Each woodwind instrument makes a distinct sound. All are tubes with keys for the fingers and somewhere for the mouth to blow, but they sound completely different!
Woodwind instruments have been around for centuries. Our ancestors may have blown into shells or hollow bits of wood to make sounds, and flutes were certainly present in prehistoric times, made from animal bone.
The flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon are like the primary colours for an artist (the composer) to use. They are the basic sounds available in a symphony orchestra. But adding extra instruments – and therefore extra colours – makes things even more interesting:
Piccolo (a baby flute; sounds higher)
Cor anglais (‘English horn’ – an enlarged oboe; sounds lower)
Bass clarinet (a bigger, deeper-voiced clarinet, with the bottom bent upwards and the top bent downwards)
Contrabassoon (‘double bassoon’ – nearly six metres of tube folded into four parts; sounds lower than a bassoon)
Saxophone (the cool member of the woodwind family; only in the orchestra occasionally)
The piccolo is the highest instrument of the woodwind family in the orchestra and the contrabassoon is the lowest: see and hear how the woodwind instruments found most often in the orchestra compare with each other.
Occasionally a saxophone joins the orchestra. There are several different saxophones. Shown here are the pitch ranges of three familiar ones, and you can hear the top and bottom notes for the alto saxophone.
Construction of the instruments
Woodwind instruments are ‘aerophones’: the sound is produced by air vibrating through the instrument.
You might think that all woodwind instruments are made of wood. Once upon a time they were. Most still are, but there are a couple that aren’t:
- Flutes: Made of wood years ago, but now usually made of metal.
- Saxophones: Made of brass. But because they have a mouthpiece with a reed they belong to the woodwind section (and are often played by clarinettists).
In the orchestra, several players in a string section – e.g. the violins – play the same thing, so they can feel supported when they have difficult bits. The woodwind sections are different: there are fewer players, and frequent solos for a single instrument.
How sound is made
All woodwind instruments are just tubes with holes in! To supply the ‘wind’, the player blows:
- Across a hole (flute)
- Down a hole (recorder)
- On a reed (clarinet, oboe, bassoon)
This makes waves of air vibrate down the tube and come out at the other end as sound. Air comes out through any open key holes too.
The longer the tube, the lower the note. The shorter the tube, the higher the note.
Clarinets, saxophones, oboes and bassoons use reeds to produce their sound. The clarinet and saxophone have a ‘single reed’; oboes and bassoons have a ‘double reed’. The type of reed affects the sound, and must suit both the player and the instrument.
The simplest sort! One sliver of cane, held onto the instrument’s mouthpiece by a metal band. The reed vibrates against the mouthpiece.
Two slivers of cane with a base that slots into the instrument. The two slivers vibrate against each other when the player blows on their ends. Oboes and bassoonists spend a lot of time fiddling with reeds, and if a solo goes wrong it might be the reed’s fault! Many don’t buy finished reeds: they get the raw cane and have a little tool kit to operate on it and make it just the way they want. During a performance, the reed has to be kept moist.
After a reed has been used a few times, it is likely to split. When that happens, the player will buy or make a new one. Reeds don’t last forever!
Clarinet vs. Oboe
The oboe and clarinet, at first glance, look very similar. But although they’re both black tubes covered in silver keys, they’re quite different:
|Single reed||Double reed|
|Body is cylindrical: the same width all the way down until the bell||Body is more conical – like a cone: gets wider towards the bottom|
|Smooth, thick sound||Grassy, thin sound|
|Invented in the 18th century||Its ancestor (shawm) dates back to the 13th century|
|Used in jazz||Never used in jazz|
Double-tonguing: This is a way of playing fast notes, and players often do it by quickly mouthing ‘T-K-T-K’ down the instrument.
Flutter-tonguing: Mainly for the flute, sometimes the clarinet, this is a fluttering kind of sound made by trilling the tongue as you play. The player rolls an ‘R’, with the tongue behind the teeth.
Vibrato: This is where the note is made to wobble just slightly, making the sound a bit richer. You do this either by using your diaphragm (the little muscle at the bottom of your lungs) or moving your bottom lip up and down slightly. How much it’s used depends on the instrument, as well as the player’s style and the music being played.
Glissando: A swooping effect, up or down.
An older kind of double-tonguing for the flute was known as ‘tootle-tootle’ in English and ‘didd’l-didd’l’ in German.
Like the animals in Noah’s Ark, woodwind instruments have often gone two-by-two. Particularly for late-18th-century music, it’s normal to find pairs of woodwind instruments in the orchestra (two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two oboes). These days it varies, but a typical line-up is:
2 flutes + 1 piccolo
2 oboes + 1 cor anglais
2 clarinets + 1 bass clarinet
2 bassoons + 1 contrabassoon
The four main instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon – are very different from each other, but all make good solo instruments. Just one can sound clearly right through the orchestra when it is given a melody of its own to play. So orchestral pieces are stacked with great woodwind solos!
