We’ve all heard about woodwind instruments and the way so many people appreciate the beautiful music they make.
Woodwind instruments along with percussion, strings, and brass make up orchestras, marching bands, military bands, and even rock and roll and contemporary music bands.
Several types of woodwind instruments will be discussed in this guide. First, we’ll find out how woodwind instruments work.
Secondly, we’ll explore further the different types of woodwind instruments, and then move on for a series of short narratives detailing the ten most popular woodwinds.
Lastly, we’ll take a look at what woodwind instruments are used in orchestras, and what part each instrument plays in making the orchestral performance a success.
How Woodwind Instruments Work & Produce sound?
There are two types of woodwind instruments. They are flutes and reed instruments.
Flutes, or aerophones, are woodwind instruments in which air is blown into the instrument (usually by the player of the instrument) and exits through the body of the instrument to the end, making a unique sound.
There are holes all up and down the body of the flute, which when covered or uncovered manipulate and distort the air being blown into the flute, thus producing music.
Certain breathing techniques can be used to alter the sound made by the flute even further.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a method by which the player optimizes their air intake, thereby limiting the number of breaths taken while playing.
Circular breathing allows for constant uninterrupted sound by expelling air from the mouth using air stored in the cheeks, all the while simultaneously inhaling through the nose.
Reed instruments also make sounds when air blown into the resonator passes over the reed and cause the reed to vibrate, producing sound.
A reed is a thin rectangular piece of either cane or synthetic material which is inserted in the mouthpiece and held to the body of the instrument by a ligature on the side.
The sounds the woodwind instrument makes using a reed are also influenced by the number of holes in the body of the instrument and which holes are covered by either fingers or keys.
Another way sound on woodwind instruments is performed correctly is by the angle at which the instrument is positioned at the mouthpiece when played.
For instance, a clarinet is held at a 45-degree angle from the mouthpiece, whereas a saxophone is held straight out from the mouthpiece. A flute is positioned horizontally or sideways with the length of the instrument extending outwards.
Notes are formed by covering the holes on the clarinet or saxophone tube with either fingers or keys.
Holes on the tube vary the pitch as well when they are uncovered or covered by the flutist. Reeds must also be very well maintained or the tone will be affected.
Some reed instruments use double reeds, which are two reeds tied together.
Examples of double reed woodwind instruments are the oboe and the bassoon. The sound these double reed instruments make has a pronounced nasal sound which is hard to maintain once the sound is achieved.
Different Types of Woodwind Instruments
As stated above, there are two types of woodwind instruments, flutes (aerophones) and reed instruments.
Within the flute woodwind family, there are certain variations such as the piccolo, the recorder, the Irish flute, and the fife.
These are reed-less instruments in which air produces sound when blown into the instrument. Holes in the side of the resonator work to produce different notes and pitches when covered or uncovered.
The flute is one of the earliest known instruments in the world, first being in existence about 40,000 years ago.
The recorder is another ancient woodwind instrument that has been documented to be in use as early as 1388 in England by the Earl of Derby, later known as King Henry IV.
There are three main types of flutes: the standard, the piccolo, and the harmony flutes.
The piccolo is a smaller version of the standard C flute, the word “piccolo” meaning small in Italian.
The pitch of the piccolo is the highest-pitched flute when played in the key of C, and remains an octave higher than the standard flute. When played loudly in its upper register, its sound can be described as high pitched or shrill.
When played in its middle register, the sound is more graceful, lovely, and clear.
Recorders are also dubbed internal duct flutes because the recorder is a flute with a whistle mouthpiece and the existence of a fipple.
A fipple is merely air blown across a hole. Flutes do not have fipples. The recorder also has a thumb hole for placement of the upper finger and 7 finger holes; 3 for the upper hand and 4 for the lower hand.
There are also 5 different types of recorders, ranging from a higher pitch in the smaller size instruments to a lower pitch in the larger ones. These 5 types are soprano, descant, treble, tenor, and bass.
Single and Double Reed Instruments
Reed instruments use either a single or double reed to make music.
Some of these woodwind instruments such as the clarinet are difficult to play and are recommended to be played by a professional or a more accomplished player.
If you play the bassoon or are interested in learning to play the bassoon, you will discover that most of the music written for the bassoon is in the bass and tenor clefs.
The saxophone is similar to the clarinet as they both use single reeds, but the sound they produce is quite different.
The saxophone is made of brass, which would indicate that not all woodwinds are always made of wood.
The saxophone body is cone-shaped and produces sound by controlling the tone holes along its body. The tone holes are closed by leather pads and they are connected to keys.
Today the saxophone is played frequently, not just in orchestra or concert venues, but also in rock, pop, and jazz music.
The oboe is a double-reed woodwind instrument that plays in the soprano or treble range.
The English horn, or cor anglais, is a part of the oboe family.
The oboe is a long instrument, roughly 2 feet long. The sound the oboe makes is lively and bright, making it a favorite among connoisseurs of woodwind music.
