The modern woodwind instrument features a cylindrical design that's either straight or curved in some form. Holes, sometimes with keys on top, help the player render specific pitches. Most, but not all, use a single or double reed as a mouthpiece. The player then blows into the instrument and, by pressing on keys or covering the holes, generates various pitches. As the player directs air through the reed, the wooden or metal tube vibrates.
With the exception of the flute and piccolo, woodwinds require a reed to produce a sound. A single reed, usually made of wood, is used by clarinet and saxophone players. Oboists and bassoonists, meanwhile, use a double-reed mouthpiece, in which two narrow pieces of wood are bound together.
Types of Woodwind Instruments
Today's orchestra typically has multiple flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, in addition to a piccolo, English horn and even a saxophone on occasion. These instruments are also essential to the sound of a marching band and are used throughout jazz and other popular styles.
The flute is considered one of the oldest pitched instruments, with predecessors made from wood, bamboo and even stone. Silver, platinum or gold is used for modern-day versions, and traditionally, it measures about two feet long - although alto flutes, more common in jazz, are wider and longer. Unlike with other woodwinds, flute players hold the instrument to the size and blow into an open mouthpiece.
Related to the flute is the piccolo, essentially a shorter version of the instrument that plays the highest pitches in an orchestra's wind section.
While also roughly two feet long, the oboe is a double-reed instrument made of wood and metal. The vibrations from the reed direct the sound, causing the body to vibrate, and the player then uses the various keys and holes along its length. Pitch wise, the oboe is lower than the flute and generates a more mellow sound.
Within the orchestra's oboe section, one player may bring out an English horn. While not identical to the oboe, its design and operation are similar. As its distinguishing features, English horns tend to be longer and slightly wider and feature a rounded bell at the end.
Clarinets seamlessly move between classical and jazz, but within an orchestral context, more than one type of clarinet exists. This woodwind instrument, in general, features a single reed and bell-shaped end and delivers a warm sound that's used for both melodies and harmonies.
Typically, a traditional clarinet - also referred to as a B-flat clarinet based on transposition - is about two feet in length. The E-flat clarinet is smaller and reaches a higher note range. The bass clarinet, a significantly larger instrument that the player supports on the ground, curves before flaring out into a bell and reaches the lower end of the clarinet section's range.
You'll occasionally spot a saxophone in classical music, but it's primarily included in marching bands, jazz, pop and big-band. The saxophone's invention came considerably later than other woodwinds: Supposedly, in the mid-19th century, Antoine-Joseph Sax attached a single-reed mouthpiece to a brass instrument.
Just as with clarinets, saxophones come in multiple sizes - soprano, alto, tenor and bass - to reach different ranges of pitches. In general, this instrument's conical shape curves and flares out into a bell; the exception is the soprano sax, which is designed more like a clarinet. A feature differentiating it from other winds, saxophones have two octave key vents, which allow the instrument by itself to access a higher pitch range. Today, you'll spot most players using an alto or tenor sax.
The "bass" of the woodwind family, the bassoon uses a construction similar to the oboe: a double-reed mouthpiece and a body made of wood and metal. As its differentiating factor, the bassoon is nine feet long, has a straight, upright shape the player supports with their lap, and has a curved metal mouthpiece that extends away from the instrument. The contrabassoon, in a larger, doubled-over form, accesses an even lower pitch range.
Find Woodwind Instruments at Alamo Music Center
Whether you're getting started, want a higher-quality instrument, or are looking to upgrade from a band or orchestral rental, Alamo Music Center covers all woodwinds. Browse new and pre-owned winds today, and take advantage of no-interest, 48-month financing, extended warranties and optional trial lessons.