As the woodwind players sit behind the strings, they’re further away from the conductor and have to watch carefully. But their sound doesn’t have any trouble in floating right over the top of the strings and across to the audience.
Playing together – chamber music
Woodwind instruments often play together in groups, especially in wind quintets. These are for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon – and French horn. The French horn is officially a brass instrument, but it blends well with the woodwind instruments.
Find out more about the development of the Woodwind Family in .
A Little History of the Woodwind Family
Woodwind instruments have been around for centuries. Our ancestors may have blown into shells or hollow bits of wood to make sounds, and flutes were certainly present in prehistoric times, made from animal bone. Very early beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless.
In the 17th century, woodwind players could often play more than one instrument. An oboist, for example, might have put down the oboe quickly, grab a flute, and play whatever music was given. Players were multi-skilled – but the general standard of playing was lower than it is today.
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● Where does the woodwind section sit in a symphony orchestra?
● Which two instruments in the woodwind section play with a double reed?
● The core of the woodwind section consists of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. Which other instrument is also part of the group?
● Which member of the woodwind section has the deepest sound?
● Which of the following woodwind instruments is the odd one out because it doesn’t haven’t a reed?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Selected Woodwind Extracts
Franz Danzi (1763–1826)
Wind Quintet in G major, Op. 67 No. 1: I. Allegretto (extract)
Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn play together here (the horn often plays with woodwind instruments because it blends well with their sound).
Performers: Michael Thompson Wind Quintet
Taken from Naxos 8.553570
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Serenade in B flat major, K. 361, ‘Gran partita’: V. Menuetto (extract)
Mozart wrote his ‘Gran partita’ for a large wind group: two oboes, two clarinets, two basset-horns (lower-sounding clarinets), four horns, two bassoons – plus double bass. Horns and double bass are not woodwind instruments but the rest are.
Performers: German Wind Soloists
Taken from Naxos 8.550060
Wind Quintet and Sextet
Antoine Reicha (1770–1836)
Wind Quintet in A minor, Op. 100 No. 5
Reicha wrote 25 wind quintets in total! He composed them because he thought there wasn’t enough written for this combination of instruments at the time (between 1811 and 1820). A standard wind quintet involves flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn (the horn is the only brass instrument of the group; the rest are woodwind). Woodwind instruments were going through a lot of changes, and as they became more complex and accomplished they could play music that was more elaborate – so the composer had increasing freedom.
Performers: Michael Thompson Wind Quintet
Taken from Naxos 8.550432
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Mládí (‘Youth’) for woodwind sextet, JW VII/10
This is written for a traditional wind quintet (or ‘woodwind quintet’) with the addition of a bass clarinet. The horn is not a woodwind instrument, but has always been an honorary member of a woodwind quintet because of its warm tone and ability to blend without dominating. This sextet is well balanced, with three of the instruments (bass clarinet, bassoon and horn) playing the lower line, and the other three (flute, oboe and clarinet) in the higher register.
Performers: Michael Thompson Wind Quintet; Michael Harris, bass clarinet
Taken from Naxos 8.553851
Giulio Briccialdi (1818–1881)
Quintet in D major, Op. 124
Briccialdi is not a well-known composer, but his writing for wind quintet is brilliant. Listen to the bubbling accompaniment under the melody in the first movement (1.09 and later at 4.31), giving a real sense of movement and energy. Sometimes it feels as if there are more than five players because the parts are so complex and busy.
Performers: Avalon Wind Quintet
Taken from Naxos 8.553410
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Winds and Orchestra
The Sinfonia concertante is unusual in that it has a solo wind quartet of oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon plus an orchestra. There are two more oboes and two more horns in the orchestra as well, but the music has been so well written that the soloists come across well. There is a cadenza at the end of the first movement (from 12.00), where the four soloists get to play alone for a while.
Performers: Jiří Krejčí, oboe; Václav Kyzivát, clarinet; Zdeněk Tylšar, horn; Jiří Seidl, bassoon; Capella Istropolitana; Richard Edlinger
Taken from Naxos 8.550159
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Duett-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, string orchestra and harp, TrV 293
The very unique scoring of this work (i.e. the combination of instruments for which it is written) results in a distinctive sound right from the start. At the beginning, the clarinet sings high above six solo string instruments, giving the sense of a chamber piece rather than a bigger orchestral concerto. The bassoon starts the second movement (track 2) while tremolo strings and harp twinkle softly in accompaniment. Listen very carefully to pick out the harp.
Performers: David Shifrin, clarinet; Kenneth Munday, bassoon; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz
Taken from Naxos 8.503294