Instruments of the Woodwind Family: A Closer Look

The instruments of the woodwind family is a diverse group of instruments. Although they all belong to the same family, they each have a very different sound and look. In todays post I would like to introduce you to the individual instruments of this family and take a closer look at how they make sound and how they are made.

Before introducing the instruments I would like to answer a question that I hear all of the time. I often hear people ask:

Are all the instruments of the woodwind family made of wood?

 

The truth is in the beginning all woodwind instruments, except the saxophone, were made of wood. This is precisely why they were placed within the same family. Over the years the wood in many of these instruments has been replaced with metal and plastic. The saxophone, however, has always been made of metal but utilizes the same type of key mechanisms and requires a reed to make sound. Thus it has found its place in the woodwind family.

Instruments of the woodwind family can be placed into 3 separate categories. These include:

  1. Single Reed Woodwind Instruments
  2. Double Reed Woodwind Instruments
  3. Woodwind instruments that don’t require a reed

Now you may be asking:

what is a reed?

Single Reed
Alto and Tenor Sax Reeds

A reed is a thin strip of material, most often cane, that vibrates to create sound on woodwind instruments. Single and double reeded instruments cannot create sound without a reed. Therefore they are extremely important to all woodwind players, except flute players (The flute falls into the 3rd category mentioned above).

Double Reed
Bassoon Reed
Photo Courtesy of: By Thegreenj – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2134425

Below you will find two videos demonstrating how single and double reeds are made. The process for each reed is actually very different. Singles reeds can now be manufactured in factories which produces thousands of reeds everyday. Double reeds, however, are still made by hand. Musicians who play double reeded instruments continue to experiment in order to create the perfect double reed.

How a Single Reed is Made (In this case, Rico Reeds)

How A double Reed is Made (In this case an oboe reed)

Now that we have cleared up what a reed is we can start looking at the instruments that require them. I will introduce the instruments within the category they belong.

Instruments of the Woodwind Family

Single Reeded Woodwind Instruments
B Flat Clarinet
Photo Courtesy of: By Brimz – eigen werk (own work), derived from BflatClarinet.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7691788

The Clarinet

The clarinet is a transposing single reeded woodwind instrument. It comes in a variety of pitches and sizes but the most commonly played clarinet is the B flat clarinet. It is regularly played in the concert band and orchestra. The bass clarinet is another common instrument that is also pitched to B flat. It is played in the same way as the clarinet but it is much larger and sounds much lower.

Most professional model clarinets are made of African blackwood, but many student model clarinets are made of artificial resins or plastic. The mouthpiece is commonly made of a hard rubber called ebonite. The keys are usually made of an alloy known as German silver. Other materials used to make clarinets include cork for the joints, wax, and silver or a cheap alloy for the ligature (The metal piece that holds the reed in place).

Sound is made on the clarinet when the player blows into the mouthpiece which has a reed. The reed vibrates to create sound. The player changes the pitch of the sound by pressing keys which cover tone holes. This causes the instrument to become longer or shorter, depending on the combination of keys pressed.

Please watch the video below to hear a clarinet and see how a clarinet is made. The Clarinet in the video below is made of plastic resin.

SaxophoneThe Saxophone 

The Saxophone is also a single reeded woodwind instruments that requires a reed to produce sound. It is a much newer invention then the rest of the woodwind instruments, thus it has always been made of metal, usually brass.

Their is actually a family of saxophones that comes in a variety of sizes and pitches. To learn more about the saxophone family, including its history please visit my post, What Are The Different Types Of Saxophones in the Saxophone Family?, which looks at all the members of the saxophone family.

You may be wondering why the Saxophone has been placed in the woodwind family if the instrument has always been made of brass. Many people have mistakenly placed it in the brass family. The saxophone actually fits in the woodwind family because of the way it makes sound. Like the clarinet, the player blows into the mouthpiece which causes the reed to vibrate. The pitch of the instrument is changed by pressing keys which changes the length of the instrument.

The video below shows how a saxophone is made.

Double Reeded Woodwind Instruments

The Oboe

Oboe
Photo Courtesy of: By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3547115

The oboe is a non-transposing double reeded instrument that requires a double reed to produce sound. It is usually made of wood but some oboes are made of other synthetic materials. Upon first sight a person may mistake an oboe for a clarinet because of its similar colour and shape. The oboe, however, has a slimmer body and smaller bell. It also does not have a mouthpiece. The double reed is inserted directly into the body of the instrument. Be sure to watch the video above to fully understand how the double reed is made and inserted into the instrument.

Sound is created on the oboe when the player blows into the reeds. The reeds vibrate, thus creating a unique and bright sound. The pitches are changed in the same manner as the saxophone and clarinet. When the keys are pressed the length of the instrument is changed.

The video below shows how a buffet student oboe is assembled.

The Bassoon

Bassoon
Photo Courtesy of: By Celtic_Minstrel (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13799531

The Bassoon is also a non-transposing double reeded woodwind instrument that requires a double reed to create sound. Unlike the other members of the woodwind family, most music for the bassoon is written in the bass clef.  Like the oboe, the bassoon does not have a mouthpiece. The reed is inserted into the body of the instrument. Reeds for the bassoon are made and look similar to the oboe reed. The pitches are changed in the same manner as all of the other woodwind instruments. Keys are pressed to change the length of the instrument.

The Bassoon is most often made of wood, typically maple. However, less expensive models, such as student models may be made of a combination of materials like polypropylene and ebonite.

The Video below shows how the Bassoon is made.

The English Horn

English Horn
Photo Courtesy of: By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10289355

The English Horn is a less common transposing double reeded woodwind instrument. It sounds a fifth above the oboe and is pitched in F. It is most commonly found in music from the romantic era written by composers such as Berlioz and Wagner. It is essentially a large oboe which means it produces sound in the same manner.

Like the Clarinet the English horn is most often made of African Blackwood but other manufactures have used other materials such as various types of wood and plastic resin.

 

 

Woodwind Instruments That do Not Require A Reed

There are many instruments of the woodwind family that do not require a reed, such as the recorder, but the most common one that appears in the orchestra and the concert band is the flute.

The FluteFlute

The flute is a non-transposing woodwind instrument. Although it is a member of the woodwind family it is by no means played in the same manner. When a musician plays the flute it is held horizontally, rather then vertically. Sound is created when the player blows across the blow whole, like one would blow across the top of a bottle. The pitch is changed by pressing keys to change the length of the instrument.

The flute is actually one of the oldest known instruments and have come in many shapes and sizes. The most common flute in the orchestra and concert band is the transverse flute and the piccolo, which is a smaller and higher pitched version of the transverse flute.

Although the flute was originally made of wood, todays flutes are most commonly made of metal. Below is a video showing how a modern transverse flute is made.

A family of true Beauty

The instruments of the woodwind family are indeed a diverse group of instruments. Regardless of the instrument you choose you will find a wide variety of places to play. Whether you choose the clarinet or the bassoon you will discover that there is always a place for you in any orchestra or concert band.

With the descriptions and videos provided above you should now have a much better understanding of all of these instruments. But if you have any questions, concerns, or something to add I encourage you to leave a comment below.

 

 

 

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