Research point – Woodwind instruments – a brief overview

Posted on April 9, 2012


Woodwind instruments

Woodwind instruments use resonation generated by air blown through a reed or against a sharp edge of material to create sound. They are classified in the main categories of flutes, single reed instruments, double reed instruments, three or four reed instruments and free reed instruments.


Flutes have been in many different cultures from the beginnings of human civilisations, the oldest flutes discovered are more than 40,000 years old. Musicians used hollow tubes made of bones, wood or bamboo, tin, bronze or high-grade metal alloys (silver, nickel, gold, copper) to produce music. It is an aerophone (i.e. not based on reeds) and the sound is generated by air being blown against a sharp edge associated with an open cylinder causing vibration in the air column enclosed in the tube. The air stream is formed directly by the player’s lips and the edge can be placed at the end of the tube (end-blown flutes) or the side of it (transverse flutes).

Transverse flutes include:

–          western concert flute

–          piccolo – is a high pitched instrument of about half the size of a flute

–          fife – a medieval instrument similar to the piccolo, but louder, used mainly in military and marching bands

–          dizi – a popular Chinese transverse flute used in many forms of Chinese popular music, opera and the Chinese orchestra

–          bansuri – it is a traditional bamboo flute used in India, Nepal and Bangladesh – it is intimately linked to the Krishna tradition and it was considered Lord Krishna’s divine instrument with supernatural powers

Dizi playing – Spring on Xiang River

End-blown flutes include:

–          recorder

–          quena and quenacho – are musical instruments used in South-America, in countries placed roughly in the area of the Inca Empire – important part of Andean music

–          ney – an ancient instrument used in the Persian, Arabic and Turkish cultures

–          xiao and nanxiao – traditional Chinese end blown flute usually made of bamboo

–          danso – similar to the xiao, used in Korea

–          shakuhachi – end blown flute used in Japan, linked to Zen Buddhist meditation

–          kaval – pastoral flute traditionally played in the Balkan, Central Europe, Greece and Turkey.

–          Ansanzi flute – a flute used in pre-hystoric times recreated from archeological findings in Prayer Rock Valley in Arizona in 1931 (Broken Flute Cave)

Single reed instruments

The sound is generated by vibration of a reed attached to the mouthpiece. The vibration is transmitted to the air comprised in a cylindrical (e.g. clarinets) or conical bore (e.g. saxophones).

Clarinets – the word refers to a family of instruments with different tuning and covering different registers. They are made of wood (African hardwood, Honduran rosewood), plastic or rarely, metal. The clarinet was invented in Germany and has become essential in classical music orchestras and jazz ensembles.

–          B-flat soprano clarinet is the most common form of clarinets with a rage of more than three octaves.

–          Piccolo clarinet – higher pitched than the soprano clarinet

–          Bass clarinet – they have a curved and a metal head, but their bodies are typically made of black wood. It has a very broad range usually between B♭1 and B♭6.

–          Alto (or tenor clarinet) – similar in appearance to the bass clarinet, but smaller, with a size between bass and soprano clarinet. It is usually tuned to E ♭.

–          Basset horn – it is a large clarinet with a bend close to the mouthpiece, typically tuned to F and, providing a lower and darker tone colour

–          Contrabass and contra alto clarinets – the contrabass has a range starting from B♭0; the contra-alto is somewhat higher pitched

Chalumeau – the term has been used to different wind instruments that used a reed to generate sound. It was extensively used in the medieval and classical era and in appearance it resembles the recorder. The structure of the reed developed from simple cuts on the side of the cane into mouthpieces similar to the ones used in modern clarinets, the chalumeau being in fact the predecessor of the clarinet.

Saxophones – invented by the Belgian Adolf Sax by combining characteristics of the clarinet and oboe. They are made of brass in different sizes covering different pitch levels – sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, tenor, baritone, bass, contrabass and subcontrabass saxophones. They have been used in military band, jazz and popular music ensembles as well as solo instruments.

Bird’s Lament – A piece composed for Sax by the great Moondog, dedicated to Charlie Parker (aka Bird):

Double reed instruments

Oboe instrument family comprises the soprano oboe, the cor anglais, oboe d’amore and other, less common oboes like the musette (or piccolo oboe) the bass oboe, the hecklephone and the contrabass oboe, covering the whole range of audible frequencies.  The (most commonly used) soprano instrument has a conical bore and a clear, penetrating, but gentle sound. It is usually made of African Blackwood (or grenadilla) and the reed is manufactured by cane grown in Spain or southern parts of France and it has a marked influence on the sound of the oboe. As reeds are naturally grown, no instrument is completely the same as another. The oboe was invented in the 17th century developed from the shawm and it was initially called hautbois.

Virtusity on oboe – Antonio Pasculli – Gran Concerto:

Bassoon – is a double reed instrument designed to play bass and tenor registers. The bassoon comprises six main pieces and 17 keys, and its body is made of sycamore or sugar maple (or polypropylene and ebonite). The instrument was invented in the mid-17thinspired by the dulcian, an instrument family extensively used in Renaissance curt music. The bassoon can play a range of four octaves, it has a warm and deep tone colour resembling to the baritone male voice. Elaborate music has written for bassoon since the Baroque era by composers such as Vivaldi and Teleman.

Shawm – the term refers to an instrument family mainly used between the 12th and 17th centuries in Europe in medieval and Renaissance music. It was manufactured in a broad range of sizes and pitches. Similar instruments are still used in military bands, and its Japanese version (called charumera) is employed in kabuki theatre. The traditional instrument called zurna, played mainly outdoors in festive events in the Turkish, Persian and Balkan regions, is thought to be the predecessor of the shawm family.

Duduk – is a traditional double reed instrument used in Armenia, similar instruments are used in Azerbaijan (balaban), Georgia, Russia (dudka), Serbia (frula) Ukraine, Iran (narmeh-ney) and Turkey (balaban, mey).  It is typically made of apricot wood and has a deep, mournful sound.

Free reed aerophones

Accordion – it is a box shaped instrument used in European as well as North and South American folk music. The sound is produced by air flux causing vibration in a set of steel or brass strips fixed on a frame. The airflow is generated by expanding the bellows and the tones are manipulated by buttons that open valves. The melody is played by the right hand using keys similar to the piano keyboard and the left hand can produce accompaniment by activating pre-set chord buttons.

Harmonica – the sound is created by blowing and drawing air in and out of reed chambers containing pre-tuned reed manufactured of bronze or brass. The pitch depends on the length of the reed – longer reed providing lower pitch. Pitches that are different from the pre-tuned ones can be obtained by the technique of bending by the player, which would markedly contribute to the characteristic sound of blues and country music. The harmonica is primarily used in blues, jazz and North American country music and it achieved its place in popular music such a rock-and-roll. Most Harmonicas are designed to play only in one key (diatonic harmonicas, 10 holes), but certain harmonicas can play the whole chromatic scale using 12 holes and a slide structure (chromatic harmonica).  Similar instruments are used in Eastern Asia – Horn harmonicas and ChengGong Harmonicas.

Sonny Boy Williamson II and Matt Murphy are doing the magic in the next inserton:


The bagpipes are characteristic instruments of Scottish and Irish traditional music, but they have been used for centuries in other parts of the world such as the Persian Gulf countries, Caucasus, France and Northern Africa. The airflow is produced using an air reservoir, which is kept inflated by the player through a blowpipe. Attached to the reservoir there is a melody pipe (chanter) and, in most bagpipes, at least one drone pipe that produces one harmonising note while the melody pipe is played by the fingers.

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