes can also be made of metal, wood, or plastic. Since the composition material affects the sound and tonal properties, you must consider it when buying one.

The good news is that sometimes even the wooden and plastic piccolos have metal keys and their mechanisms. Although it is a very small difference, it can be of considerable value.

Use Case: Fife vs. Piccolo

Another factor to consider when comparing the fifes and piccolos is the use case.

The piccolos are more commonly used in orchestras, marching bands, and wind ensembles. They can also be used in chamber groups or in a solo performances.

In contrast, the fife is more common in military bands and drum corps. What is mainly important is what ensemble you want to play the instrument in. That decides what instrument, a piccolo or fife, will be better suited.

Music: Fife vs. Piccolo

Both the Piccolo and fife can be used to play a variety of music genres, especially the Piccolo is widely used for creating several beats.

The number of genres both instruments can play is growing each year. However, using a piccolo is a better option for a solo performance.

A fife can also be used, but a piccolo is a more reliable option. However, for scoring chamber gigs and solo acts, perform using a piccolo as it opens more doors for you as an artist in most cases.

Cost: Fife vs. Piccolo

A vital factor that should be considered initially is the cost. Find the instrument that better suits your budget. In this case, the fifes are much cheaper than piccolos though they have holes instead of keys.

You can bring home a fife for a price as low as $50. This price will get you a decent fife that produces a pleasant sound. However, we cannot guarantee the same for a piccolo at this price.

Though you will find some cheaply priced piccolos online, their quality is questionable.

The good ones will all cost you over a hundred or even a thousand dollars in some cases. But if you are on a limited budget, do not shy away from getting a good-quality fife.

Can You Play Both the Piccolo and Fife?

The more instruments you can play, the better it is. This will open more opportunities for you and help you entertain a wider crowd. We suggest learning one instrument first, then moving on to the next one.

There is no particular learning order; you can start with whatever instrument you feel more comfortable with and practice it till you get it right.

Instead of becoming the jack of all masters, it is better to master one instrument and then practice the other one.

Steps to Playing the Fife Right

The fife is a wind instrument quite like the flute but does not have keys. It has a shrill sound and so can be quite tough to tune.

Originally from Europe, the fife is now used in military assemblies, drum crops, and occasionally for individual enjoyment. Let’s learn how to play it right:

Hold and Blow into the Fife. Hold the instrument in whatever hand you are comfortable in. Position the fife in such a way that it lies horizontally and extends outwards from your face.

The six holes should have easy access and no blockage. The first hole should be close to your mouth for blowing.

1. Correct Hand Placement

Place your hands correctly so that no hole is blocked. The three holes at the start should be nearest to your mouth, and the first three fingers should be able to reach them easily. The hand’s palm should be facing towards you.

Now cover the three holes with your fingers and practice covering and uncovering them in coordination with your mouth movements. Both hands’ index, middle, and ring fingers should be the only ones covering the holes.

The fife should be supported with the pinky fingers by resting them on the instrument’s body in a position that also does not tire them.

If the fife is not the typical 6-hole type, you can use your other fingers or cover the holes alternatively in accordance with the tune. However, the overall hand placement must be correct.

2. Positioning the Mouth for Blowing

Now place your bottom lip on the side closer to your mouth next to the fife’s first 1 – 2 holes for blowing. Tighten your lips and blow into the fife. The air should blow across the hole rather than pass from the lower holes.

To get the right angle, simply imagine that some air from your mouth needs to hit the inner walls of the fife rather than passing down and out of it. Blow enough air to travel through the fife’s body and produce a sound.

You can also practice like you are saying the word ‘too,’ with your lips tightened together and close to the fife. Push the air in the right direction to get the desired tone.

3. Practice Makes Perfect

Keep practicing this technique until you get it right. The initial goal is only to get a sound, regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant it is. Take small breaks in between practice sessions to keep you calm and motivated.

Moreover, keep a water bottle close to avoid dryness and dehydration since you will constantly be blowing air through the pipe.

Apart from practicing, ensure that you hold the fife correctly and do not cover its holes unconsciously.

Once you get a sound and have perfected holding and supporting it simultaneously, work towards producing small, pleasant tunes. After that, you can try performing for longer.

Steps to Playing the Piccolo Right

Now that we have learned the basic steps for playing the fife right, let’s jump on getting the piccolo tunes right. Fortunately, the Piccolo does not produce sounds as sharp as the fife, so you will not have a hard time tuning it.

One thing to note here is that a piccolo does not play exactly like the flute. In fact, many flutists have trouble getting it right despite being professionals in their fields for years.

Therefore, do not be disheartened if you do not make any sounds on the first day.

Here are the steps for switching from a flute to a piccolo:

  • Get your notes slightly higher.
  • Gradually work your way up towards lower notes.
  • Try tonal exercises to get your tunes right.

The embouchure is different for playing the Piccolo than when playing a flute or fife, though the finger placement is quite similar. It is half the size of a flute that plays higher notes. It is commonly used in orchestral pieces.

Here are the steps you should follow when playing it:

1. Choosing the Right Type of Piccolo

Choose the Piccolo based on your level of proficiency and the venue you will be playing it. The plastic and silver-plated metal piccolos are more affordable than the silver or wooden piccolos.

