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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Instruments - Woodwind

It’s the turn of the woodwind now.



Woodwind instruments used to be made from wood. Like brass they make a sound by blowing air into them. Unlike brass they don’t require lip vibration (raspberry blowing).


Woodwind instruments sound mellow in comparison to brass instruments.


Most of the woodwind family use a reed (normally a thin piece of wood) but there are some exceptions; which we’ll start with now.

Flute - The original flute used to be made of out wood. They’d be a hollowed out “stick” with holes in. An oval hole would be at one end and this is where you blow. To get a sound out of the flute you blow across this hole (rather like blowing across the edge of a bottle to get a sound). The holes are then covered to produce different notes. Nowadays they are made from metal and the holes are covered by keys and pads. This means the range is quite large. The flute can play Middle C (C4) up three octaves though some are capable of getting three-and-a-half. Some flutes have a special key added to them enabling them to play the B below Middle C…this is called a B key! It plays in concert pitch, that is to say the notes sound as they’re written. There are also alto flutes and bass flutes! Here is a beautiful example of what a flute sounds like.


Piccolo - This is a miniature flute. It is a transposing instrument as it sounds an octave higher than written. In written notes the range is from D5 (fourth line on the staff) and three octaves above that. Technically this is a concert pitch instrument (apart from sounding an octave higher) but there is a version of the piccolo that is in D-flat. Here's a piccolo solo.

Recorder/Penny Whistle/Tin Whistle - This instrument you just blow into (gently!). There are no keys, just holes. The recorder used to be from wood - but nowadays is made from plastic. The penny whistle and tin whistle are much the same instrument and made from metal (tin!) though there are versions that are plastic or wooden. The recorder comes in various guises, soprano, tenor, bass. The soprano sounds an octave higher than written, the tenor and bass sound at the pitch written. Here's a recorder piece played on alto recorder.


Single Reed Instruments

A single reed instrument is exactly that, it uses a single reed to make its sound. The reed sits on a mouthpiece and is held in place by a collar type thing, called a ligature. The mouth forms an embouchure which seals the lips around the mouthpiece. The bottom teeth are covered by the bottom lip (as if saying the letter “V”) and the top teeth gently rest on the top of the mouthpiece. Air is then blown into the instrument causing the reed to vibrate making a sound which passes down through the instrument.


Clarinet - Used in both classical and jazz music the clarinet is a very versatile woodwind instrument. The mouthpiece is attached to a barrel, which is attached to an upper joint, which is attached to a lower joint, which is attached to a bell! (PHEW!) The clarinet consists of holes and keys which when covered or pressed/lifted, will produce a different note. The clarinet wasn’t invented until around 1698 - so if you hear a clarinet in a piece of music it’s going to be Classical period or later! The clarinet is a transposing instrument and the most common is B-Flat, though clarinets in A (which have a slightly warmer tone) and E-Flat (which has a bright tone) are also regularly used in compositions. There is also a Bass Clarinet which again is a B-Flat transposing instrument. Music is written in treble clef and sounds a major second and an octave lower. Here's a clarinet piece.


Saxophone - Again used in classical (from 1840 (Romantic)) and jazz but also used to great effect in rock and pop music as well as other genres. Invented by Adolphe Sax the saxophone is another transposing instrument. Instruments play either in B-Flat or E-Flat. There are four main saxophones (going from highest to lowest): soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. The mouthpiece attaches to a crook, which then sits in the main body of the instrument. The notes are sounded by pressing and lifting keys. The soprano and tenor sax are in B-Flat and the alto and baritone are in E-flat. The sax shares the same written range of B-flat below middle C, two and half octaves higher. The different saxes sound at different registers. Here's one of my favourite sax videos - he sings and plays tenor sax at the same time!

Make Mine A Double (Reeded Instrument)

A double-reed instrument is again an apt description. Two reeds are bound tightly together. Again an embouchure is formed, but this time both upper and lower teeth are covered by the lips. The reeds are then put into the mouth, lips squeeze around and air is blown into the instrument. Another difference is that a mouthpiece isn’t used, the reed slots directly into the instrument.


Oboe picture from Wikipedia

Oboe - The oboe was developed in the mid-17th century from a 12th century instrument called a shawm. It is largely used in classical music. It is a non-transposing instrument and has a range from B-Flat below middle C to an octave above the G on the top of the stave. You may see a score with an “oboe d’amore”. This is a slightly bigger version of the oboe, with a mellower sound. Here's a short solo version of an oboe concerto.

Cor Anglais picture form wikipedia

Cor Anglais (English Horn) - This is a big sister to the oboe. It is a transposing instrument in F (a perfect fifth lower than the oboe). Its (written) range is B below middle C to E three ledger lines above the stave. This is one of the most famous pieces to use a cor anglais.


Bassoon - The double reed sits on a crook which sits in the main instrument. It reads bass clef (and occasionally tenor clef). It is a non-transposing instrument. The range is from the B-Flat below the stave (bass) three octaves up to E in the treble clef (in the top space). Here's a rare solo bassoon piece.


Contrabassoon (Double bassoon) - The big brother of the bassoon sounding an octave lower. It is a transposing instrument in that notes sound one octave lower than written. The range is three octaves, sounding one octave lower than the bassoon. Contrabassoons rarely appear on their own, sounding better when joining other bassoons. Here's an even rarer contrabassoon solo!

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