Nov 05

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Orchestral Instruments; Part 2 – The Woodwind


Woodwind Instruments

What are the standard orchestral woodwind instruments?

woodwind instruments

Flute, Oboe, Cor Anglais, Clarinet and Bassoon

In a symphony orchestra, there are four main woodwind instruments – the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. The flute is the highest in pitch, the bassoon is the lowest. The flute is usually silver-plated, while the oboe, clarinet and bassoon are usually made of wood. (Plastic instruments are also available, but most professional musicians choose wood because the sound is better.) Each of the woodwind instruments has a very distinct sound.

In addition to the main instruments, most large orchestras also have some other woodwind. The piccolo is a small flute and plays an octave higher. The piccolo can be very shrill, and although it’s the smallest instrument in the orchestra it can always be heard! The cor Anglais is similar to the oboe, but has a more mellow sound. The clarinet has a little sister, the Eb clarinet, which has a bright chirpy sound, and a big brother, the bass clarinet which is deep and reedy. The bassoon also has a big brother, the contrabassoon, which provides solid bass notes when needed.

The flute, oboe and bassoon have been around for many hundreds of years, although in a simpler form. They have been used in classical music since at least the 17th century. The clarinet, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer, and was first introduced into the orchestra by Mozart in the middle of the 18th century.

Other woodwind instruments which are not normally found in orchestras are the recorder, saxophone and bagpipes.

Why are some metal and plastic instruments called “woodwind”?

baroque flute

A Baroque flute player

In Bach’s time (around 1700 AD), woodwind instruments were very simple compared to the vast selection of technological wonders we have today, but the instruments used back then were the prototypes of our modern woodwind family. In Bach’s time, all woodwind instruments were made out of wood – hence the name! (Sometimes ivory instruments were also produced). Today, woodwind instruments can be manufactured out of wood, metal or plastic. The choice of material has an effect on the quality of sound made by the instrument, its weight and its cost.

What’s the difference between “wind” and “woodwind”?

The term “wind” instrument includes the woodwind family and the brass family, because they all use the players breath to produce sound. Brass instruments are a different family though, because they are/were never made of wood, and sound is produced with a metal funnel mouthpiece.

How do woodwind instruments work?

Woodwind instruments all produce sound in more or less the same way – the instrument is a hollowed out tube with a hole at the top. The player makes the column of air inside the instrument vibrate, and these vibrations create musical notes.

The pitch of the note depends on how long the tube is. Holes drilled along the length of the tube can be covered or uncovered by the player’s fingers, which has the effect of lengthening or shortening the tube. If all the holes are covered, the instrument will play its lowest note. As each hole is uncovered, the notes will rise in pitch. Once all the holes have been opened, higher notes can be reached if the player changes the air pressure as they play the fingering of lower notes. For example, on many woodwind instruments a note will change to the note one octave higher, if the air pressure is increased. On the clarinet, the note jumps up an octave and a fifth if the air pressure is increased.

Bigger instruments, like the bassoon, produce lower notes.

How do reed instruments work?

Clarinet with single reed

The clarinet, oboe, bassoon, cor Anglais and saxophone are all reed instruments. The clarinet and saxophone are single reed instruments, whereas the oboe, bassoon and cor Anglais use a double reed.

On a single reed instrument, the reed is attached to the mouthpiece so that it is joined firmly at the bottom, but a slight gap remains right at the tip, which goes into the player’s mouth. When the player breaths into the instrument, the tip of the reed is forced against the mouthpiece, momentarily closing the tube completely.


close up bassoon reed

Bassoon Reed

However, as soon as it touches the mouthpiece, it bounces back again. This motion is repeated at breakneck speed, all the time that the player is breathing into the instrument. The constant opening/closing of the tube sets up the vibration of air which produces the musical notes we hear.

On a double reed instrument, two thin reeds are tightly bound together at their bases, with a small gap between them.

The air column is set in motion in more or less the same way as with single reed instruments, except that instead of one reed bouncing against the mouthpiece, the two reeds bounce against each other.

Why do woodwind instruments have metal keys?

In order for the notes to sound in tune, the holes in a woodwind instrument need to be placed with great accuracy. In some cases, this means that a hole has to be drilled in a place where the fingers could not possibly reach. Keys are added to the instrument in the place where the players fingers would naturally fall, then a mechanism is attached from the key to the hole. In this way, holes can be opened up anywhere on the instrument.

