This guide to woodwind instruments covers the fundamentals of the woodwind family: what are woodwinds? Why are they not necessarily made of wood? How do they fit into the broad spectrum of music?
Why ‘Wood’ Wind?
In the early 1900s, Erich Moritz von Hornbostel from Austria and Curt Sachs from Germany decided to gang up and write an enormous classification system of musical instruments. The eponymous Hornbostel-Sachs system is still used widely today by ethnomusicologists. It describes five broad classifications and hundreds of sub-classifications splitting almost every type of instrument into a category based on how it produces sound.
To see how it works, let’s take a non-woowind instrument to classify – spoons.
Spoons are found under the primary classification “Idiophones” (an instrument which produces sound through vibration). Spoons then fall under the sub-classification “Struck idiophones” (an instrument which is struck). Spoons are further narrowed to the sub-classification “Directly struck idiophones” (the player strikes the instrument themselves) and finally sub-classification “Concussion vessel or vessel clapper.”
Click here to see a great spoons solo.
All woodwind and brass instruments sprout from the same tree in the Hornbostel-Sachs system. Everything from tubas to piccolos fall under both of the following parent categories:
- “Aerophones” (sound produced by vibrating air)
- “Non-free aerophones” (vibrating air contained within the instrument)
But that is where the relationship ends. As the tree branches out, three distinct families are formed:
“Edge-blown aerophones or flutes” – the player makes a ribbon-shaped flow of air with their lips or breath directed through a duct against an edge.
“Reed aerophones” – The player’s breath is directed against a lamella (a thin layer e.g. a reed) or pair of lamellae which periodically interrupt the airflow and cause the air to be set in motion.
All brass instruments:
“Trumpets” – the player’s vibrating lips set the air in motion.
Note: all brass instruments are rather unfairly lumped together as ‘trumpets’. Do you play French Horn? Sorry to say, but according to the Hornbostel-Sachs system you play trumpet.
The terms ‘brass’ and ‘woodwind’ have nothing to do with the materials an instrument is made from – they are so named because of the way a musician produces sound on them.
So why have all ‘edge-blown aerophones’ and ‘reed aerophones’ been lumped under the broadly known category ‘woodwind’?
If you are stuck on the word ‘wood,’ then Encyclopædia Britannica has the answer. Clarinets and flutes used to be exclusively made of wood and were aptly named ‘woodwinds.’ Modern flutes and clarinets are made with other materials but are still called woodwinds due to their heritage. Saxophones, oboes, and bassoons all share common ancestral reed setups and fingering methods to clarinets, so they have been categorised under woodwinds as well.
Materials Found in Woodwinds
You should now understand that woodwind instruments are not necessarily made of wood. Some instruments sound better as wood, some sound better as brass, some sound better as silver. Years of evolution has resulted in each instrument settling into the best material for the job (for now).
Grenadilla (AKA African Blackwood, African Ebony, African Ironwood, Mpingo)
Grenadilla (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is one of the world’s most expensive woods and is very popular for musical instruments due its high tolerance of different climates, moisture repellence, and oily nature. It is by far the most popular wood for clarinets, oboes, and wooden flutes.
There are arguments that grenadilla is not the most tonally beautiful wood and that players loyal to it have a “full blown bias.” Regardless, grenadilla is very stable, easy to machine, and less prone (although not immune) to cracking while playing.
Potential problems with Grenadilla
Grenadilla trees take 70-100 years to reach a harvestable age. They are quite small and shrubby –between 4 and 15 metres high – and are widespread through 26 African countries. The species has been rapidly declining and is currently on the IUCN Red List of near threatened species. The main exporters today are Tanzania and Mozambique where stocks are still at a manageable level.
Quick research turns up inconsistencies about how threatened grenadilla actually is. This site describes a small, successful cultivation of the tree in Florida. It also describes the introduction of grenadilla to Australia as being so successful that it became almost like a weed. Perhaps the threat is not so much the disappearance of the wood, but the disappearance of the wood in countries where labour is cheap and exporters are happy to exploit resources to meet demand.
