Musical Instruments: The Woodwind Family

Was I born in England? Yes I was. In the 1980s? Yes I was. Am I a girl? Yes I am. Therefore I can play the recorder. Am I exaggerating? Only slightly.

The woodwind family is part of a vast and ancient family of wind instruments, all of which are played by blowing air across a hollow pipe or pipes of varying length. The air stream is concentrated in some way, either by being blown at an angle or by having a narrowing or a ‘reed’ positioned inside or just below the mouthpiece. As the name would suggest, once upon a time all the woodwinds were made of wood, although these days many are made of metal or plastic. The only instrument I can play with any degree of competency is a woodwind – the recorder.

Only a handful of members of the woodwind family are typically included in a Western orchestra. From highest to lowest, the orchestral woodwind family consists of the piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn (a.k.a. the bass oboe or cor anglais), clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, and contrabassoon. Sometimes the saxophone makes its way onto the list on a technicality – they have a single-reed mouthpiece.

Woodwind family
Members of the woodwind family, ranked from highest to lowest.

The woodwind section sits behind the violas and cellos facing the conductor’s right hand. In most cases woodwind players will be skilled in playing more than one member of the family, and may transition from one to another over the course of a concert or even within a piece of music.

When I say the woodwinds are ancient I’m not kidding: they date back to the Neolithic Period (approximately 10,000-2,000 B.C.E.).

Neolithic bone flutes
Bone flutes excavated from a Neolithic grave.

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