Top 10 Popular Woodwind Instruments
The top ten most popular woodwind instruments are as follows:
1. The Bassoon
Part of the woodwind family, the bassoon is a long pipe that has a distinct sound as a result of air being blown into the pipe and making a u-turn before exiting the pipe at the top.
Because of the unique mechanics of the airflow in the bassoon, it is a popular instrument and one that is primarily in demand in orchestras.
2. The Bagpipes
Bagpipes are woodwind instruments and use reeds to produce sound.
Most people are familiar with the bagpipes of the British Isles from the Irish and Scottish.
The pipes consist of one melody pipe and one drone pipe protruding from a bag where the air is temporarily stored. The air in the bag is blown through the pipes by either a mouth or bellows.
Most people recognize the bagpipes sound when they are played in parades in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
3. The Clarinet
One of the most popular instruments in the woodwind family is the clarinet. Made popular in the Big Band Era of the 20th century, the clarinet is still popular today.
Although it is a complicated instrument to master, the clarinet is played in orchestras, bands, marching bands, and the like.
4. The English Horn
The English Horn, or cor anglais, is a member of the oboe family.
The main difference between the English Horn and the oboe is the larger size of the English Horn, thereby producing differences in sound.
The English Horn is popular as a solo instrument in orchestras.
The flute is a popular instrument as well, and it is part of the woodwind family.
It is easy to learn, easy to carry and take apart and there are no reeds to keep carefully.
The flute is also a very melodic instrument that has a flirty, lilting sound that piques the interests of most musicians. It is also played from the side, which makes playing it very interesting
Organs that could be portable, or carried, were first developed around 200 BC. They had flue pipes, and it was controlled by a keyboard.
The portable organs were a part of the woodwind instrument family until they eventually gave way to the pipe organs of the Middle Ages.
The delightful oboe is a member of the woodwind instrument family. It is a double-reed instrument played within the treble or soprano range. You can find most oboe’s being played in orchestras today.
The piccolo, or small flute, is a member of the woodwind group. It is a variant of the standard flute and is sometimes used in marching bands for the high-pitched, piping sound it makes. It can also be part of an orchestra.
A standard recorder is a woodwind instrument as well. Recorders are often used as a child’s first introduction to musical instruments at school.
They are easy to learn and are serious instruments. They have a long history and their sound is considered soft and sweet.
Recorders also can produce a high variety of articulations, which makes it a top-notch solo instrument.
Saxophones are usually associated with jazz music.
They use a single reed and are a definite member of the woodwind instrument family. Because they are made of brass, they are less flexible and bulkier.
Saxophones are considered relatively easy to learn to play and therefore are one of the most popular instruments in the world.
Woodwind Instruments Used In Orchestras
Woodwind instruments usually have a supporting role in the orchestral score. They provide harmonies and countermelodies or are used to merely double the string parts.
The woodwind section sits in the middle with the stringed instruments in front.
One of the first and most well-known woodwind instruments played in the orchestra is the flute. There are 2 to 4 flutists In the orchestra, and these flutists will usually be found playing the melody
A piccolo will also sometimes be required in an orchestra if the piece is written with the high piping sound the piccolo is famous for.
Because the size of the piccolo is 1/2 the size of the flute, typically one of the flutists in the orchestra will also play the piccolo.
Another woodwind instrument used in orchestras is the oboe. It is a double-reed instrument with a wide range of sounds from foreboding to warm and sweet.
There are 2 to 4 oboes in an orchestra and one of the duties of the oboist is to tune the orchestra before performing.
The English Horn, which is part of the Oboe family, is sometimes used in orchestras if the piece written requires it.
Since it is bigger than an oboe and a little wider, it has a lower pitch range. One of the oboe players in the orchestra will also play the English Horn if needed.
One of the most popular instruments in the woodwind family that is frequently used in orchestras is the clarinet.
Two to four clarinets play both melodies and harmonies with the lower notes resembling dark, or troubling sounds and the higher notes favoring bright, cheery, and upbeat sounds.
Last but not least is the Bassoon. Since the sound of the bassoon is quite remarkable, there are usually two to four bassoonists in the orchestra at one time.
The range of a bassoon is much like a cello, and the bassoon typically plays the lower harmonies, and occasionally the low notes in a melody.
Full Woodwind Instrument List:
The following is a list of common and uncommon woodwind instruments:
- alto clarinet
- alto flute
- alto saxophone
- baritone saxophone
- bass clarinet
- bass flute
- bass saxophone
- contra-alto clarinet
- contra-alto flute
- contrabass clarinet
- contrabass flute
- double clarinet
- English horn (cor anglais)
- Irish flute
- mezzo-soprano saxophone
- Native American flute
- organ pipe
- pan flute
- shruti box
- soprano clarinet
- soprano saxophone
- sruti upanga
- tenor saxophone