Some clarinet manufacturers, notably Backun, use cocobolo wood to manufacture bells, barrels, and even full instruments. The wood has a distinct grainy orange hue which makes for a strikingly different look to an instrument. Some say cocobolo creates a warmer tone, but much of it comes down to a player trying different wood types and choosing their preference.
Our experience with cocobolo clarinets is that they look and sound lovely but are more prone to cracking.
Maple is the most common wood used for bassoons. It is considered a robust tonewood – a wood that carries good tonal properties. Maple is also used in string instruments such as violins and guitars and the shells of acoustic drums.
Most entry-level clarinets, oboes and bassoons are made of plastic – typically ABS. Wikipedia has an entry for ABS if you want to learn more about it – the first two paragraphs are full of strange six-syllable words so I will not try and write a concise explanation here.
In a nutshell, ABS is hardy, cheap to produce, and will not crack like wood. Most players tend to prefer the tonal qualities of a wooden instrument over a plastic one. They also prefer the weight and feel of a wooden instrument. Conversely (and controversially), some players think the build quality is more important than the material.
To a listener, it can be difficult to tell the difference. The following sample is of somebody playing on two clarinets in a random order – one wood and one plastic:
Buffet makes many of its professional level clarinets in what they call ‘Greenline’ which is a hybrid of 95% grenadilla wood and 5% polycarbonate fibre and epoxy resin. This means the instruments are very resistant to cracking and hold up well to dramatic changes in humidity. The NZ Air Force Band uses Greenline clarinets for marching.
I have written all about the different properties of brass in my Guide to Brass Instruments.
Silver and other precious metals
Silver plating can be found covering brass saxophones, nickel clarinet keys, and nickel or brass student flutes. As well as looking nice and shiny, a plating of silver helps protect the metal underneath without adding a dampening effect to the tone.
Using precious metals for an entire instrument seems to be the sole domain of flutes. There is a lot of contention as to whether a flute made with precious metal is better than one that is not, but you will find plenty of flutes made of silver, gold, and even platinum.
To quote Nancy Toff’s The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers:
The flute community is divided on what constitutes the ideal flute – thick or thin wall; silver plate, sterling silver, gold… these choices are highly personal; their effect on flute tone cannot be condensed into a scientific formula. Certain playing techniques, however, are applicable no matter what the instrument. Said Verne Q Powell, one of this century’s finest flute makers – and a man with a vested interest in saying otherwise: “As far as tone is concerned, I contend that 90% of it is the man behind the flute.
In saying that, Verne Q Powell also patented a metal alloy called Aurumite in 1990. The sound of an Aurumite flute, according to Powell, is ‘sunny and animated’ and flutes made of it are currently selling for upwards of $30,000.
The accolade of most expensive flute also goes to Powell. The engraved platinum “Verne Q. Powell flute serial no. 365” was sold at auction for $187,000.00 USD in 1986.
The Woodwind Family
I imagined the oldest instrument would be a variation of two rocks being smashed together – a precursor to the instrument I play: the drums. Sadly, percussion (hitting things with sticks) is not regarded as music, and the flute takes the honoured spot as the oldest known instrument.
A flute made from vulture bone was recently found in a German cave. A 2012 study revealed that the flute was 42,000 years old, and researchers have speculated that the production of it and other musical instruments may have been part of a culture war which gave modern humans an edge over Neanderthals.
The flute most relevant to us is the modern ‘western transverse flute,’ meaning:
- Western: it was popularised in Western Europe after arriving from the Eastern Roman Empire
- Transverse: it is blown from the side
A modern flute covers three octaves and can either soar above an orchestra or blend in perfectly. Flutes are essential in orchestras, but they are also used widely in jazz, rock, pop, and traditional music.
Modern flutes are made of metal and are silver plated at the student level. As a player progresses, they will move to a solid silver headjoint then to a solid silver body and keys. At an intermediate or professional level, the sky is the limit regarding optional extras, including open-hole keys, offset G keys, and other precious metals.
The flute family:
This is the flute described above. It is pitched in C so there is no need to transpose your music.
The piccolo is the smallest member of the flute family and is pitched in C an octave higher than a concert flute. Piccolos can be crafted from precious metals, but they are more often made from grenadilla wood. You would normally use a piccolo alongside a concert flute; it is rare to find people who exclusively play it.