The piccolos made of plastic are durable enough to be used in marching sessions while also producing a good-quality sound.

On the other hand, the wooden piccolos have a more mellow, timbre-like sound, unlike the metal ones. The most popular type, the metal head, and wooden body piccolo, are often seen at appropriate gatherings.

Consider the keys when playing the Piccolo. Key C is the most common, but other keys are also essential. The C key piccolo plays like a flute, so it will not be too challenging to learn.

2. Gathering the Essential Tools

You may need additional tools when working with Piccolo. Therefore, gather them before you start.

3. Getting Professional Help

Playing the Piccolo can be a little tricky, so if you know an affordable teacher, friend, or peer who knows how to play it, do not shy away from asking for some help.

4. Learning about the Trivial Details

Please make sure that before you learn how to play the Piccolo, you know what its range is. The flute fingerings produce similar notes on a piccolo, but they are an octave higher.

Furthermore, the music that is written should be an octave below the concert pitch. Take your time to become accustomed to the notes.

5. Becoming Familiar with the Major, Minor, and Chromatic Scales

Do not forget to familiarize yourself with Piccolo’s major, minor, and chromatic sales to get the right tune.

6. Practicing with an Electric Tuner

You can also try practicing with an electric tuner and see how well you hold a note. Try to be steady and consistent with the tune you are playing.

Also, note the Piccolo’s notes tendencies; are they sharp or flat? Does it require more tuning?

7. Tune Before You Play

This brings us to our next point- tuning before playing your Piccolo is important. If your tuner says the notes are too sharp, it will move to the right. To correct it, pull the head joint. If the tunes are flat, the tuner will move to the left.

The Piccolo is a fickle, small instrument overall. Therefore, be prepared to make small adjustments constantly and improvise the sound.

Try tuning the high and low A tunes. The piccolos do not tune as effectively for B flat or concert F; both are played in large and loud settings.

8. Practice Often

To master any skill, practicing is necessary. Therefore, do not forget to practice often since a piccolo’s sound can seem pretty aggravating if not played correctly.

Try to practice in a closed room with decent acoustics. Once you master it, you can play it for friends and family to admire.

9. Keeping the Piccolo Clean

It is imperative that you keep your Piccolo clean. Thus, after playing it, do not forget to clean it with a string or swab of cloth.

Clean throughout the tuning rod and be sure to remove the spit. You can also occasionally polish it to maintain its new-like shine.

Where did Piccolos Come From? The Piccolo History

The Piccolo is a member of the flute family. It is inspired by the 6-hole flute from the middle ages, originating in western Europe.

It is a historical instrument that was initially used by the military in drums and corps while marching. These fancy flutes began to evolve in the 17th century.

The Piccolo has gained quite a few names over time. It started from the small flute to Piccolo. The other names include Ottaviano, which is Italian for ‘little octave.’ Some users also call it flautino and petite flute.

The older iterations that resemble the Piccolo are high-pitched; this is a feature mainly of a treble recorder or a small record, also called flauto Piccolo.

Small flutes, or piccolos, are made with multiple keys, including Db, Eb, and C. The C key is the most popular.

The Db piccolo is sometimes sued for technically challenging solos and for band repertoires, such as the Stripes Forever and March Stars.

Like several other flutes, the first piccolos were made of wood. As they evolved and improved, their features and design changed, and now they are made of more modern and durable materials.

A single genre cannot define piccolo music. You will see it being used in classical orchestras, Latin jazz parties, marching bands, and similar events. Its extension into the jazz genre is new, but the fans love it, so there is good hope for it.

Another reason for this is that a piccolo’s sound blends beautifully with the saxophone. Some of the most popular personalities that have helped make the piccolos so popular include Handel, Beethoven, Verdi, and Mozart.

It has also been a part of romantic settings, such as when it was used in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

You can also play the Piccolo with piano or make it a part of contemporary music, blending it with electronic synthesizers and bass clarinets.


The fife and Piccolo are both excellent instruments that are quite popular in marching bands and similar settings. The fife has holes, while the Piccolo showcases keys.

Both the instruments have some tonal differences that are most apparent when you start playing them. Choose the instrument that you like the best and practice away!

Flute vs. Piccolo vs. Fife

The primary difference between all of them is that a piccolo and fife are shorter than a flute. And when we talk about comparing the Piccolo and fife, the former has keys, while the latter has holes.

Piccolos are also a lot more expensive and not as shrill as a fife. Furthermore, if you know how to play the flute, you will not have a lot of trouble learning the Piccolo.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a fife cost?

A fife mostly costs less than a piccolo. A good fife retails for $190 – $220, depending on its composition, material, and other details.

What is a fife made of?

A fife is mainly made of wood, including grenadilla, blackwood, mopane, rosewood, cocobolo, pink ivory, maple, and persimmon. Sometimes it is made entirely of plastic or metal.

Is fife like a piccolo?

A fife is a cylindrical, transverse flute, usually in one piece, two occasionally. It is longer than a piccolo and has six finger holes, typically with no keys.