2 key flute

Old Flute with only 2 Keys

In the past, keys were not used on woodwind instruments at all. If you have a descant recorder, you have a specimen of the historical design of woodwind instruments! With a recorder (and old flutes), the players had to use intricate “cross fingerings” to be able to play in tune, and some notes were not possible to play at all. Gradually, musical instrument makers began to add keys, so that more notes would become available to use. Over time, the entire flute and oboe became covered in keys, making their tunings perfect and all notes possible. Instrument makers in different countries developed different patterns of keys, so if you buy a German clarinet you might need to learn a different set of fingerings than you need for an English one!

keys on flute

Large keys on modern flute

With very large instruments like the bassoon or bass clarinet, keys are needed over every hole because the holes are too far apart for anyone with normal sized hands to reach.

The flute has keys over every hole because the holes themselves are a lot bigger than a fingertip. The large holes improve the sound of the instrument, but can only be closed by large sized key. Older flutes have fewer keys on them, and tend to have a “narrower” sound than modern flutes.

Why do woodwind instruments come apart?

For practical reasons, most woodwind instruments are made in at least two parts. A flute, for example, has a mouthpiece, which slots into the left-hand joint, which slots into the right-hand joint. The clarinet usually comes split into five parts. This has several benefits:

  • clarinet in case

    Clarinet in its Case

    if one part of the instrument splits or cracks, a new joint can be bought instead of a whole new instrument

  • the instrument can be fine tuned (made slightly sharper or flatter) with some small adjustments to how it is put together
  • the instrument can be put away in a small, rectangular box, which is much easier for carrying
  • the individual parts of the instrument can be easily cleaned. Woodwind instruments have a nasty habit of harbouring bacteria from the player’s mouth, so easy access to clean inside them is essential.

Why are clarinets “transposing” instruments?

As we mentioned above, the length of the tube effects the pitch of the notes. When a standard flute or oboe is made, it’s just the right size for an adult to hold and play, and the lowest note also happens to be middle C, which is quite convenient. If you put the three fingers of the left hand down on a flute, oboe or descant recorder, you’ll get the note G – you don’t have to learn new fingerings for each instrument. If you increase the air pressure, you’ll get the G an octave higher. This means it’s really easy for woodwind players to be versatile with other instruments.

With the standard size clarinet however, if you put the same three fingers down, you will produce the note Bb, and if you blow harder, you’ll get an F. This makes life rather complicated. In order to make things a bit easier, the higher note is simply renamed as “G”, even though it’s not really a G. If a composer wants the clarinet player to sound the note “F”, he simply writes the note “G” on the stave instead. The clarinet player puts three fingers down, as the “across the board” fingering for G, and the note F is produced by his instrument. This can be quite hard work for the composer of course, who has to do all the brain work. However, once the piece is written, it is easy for any player to pick it up and produce the right notes. Clarinets transpose, so that clarinet players don’t need to! The standard clarinet is a “clarinet in Bb“, because if you play a written C, the note Bb sounds.

Clarinets have an awful lot of keys on them, partly because of the fact that they don’t “overblow” at the octave like flutes and oboes. One side effect of this is that it happens to be a bit awkward to play in keys with lots of sharps. To overcome this, a slightly longer clarinet is made – the clarinet in A. As you can probably work out, if you play a written C, the note A is produced. The clarinet in A is only a few millimetres longer than a clarinet in Bb, but it makes a big difference to the clarinet player – music is hardly ever written in keys with lots of flats or sharps! If a piece of music is in B major (5 sharps), the clarinet part will be in D major (2 sharps) for clarinet in A. If a piece is written in Db major (5 flats), the clarinet part will be written in Eb major (3 flats) for clarinet in Bb. Most professional clarinet players own a “pair” of matched clarinets, one in A and one in Bb.

Which is the easiest / most difficult woodwind instrument to learn?


The recorder is by far the easiest instrument for children to get started on. It’s cheap, lightweight and not complicated to play. Producing a note is easy, although producing a note which sounds nice is more of a challenge!

The clarinet and flute are the next easiest to learn. The fingerings learnt on the recorder can be easily transferred to these instruments with some small adjustments. However, they are much bigger, heavier instruments and producing the note takes more effort and technique. The flute or clarinet are best started after the age or 9 or 10.


The oboe is quite a difficult instrument to play. Producing a note usually takes some time to achieve, and a new player can feel a bit disheartened when they have owned their instrument for some days and still not managed to get a note out of it!

The bassoon is also difficult to get a note out of, and is also very heavy to transport.



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  1. JIMMY

    How many parts does your Orchestral Guide have??

    1. Victoria

      At present only two parts are published – part 2 and part 3. Part 4 will be up in a few days and part 1 will be the last one! Part 1 is just a list of contents though! Next part will be Brass, followed by Strings, followed by Percussion.

  2. josh

    how far apart do the holes need to be for the clarinet to work with good tuning

    1. Victoria

      It depends on the size of the clarinet in terms of how long it is, and how big the bore is. I’m not a clarinet technician – try asking on a clarinet forum e.g. http://test.woodwind.org/clarinet/BBoard/list.html?f=1

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