Courtesy of iStock

Pitch range

Descant (UK) / soprano (US) pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The recorder is very old. It was certainly played in the 1300s, and in the 1600s it was all over the place. But the flute became a bigger and better rival and overtook the recorder in the mid-1700s.

So the recorder doesn’t feature in modern orchestras. But it’s still played. It has two main roles:

  1. The descant / soprano recorder is often a child’s first instrument because it’s quite simple to learn. Perhaps you know how to play it?
  2. When people want to play music written a long time ago, they like to make it sound as it would have done at the time. So if you want to play a piece written in 1696 for the recorder, you need a recorder to play it! If you play it on a flute, it won’t sound ‘authentic’.

The recorder isn’t very loud. It struggled to compete with the more powerful instruments that were developed in the 18th century.

When recorders play together, they make a cheerful, bright, clear sound. These recorder groups, containing different sizes of recorder, are called ‘consorts’.

A group, or consort, of recorders

Gordon Jacob: A Consort of Recorders: III. Panpipes

Annabel Knight, Katriina Boosey, Sarah Humphrys & Rebecca Austen-Brown, recorders. Naxos 8.572364

The recorder is a distant relation of the flute. In some countries it’s called a ‘block flute’ because it has a block of wood at the mouthpiece end.

From left to right: Great Bass, Bass, Tenor, Treble (UK) / Alto (US), Descant (UK) / Soprano (US), Sopranino, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

From left to right: Great Bass, Bass, Tenor, Treble (UK) / Alto (US), Descant (UK) / Soprano (US), Sopranino

Construction of the recorder

Recorders are often made of wood; some are made of plastic.

There are different sizes – from tiddly little ones that sound high, to surprisingly large ones that sound low.

Playing the tenor recorder, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Playing the tenor recorder

To play it

  1. Hold the recorder out in front of you.
  2. Blow into the mouthpiece.
  3. Cover different holes with your fingers for different notes.


Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is a group of recorder players called?

a. A herd
b. A consort
c. A gaggle

 The recorder is made from…

a. Brass or plastic
b. Wood or steel
c. Wood or plastic

 Why is the recorder also called the block flute?

a. It can get blocked up
b. It plays short blocks of music
c. There’s a block of wood at the mouthpiece end

 How do you make a sound on the recorder?

a. You blow into a hole
b. You blow across a hole
c. You blow a single reed

 In which musical eras are you most likely to hear recorders?

a. Classical and Romantic
b. Baroque and Romantic
c. Baroque and Modern

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Recorder Extracts

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049: I. Allegro (extract)

Two treble (alto) recorders weave together with string instruments.

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554608

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
Suite in A minor for recorder, strings and continuo. II. Les Plaisirs (extract)

The recorder can sound sprightly and supple. This is the treble (alto) recorder.

Performers: Daniel Rothert, recorder; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554018

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Concerto in C for sopranino recorder, RV 443: III. Allegro molto (extract)

The sopranino recorder is the smallest recorder and sounds really high – like a little bird!

Performers: László Kecskeméti, recorder; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia

Taken from Naxos 8.553829

Recorder Concertos

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Concerto in A minor for sopranino recorder, RV 445

The sopranino recorder is only 20cm long and plays an octave higher than its well-known relative, the treble (alto) recorder. Vivaldi shows no mercy for this little instrument, writing some incredibly hard music for it. Listen to the triplet passage in the first movement (2.59 – 3.32) – do you think the performer takes any breaths during this difficult section?

Performers: László Kecskeméti, recorder; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia

Taken from Naxos 8.553829

Alan Rawsthorne (1905–1971)
Suite for recorder and string orchestra (orchestrated by John McCabe)

This Suite is played on the treble (alto) recorder and all the movements are based on old-fashioned Tudor music styles. The recorder was heard frequently in early music so this is a lovely mix of new and old. The work was written in 1944 but the orchestration is light – which means that the other instruments are not too many or too loud: it allows the fairly quiet recorder to stand out as a soloist with the modern string orchestra.

Performers: John Turner, recorder; Northern Chamber Orchestra; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553567

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
Concerto in F major for recorder, strings and continuo, TWV 51

Telemann was a German Baroque composer and he taught himself to play many instruments. No other composer of his time wrote so specifically for the recorder – with such a knowledge of what the instrument could and couldn’t do. He would have spent a lot of time getting to know its capabilities, and so his music uses its full range. This work is for a treble (alto) recorder. Listen out for some surprising high notes in the second movement (2.40 and 3.47).

Performers: Daniel Rothert, recorder; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554018

Recorder Sonatas

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Recorder Sonata in F major, Op. 1 No. 11, HWV 369

Handel is well known for compositions such as Messiah or Music for the Royal Fireworks, but he wrote a huge variety of music, including a lot for the recorder. Here is one of his many recorder sonatas – really a trio for recorder, clavichord and cello. The cello doubles the bass line for balance.

Performers: László Czidra, recorder; Zsuzsa Pertis, clavichord; Pál Kelemen, violoncello

Taken from Naxos 8.550700

Gordon Jacob (1895–1984)
Sonata for treble recorder and piano

The recorder had a revival in the 20th century, thanks to a man called Carl Dolmetsch. He gave recorder recitals in London at the Wigmore Hall and invited many composers to come and listen. Gordon Jacob was one of them, and as a consequence of these concerts he was inspired to write for the recorder. This sonata contains both long, searching melodies (e.g. track 1, track 3), and spiky, rhythmic writing (track 2 and beginning of track 4) – for the piano, the recorder, or both!

Performers: Annabel Knight, recorder; Robin Bigwood, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572364

Michel Meynaud (b. 1950)
Sonatine for treble recorder and piano

Written in 1996, this is a good example of contemporary music for the recorder. The composer uses different techniques, which you can hear throughout. Listen to the second movement for flutter-tonguing (0.27–0.38 – where the sound is all bubbly) and micro-intervals (0.49 onwards – where the space between notes, or pitches, is much smaller than normal). Michel Meynaud says that his compositions are like his diary: they are his memories in sound!

Performers: Joseph Grau, recorder; Cécile Dennaud, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557191

Chamber music for recorder

Louis-Antoine Dornel (c.1680–c.1757)
Sonate en quatuor

The first movement of this Sonata is rather dramatic, with sudden changes of tempo and long held notes. Notice how the performers colour the sound of long notes on the recorder (e.g. track 1, 0.16) – it is almost a vibrato (where a slight wobble is introduced to make the sound fuller and richer), but it is slower and more deliberate.

Performers: Passacaglia; Dan Laurin, recorder

Taken from Naxos 8.570986

Gordon Jacob (1895–1984)
A Consort of Recorders

This is a quartet for four recorders, covering a medley of different styles. The opening of the fourth movement (track 4, ‘Bells’) sounds like a church organ playing the Westminster chimes. Gordon Jacob wrote on the score that you might picture the ‘Fanfare and March’ being sounded by Peasblossom, Mustardseed and their companions – fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Performers: Fontanella

Taken from Naxos 8.572364