Instruments | Woodwind


Somewhere, perhaps in Mesopotamia, about 7,000 years ago, a shepherd may well have looked at a goat skin and some hollow bones and had an idea for a new musical instrument: the bagpipe. In the early Christian era, the instrument spread from the Middle East eastward into India and westward to Europe. By the seventeenth century bagpipes were being played in European courts, but by the eighteenth century they were declining to become a minority folk instrument. In countries as diverse as Albania, Spain, Scotland and Ireland, the bagpipe is rightly valued as a living part of the culture.


The bassoon is known for its twin characteristics – as the ‘clown’, for its comic effects, or the ‘gentleman’, for its eloquent, lyrical capacities. Its early development is thought to have followed the reconstruction of the shawm, a strident-sounding instrument often played in outdoor ceremonies during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Similarities in design and use also suggest the curtal or dulcian was the true forerunner of the bassoon.

It was used in Henry Purcell’s 1691 score The History of Dioclesian and the English musicologist James Talbot identified ‘a bassoon in four joynts’ around 1695. The four-key version made by the Denners of Nuremberg was the eighteenth-century standard, and Carl Almenräder’s 15-key bassoon met nineteenth-century demands for louder, more reliable, instruments. Two types now commonly used are made by the Heckel family and the Buffet-Crampon firm.

The bassoon has a smoother and less reedy sound than the oboe and is the true bass of the woodwind group. The size of this bass instrument poses special problems. The nine-foot-long tube has to be doubled back on itself and the finger-holes bored obliquely to be reached by the player’s fingers. Böhm’s key innovations did not work well for the bassoon, and its resultant system is exceptionally difficult to play. With a reed made by bending double a shaped strip of cane, the bassoon’s sound is one of the orchestra’s primary colours.


The clarinet’s predecessor was a small single-reeded mock trumpet called a chalumeau. It is not certain, but the invention of the clarinet is ascribed to Johann Christoph Denner of Nuremburg in the early 1700s. With its strong upper register, it found a place in military bands, but was not regularly used in the orchestra until around 1800. The clarinet is usually made of African blackwood. To play it, you blow, gripping the mouthpiece, reed down, between your lips or lower lip and upper teeth.

The clarinet has an acoustical feature that sets it apart: if you blow harder, or ‘overblow’, on other woodwinds the pitch goes up an octave, but on a clarinet it goes up an octave and a fifth. The clarinet’s separate registers produce a range of characteristic timbres (sounds) – rich and oily in the lowest register, slightly pale in the middle, clear and singing in the higher and shrill at the top.

There are two distinct...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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