Alto flutes are longer and fatter than concert flutes and are pitched in G. A player needs a lot of air to get a nice tone, and the result is a lovely mellow sound.
Bass flutes, also pitched in C, are not very common – particularly here in New Zealand. They are too large to be played like a concert flute and require a curved headjoint and specially modified keys so the player can reach everything. The tone of a bass flute is very mellow.
Beyond bass, flutes can be pushed to extremes. Here is a strangely percussive solo played on a sub contra bass flute:
Clarinets are relatively modern instruments. The precursor to the modern clarinet was the Chalumaux, or ‘mock trumpet’ – a single reed pipe instrument. There are no original versions of these instruments left in existence, but modern manufacturers have reproduced them in various different sizes – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.
Below is a video featuring a Chalumaux quartet:
Modern Boehm and Öhler systems
Clarinets have evolved and branched into two distinct styles: The German ‘Öhler’ System and the French ‘Boehm’ System. There are several subtle differences between the two systems including keywork, bore size, barrel length, and mouthpiece setup. All these differences result in instruments with unique tonal properties.
The Boehm system is the most popular style globally and is used by 80% of players – including almost 100% of players France, USA, Japan, China, UK, and New Zealand. Most music shops (including Vanguard) almost exclusively stock mouthpieces, reeds, ligatures, and instruments in the Boehm style.
The Öhler system is used extensively in Germany and Austria. Öhler clarinets are less uniform than Boehm clarinets and can vary a lot in terms of keywork. A very broad (and debateable) difference from Boehm is that Öhler clarinets produce a darker tone using a harder reed. Due to smaller production numbers and European manufacture, Öhler clarinets are usually much more expensive.
The clarinet family:
This is the most common type of clarinet and can be heard in many styles of music from orchestral, to jazz, to death metal.
Bb Bass Clarinet:
The bass clarinet sits one octave below the Bb clarinet and has an extended lower register. Bass clarinets are popular in orchestras and wind ensembles and are occasionally heard in contemporary, jazz, and, of course, death metal.
It can be difficult to distinguish an A from a Bb clarinet. The key difference (pun intended) is that the root note starts on A rather than a Bb, but the physical properties are almost identical; the A is longer by a mere 1cm. In general, the A has a deeper and more sonorous sound, and so a clarinet player will switch to it if the music requires quiet, mellow passages. Usually the decision of which clarinet to use is made at a compositional level.
The Eb is the smallest commonly used clarinet. It is designed to perform in unison with flutes and oboes and can be challenging to play due to its inherent intonation issues and small mouthpiece. This is an instrument for seasoned clarinet players.
The saxophone is a relatively young instrument; it was created by Adolphe Sax in 1841 and patented just five years later. The ‘saxhorn,’ as it was then known, was tossed around in classical compositions for a few decades and finally found its way into jazz music in 1914.
Manufacturers were free to alter the design of the saxophone after the original patent expired, and the instrument was revolutionised by Henri Selmer with the creation of the ‘Balanced Action’ saxophone in 1936. Selmer’s style became the blueprint for all manufacturers and the design has persisted into modern times.
Special mention: The Mark VI
The coveted Selmer Mark VI instruments were manufactured between 1954 and 1974. Part of their popularity was the amazing tone and quality of build. It has also been suggested that the Mark IV popularity boomed because other instrument manufacturers were saving all their brass for war efforts; anybody wanting a brass saxophone had to buy from Selmer in France – although the timeline seems a little strange on this: WWII ended nine years before the Mark VI started production. Sax players still covet the Selmer Mark VI. It is not unusual to see one sell well into the late thousands.
The Saxophone Family
There are many different styles of saxophone. From the circus-clown curved sopranino to the enormous and totally impractical subcontra bass. This guide will describe the four most popular sizes:
The soprano is not something a beginner would normally start on; its higher pitch makes it difficult for a new a player to control. A soprano will often play similar parts to a clarinet but with extra brightness and clarity. Sopranos are used regularly in jazz, often in classical, and occasionally in other genres as a featured soloist.
