In today’s lesson we are going to look at the woodwind family of instruments, specifically the flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, and bassoon.
The woodwind family are types of aerophones – instruments which produce sound by focusing air through a metal tube. There two main groups of aerophones within the woodwind family are ‘flutes’ and ‘reed instruments’. The sound of flute instruments (such as the flute and its smaller cousin the piccolo) is produced by blowing air over a mouthpiece. Reed instruments are produced by inserting the mouthpiece into the mouth and blowing air which vibrates a reed – a small piece of wood which is connected to the mouthpiece.
Flute mouthpiece (top), and clarinet/saxophone type mouthpiece with reed (bottom). Note that the flute is made of metal – confusingly, woodwind instruments do not have to contain any wood!
Similar to the brass family which we looked at last week, the speed of the air and vibrations can produce jumps in pitch along the harmonic series – this is controlled by the player’s mouth and breath, and produces only a few of the 12 notes we normally use in western music. As with brass instruments like the trumpet and tuba, by pressing keys woodwind players can change the length of the tubing the air travels through, allowing them to play the rest of the notes.
The brass family had different ways of changing the length of the tubing (valves and slides), but they all relied on lips being placed inside the same sort of mouthpiece.
All brass mouthpieces work the same way and look like this.
Just as with brass, the smaller the woodwind instrument the higher sound it makes. However, there are different sorts of mouthpieces for different instruments, which gives each of them a more unique identity.
A ‘double reed’ mouthpiece used for oboes. Bassoon mouthpieces are also double reed.
Before we look at the individual instruments, let’s quickly check out the orchestral woodwind section (which doesn’t include saxophone).
And here are some saxophones in action.
Now to look at how each instrument works. Some of the videos are quite long, you don’t need to watch them in their entirety, but if you’re interested then of course feel free!
Flutes and piccolos work the same way and produce a similar sound. The difference is that the piccolo is half the length of a flute and so produces a higher pitch. We will just look at the piccolo because the video is more interesting!
Just for fun, here is a very rare type of flute, which is absolutely massive and sounds very low. You don’t really see this in orchestras.
The next video shows you about the clarinet. As with flutes, clarinets come all types of sizes, which play at different pitches. You don’t have to watch the whole thing. The explanation of reeds begins at 4:40, and you can hear some playing at 11:50.
The oboe and bassoon are double-reed instruments, which use two reeds (unlike the clarinet’s one reed). This produces a very different sound that can be both comical (sounding like a duck) and tragic depending how they are used.
Here is the oboe. You can begin watching from about 2:25.
And the bassoon, which is a deeper double-reed instrument. You just need to watch the first five minutes or so, but of course you can watch more if you’re interested.
Finally, here is the saxophone, another single reed instrument. These don’t tend to feature as much in symphony orchestras but are used in lots of other types of bands. You can watch the first minute then skip to 8:20 to see how the instrument can be used. Some examples of playing begin at 12:40 – this section is very long, just watch as many as you like to get an idea of how the instrument sounds.
Music Examples and Questions
Now you’ve been introduced to the woodwind family, let’s listen to some music. There are also some questions for you to answer as you go.
Which woodwind instrument is featured in this jazz video?
Can you name the other instruments too?
Write down at which time the music diminuendos (gets quieter)
Which woodwind instrument has a solo at the beginning of this piece by Debussy?
Can you name the woodwind instrument which comes in at 7:50?
Can you name which instrument features in this deep house track?
Just using your ears, which instrument plays the main melody throughout this piece, beginning at 1:50?
Which type of instruments are accompanying in the background? Are they brass, strings, woodwind, or drums?
Now please click here to get the answers.