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The continental crust is central to the biological and geological history of Earth. However, crustal heterogeneity has prevented a thorough geochemical comparison of its primary igneous building blocks – volcanic and plutonic rocks – and the processes by which they differentiate to felsic compositions. Our analysis of a comprehensive global dataset of volcanic and plutonic whole-rock geochemistry shows that differentiation trends from primitive basaltic to felsic compositions for volcanic versus plutonic samples are generally indistinguishable in subduction zone settings, but divergent in continental rifts. Offsets in major and trace element differentiation patterns in rift settings suggest higher water content in plutonic magmas and reduced eruptibility of hydrous silicate magmas. In both tectonic settings, our results indicate that fractional crystallization, rather than crustal melting, is predominantly responsible for the production of intermediate and felsic magmas, emphasizing the role of mafic cumulates as a residue of crustal differentiation.