This is the saxophone that most beginners will start on. The size is easier for younger students to hold, and the smaller mouthpiece is manageable for a player without a developed embouchure. Alto saxophones are in the key of Eb and will regularly be found in school ensembles. Once a student has a good handle on an alto they may choose to move to a tenor, soprano or baritone. However, at this point they may prefer the sound of an alto and stick with it as their main instrument.
Famous alto players in the jazz world include Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly and Ornette Coleman.
The tenor is about 30cm longer than an alto. A good way to tell the difference at a quick glance is by looking at the neck: a tenor saxophone has a curved neck.
Beginners can start on tenor saxophones, but they require more airflow to sound good. Therefore it’s better for younger players to begin on an alto. Tenors are in the key of Bb and can play around half an octave lower than alto. Some of the great players include John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins.
The Baritone is a bit of a beast compared to the tenor. It is not a light instrument – 6kg – and the reed is twice the size of an alto reed (also twice the price, unfortunately). The bari is generally not the saxophone a player will start on. But it is a great goal to work towards if you like the deep, rich sound it can produce.
Double Reed Instruments
The oboe is the first instrument in this guide which uses a double reed. This gives it a penetrating, nasal voice as the player blows between the two sandwiched reeds; there is no mouthpiece for oboe. Like clarinets, oboes are played upright and are usually made of ABS plastic at a student level and grenadilla wood from the intermediate level up.
Oboes are notoriously difficult to play. This website lists 10 terrible things about playing the oboe, with some highlights being:
- The first few years of playing will sound horrifying
- Oboes have tuning issues
- You’ll eventually have to make your own reeds which requires many strange tools
Double reed instruments require a lot of air to make the reeds vibrate. This is true regardless of whether you are going for a soft or a loud sound, and it can leave new players dizzy and short of breath.
This information may seem worrying, but the painful first stages are worth it! If you can push through the initial learning curve, the oboe is a beautiful sounding instrument.
- It is unlikely to crack
- there is a simplified key setup
- It is lighter and easier to hold
For the advancing player, professional oboes have what is called a ‘full-conservatory system’ which means they have all the essential keys found in a student oboe plus several additional keys to reach certain notes with better tuning.
Oboes are overwhelmingly used in orchestral settings, although Google has made it possible for us to discover its other uses. This video features a (frankly, bizarre) tuba-oboe jazz quartet.
Cor Anglais (English Horn)
The cor Angalis is very similar to the oboe and is typically used alongside the oboe in an ancillary way – in much the same way a piccolo is used alongside a flute.
The embouchure and fingering on a cor Anglais is the same as an oboe. However, the cor is 1.2 times longer and can therefore play lower notes. This means it is pitched lower as well; an oboe is pitched in concert C, whereas a cor Anglais is pitched in F one fifth below. It also uses a slightly bigger reed and takes more air to get a full sound.
The bassoon is the double reed world’s answer to a bass instrument. The reed is attached to a curved piece of metal called a crook or bocal and the air is blown down through to the bottom of the instrument, around a curve, and then back up out the top.
Bassoons are generally made of maple wood – either sycamore maple or sugar maple. Reeds are available pre-made, but eventually a player will start making their own. Nearly all bassoons you will come across in NZ (and most other English-speaking countries) will be the German “Heckle” system.
Britannica notes that the bassoon is “exceptionally difficult to play because the traditional placing of the finger holes is scientifically irrational.” A study of 11 bassoonists discussing their strategies to manage the instrument’s ergonomic issues can be found here. A good playing position is achieved under the careful watch of an experienced bassoon teacher. It also gives several general rules:
- The reed should enter the player’s mouth at a perpendicular angle
- The weight should be distributed evenly between the hands
- The player should sit as tall as naturally possible
- The player should use some sort of seat or other strap
Like the oboe, the bassoon is overwhelmingly used in orchestral, classical settings. There are of course exceptions, such as this contemplative piece from 1976 by Brazilian singer Cartola:
There is plenty more information out there, but I hope this guide has given you brief introduction to the world of woodwind. If you have further questions, please call us at Vanguard, drop us an email or leave a comment below.