Introduction | Woodwind Instruments

The term ‘woodwind’ refers collectively to the orchestral instruments whose sound is generated by reeds or by passing air across (as opposed to directly into) a mouthpiece: this covers the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon.

All woodwind instruments sound different pitches in the same way as brass instruments – using enclosed columns of air, based on the principles of fundamentals and overtones. The woodwind section now includes a regular visitor that is made of brass. The saxophone, however, uses a reed to generate sound and is in all respects except the material of its construction, a woodwind instrument.

Body Shape

The prime concern in the development of the woodwind family was creating bodies to encase columns of air that were stable and whose overtones were in tune. Different shapes of air columns have different acoustic properties; only with a suitable shape can a good sound quality be generated. Conical tubes with a tiny aperture at the thin end produce the best results, and this form can be seen in most woodwind instruments, including the oboe, bassoon and saxophone.

Second to the conical tube is the cylinder. These can be open at both ends, such as the flute. A cylinder open at one end but closed at the other has unusual acoustic properties, the most audible of which is a predominance of low harmonics. The clarinet is constructed in this way.

The sound of a woodwind instrument is projected mainly from the finger holes around the lowest depressed key. The function of the bell is mainly to reflect soundwaves back into the instrument rather than to distribute them into the air. This is a vital function, however, and considerably influences the sound.

Finger Holes

A tube open only at the mouthpiece and bell ends can only sound pitches from the harmonic series. In order to sound additional notes, it is necessary to alter the tube’s length. This was first achieved by adding finger holes. With all the holes covered, the tube’s fundamental pitch was sounded; uncovering the lowest hole effectively shortened the tube, making the pitch higher. By gradually uncovering the holes from the bell towards the mouthpiece it was possible to play a range of pitches – a system still used with some instruments.

The positioning of the finger holes was vital to their success and it was quickly discovered that some combinations of open and closed holes were more effective than others. The positions and number of holes were limited, however, by the size of player’s hands and the number of fingers.


The development of mechanical keys to help close the finger holes in the seventeenth century marked the initial steps towards modern woodwind instruments. Originally just used for hard-to-reach notes, it wasn’t until the work of Theobald Boehm (1794–1881) in the mid-1800s, however, that systems of keys reached their full potential. His developments brought together the work of his predecessors, and produced the proportions and...

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


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