Woodwinds Lessons | Chambers Music

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Woodwinds Lessons

A woodwind instrument is a musical instrument which produces sound when the player blows air against a sharp edge or through a reed, causing the air within its resonator (usually a column of air) to vibrate. Most of these instruments are made of wood, but can be made of other materials, such as metals or plastics.

Classification

Woodwinds are one of two categories in the family of wind instruments, the other one being brass instruments.

Although brass instruments were originally made of brass and woodwind instruments have traditionally been made of wood, the choice of material used to make the body of the instrument is determined by the effect desired, i.e., woods produce sounds that are more mellow, metals produce brighter sounds. A more dependable way to determine whether an instrument is brass or woodwind is to examine how the player produces sound. In brass instruments, the player’s lips vibrate, causing the air within the instrument to vibrate. In woodwind instruments the player either:

  • causes a reed to vibrate, which agitates the column of air (as in a clarinet, oboe or duduk)
  • blows against an edge or fipple (as in a recorder), or
  • blows across the edge of an open hole (as in a flute).

For example, the saxophone is typically made of brass, but is classified as a woodwind instrument due to the method of vibrating the air column (by using a reed).

As another example, the wooden cornett (not the cornet, which is made of brass) and the serpent are both made of wood (or plastic tubing, in the case of modern serpents), but belong to the family of brass instruments because the vibrating is done by the player’s lips.

In the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification, wind instruments are classed as aerophones.

Woodwind Instruments

Flutes produce sound when air is blown across an edge. There are two flute sub-families:

  • Open flute family, where the player’s lips form a stream of air which goes directly from the players lips to the edge, such as transverse flutes and end-blown flutes. Modern concert flutes are usually made of pure metal or a combination of metals including nickel, silver, and gold.
  • Closed flute family, where the instrument has a channel to form and direct the air stream over the edge. This family includes fipple based flutes like whistles and the recorder family.

Single-reed instruments use a reed, which is a thin-cut piece of cane or plastic that is held against the aperture of a mouthpiece with a ligature. When air is forced between the reed and the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates, creating the sound. Single reed instruments include the clarinet and saxophone families, and others like the duduk and the chalumeau.

Double-reed instruments, use two precisely cut, small pieces of cane joined together at the base. The finished, bound reed is inserted into the top of the instrument and vibrates as air is forced between the two pieces. There are two double-reed sub-families:

  • Exposed double-reed instruments, where the reed goes between the player’s lips. In this family include Western classical instruments the oboe, cor anglais (also called English horn) and bassoon, and many types of shawms throughout the world.
  • Capped double-reed instruments, where the player just blows through a hole in a cap that covers the reed. This family includes the crumhorn and the cornamuse.

Bagpipes can have single and/or double reeds. These are functionally the same as capped reed instruments as the reeds are not in contact with players lips.

Free reed aerophone instruments that has its sound produced as air flows past a vibrating reed in a frame. Air pressure is typically generated by breath like a harmonica or with bellows such as an accordion.

The Woodwind Section in Modern Symphony Orchestras

The modern symphony orchestra’s woodwinds section typically includes: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, and 1 double bassoon. The section may also on occasion be expanded by the addition of a saxophone.