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Woodwind Instruments

Me and my friend are not your typical woodwind instruments musicians. I am a construction worker and he works at a pest control company. I met my friend while he was doing a termite treatment at my job site. If you need an Orlando termite treatment, give him a call, he does fantastic work. Any way, while talking we realized we had woodwind instruments in common.

Historically woodwind instruments got their name from being made out of hollowed-out wood and passing a stream of wind through them to generate a sound. Nothing has changed other than the material they are made from.

Not all wind instruments are woodwinds. The difference between woodwind instruments and brass instruments (the other type of wind instrument) is actually pretty simple. Woodwind instruments create variations in sound due to the instrument itself. Brass instruments change sound because of the vibrations of the musician’s lips.

The most basic woodwind instruments include reed instruments, such as the oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and contrabassoon. There are a few non-reed instruments, too, including the flute, piccolo, and recorder. The changes in sound and tone are due to the length of the instrument. The air travels through the column of the instrument. Lots of these instruments have multiple forms (such as soprano instead of alto), so there are a surprising amount of options for woodwind instruments. Bagpipes count, too, although you won’t often see those in a traditional orchestra setting.

What To Consider When Choosing A Brass Instrument?

  • Genres: These instruments are very popular because they are commonly used instruments across the different genres including traditional folk, classical, and contemporary to name but a few.
  • Size and weight: As a beginner, you’ll most likely start either with a flute, clarinet or alto saxophone because of their size and weight but this does not mean you shouldn’t research an oboe or lower-pitched instruments. Braces can be attached to heavier instruments so that the weight can be distributed across the shoulders.
  • Mouth muscles: A strong embouchure is needed to produce a sound from a reed and non-reed instrument, so practicing scales and playing, in general, will help build endurance. The mouth muscles are used differently than with a brass instrument – the lower lip is tucked under the mouthpiece with a woodwind instrument – so swapping over may take more time than you first think.
  • Clefs and key signatures: Clefs are symbols written at the start of a piece of music to indicate the pitch range. Next to the clef symbol is a further set of symbols – the key signature – that inform the performer of the upcoming notes that are to be assumed sharp or flat. Learning the different clefs and key signatures is also another skill to develop because woodwind instruments are transposing instruments – the note sounds different from the one written – but is an incredibly important skill for arranging.

What Are Woodwind Instruments Made From?

Traditionally from wood and clay but most woodwind instruments are now made from plastic, metal, or a combination of both.

How To Play Woodwind Instruments?

Put simply, the performer has to blow down one end of a tube whilst closing and opening holes along the pipe which will produce a sound from out of the other end.

Most woodwind instruments need a mouthpiece with a reed – a thin piece of wood – to vibrate that will be amplified by the instrument. However, an instrument like the flute does not need a reed mouthpiece and must be blown as if you were blowing across the top of a bottle.

The Sound They Make

Woodwind instruments like the saxophone and clarinet need a single reed to rest against the mouthpiece but sound quite different.

Clarinets sound mellow because of their long-pure shape and smooth plastic lining whereas saxophones are made of brass so they sound brighter.

Some instruments like the oboe and bassoon feature a double-reed mouthpiece which makes the sound much less smooth and has a raspy quality to it. In Sergei Prokofiev’s orchestral piece, Peter and the Wolf, the oboe plays the part of the duck because of the likeness in sound.

Flutes and piccolos have mouthpieces that need the performer to blow across, as if when blowing into a bottle, which generates a clear and light sound.

List Of Instruments

  1. Flute

The flute is the oldest of all instruments that produce pitched sounds (not just rhythms) and was originally made from wood, stone, clay, or hollow reeds like bamboo. Modern flutes are made of silver, gold, or platinum; there are generally 2 to 4 flutes in an orchestra. A standard flute is a little over 2 feet long and is often featured playing the melody. You play the flute by holding it sideways with both hands and blowing across a hole in the mouthpiece, much like blowing across the top of a bottle. Your fingers open and close the keys, which changes the pitch.

  • Piccolo

A shorter version of the flute is called the piccolo, which means small in Italian. At half the size of a standard flute, piccolos play the highest notes of all the woodwinds; in the orchestra one of the flute players will also play piccolo if that instrument is required. The high piping sound of the piccolo is also heard in traditional drum corps and marching band music.

  • Oboe

The oboe is a 2-foot long black cylinder with metal keys covering its holes, and its mouthpiece uses a double reed, which vibrates when you blow through it. This vibration of the reed makes the air inside the oboe move, and thus creates sound. To play it, hold the oboe upright, blow through the double reed in your mouth, and use both hands to press down on the keys to open and close the holes and change the pitch. There are usually 2 to 4 oboes in an orchestra and they produce a wide range of pitches, from haunting sounds to warm, velvety smooth notes, which make the sound of the oboe very memorable. In addition to playing in the orchestra, the first oboist is also responsible for tuning the orchestra before each concert. Listen for the special note “A” that the oboe plays before the music begins.

  • English Horn

Despite its name, it isn’t English and it isn’t a horn. The English horn is closely related to the oboe, also uses a double reed, and is played in the same manner. It’s longer than an oboe and its tube is a bit wider. At the bottom end of the English horn, it opens out into a rounded bell shape, which gives it a warmer, fuller sound. Because it’s larger, the English horn also has a lower pitch range than an oboe. An oboe player will also play the English horn if it is needed.

  • Clarinet

The clarinet could easily be mistaken for an oboe, except for the mouthpiece, which uses a single reed. Clarinets come in several different sizes, and the standard B-flat clarinet is just over 2 feet long. Some musical works require the clarinetist to play several types of the clarinet in the same piece. The 2 to 4 clarinets in the orchestra play both melodies and harmonies, and they have a dark rich sound in their lower notes, while the upper part of the clarinet’s range is bright and resonant. You play the clarinet as you do an oboe, by holding it upright, blowing through the reed, and using your hands to change the pitches by opening and closing the keys with your fingers.

  • E-flat Clarinet

The smaller E-flat clarinet is just like a standard clarinet, but about half the length. Its shorter size allows it to play higher notes.

  • Bass Clarinet

This is the grandfather of the clarinet family. The bass clarinet is so large that its top and bottom are bent to make it easier for musicians to hold and play. Its greater length allows it to play some of the lowest notes in the orchestra.

  • Bassoon

The bassoon is a long pipe, doubled in half, made of wood, with many keys. The bend in the pipe makes it possible for musicians to play it comfortably. If it were straight, the bassoon would be around 9 feet long! Like the oboe, the bassoon uses a double reed, which is fitted into a curved metal mouthpiece. There are 2 to 4 bassoons in an orchestra and they have a similar range to that of the cello. Bassoons usually play lower harmonies, but you will sometimes hear their hollow low notes featured in a melody. You play the bassoon by holding it upright and blowing through the double reed. The air travels down the tube and then makes a u-turn and goes up and out the top. Just like the oboe, you use both hands to press on the keys to open and close the holes and change the pitch.

  • Contrabassoon

Imagine a longer bassoon with a wider pipe. The contrabassoon is the grandfather of the wind section and is so much larger than a regular bassoon that its tube is doubled over twice to allow the player to hold it. It takes a lot of breath to make the sound come out of such a long pipe! The lone contrabassoon plays the lowest notes in the entire orchestra.