Instruments | Oboe | Woodwind

Of the woodwind instruments, the oboe has experienced perhaps the most organic development. There is no single, revolutionary moment at which the oboe became a modern instrument, and it retains strong links with the past both in sound and design.


The modern oboe is a direct descendant of the shawm and the hautboy. The shawm was a conically bored, straight wooden instrument with a flared bell, popular throughout Europe from as early as the twelfth century. The shawm used finger holes to alter the pitch. It generated sound from a double reed held in a pirouette – a small, upturned wooden cup attached to the top of the instrument, which covered the lower half of the reed. The player could either rest his lips on the top of the pirouette, supporting his embouchure and allowing the reed to vibrate unimpeded in his mouth, or control the reed directly with his lips for greater variety of tone colour.

The shawm created a powerful, even raucous, noise; it was consequently associated with loud outdoor music, particularly ceremonial music and processionals. There were quiet shawms, but its strong association with trumpets and drums, as well as sackbuts and cornetts, remains to this day. The early-music movement has created a shawm revival, and the instrument can be heard in performances of Renaissance music.

Evolution of the Shawm

Terminology has always been a contentious issue when discussing the evolution of the shawm into the oboe. For many commentators the term ‘shawm’ can be used interchangeably with hautbois or hautboy. Others argue that each is a distinct instrument. Whichever school one subscribes to, it is clear that changes to the shawm’s design had, by the mid-seventeenth century, given rise to a new instrument, which will be referred to here as the hautboy.


The hautboy used eight finger holes, two of which were operated via keys; the shawm normally had six finger holes and no keys. The hautboy was made from three separate joints – two for the main body and one for the flared bell; the shawm was normally constructed from a single piece of wood.

The most significant difference between the shawm and the hautboy, however, was the jettisoning of the pirouette in favour of a completely exposed reed. This afforded the player greater control and softened the instrument’s timbre, but simultaneously made it far more difficult to play.

Evolution of the Hautboy

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries many subtle changes occurred to the hautboy’s design. The bore became narrower and the walls thinner; at the same time the finger holes became smaller. This focused, softened and quietened the instrument’s tone as well as increasing its agility, so that by the late-eighteenth century, the hautboy had become an instrument of genuine virtuosity with celebrated soloists working all over Europe. It had also found a regular position in the orchestra, where its particular timbre made it an excellent partner for violins.

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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