Woodwind instruments, as well as being one of the harder types of instrument to play, are one of the most complex and intricate types of mechanism. The idea (which we’ll come to in a minute), may at first be very simple, but when it comes to making it work down to getting an exact in-tune note, it becomes much more difficult.
To begin, woodwind instruments work on the principle that when a button is pressed, certain holes on the instrument open or close. The vibrating air within these instruments is then released through these holes, producing a certain pitched note. Generally, each button pressed relates to a hole that is being opened or closed, though with some buttons the mechanism is a little bit more complicated. The buttons are of various different shapes and sizes, and are placed so that they are easily reachable for the player’s hands. The problem for manufacturers comes from the fact that the holes for the air to be released need to be very exactly placed. If they are even a millimetre out of place, the sound produced will be a different pitch, meaning that the notes will be out of tune. Because these holes are unfortunately not nicely placed for the hands, the buttons, which are easily placed, are connected to them by a multitude of metal attachments.
When a button is pressed, it moves a metal bar, which will be connected to one, or several of the holes, and will open or close them. Now when you blow into the instrument, a different note will be produced. For most notes, several buttons will have to be pressed at once. You’ll notice that throughout, I’ve spoken about ‘notes’, rather than ‘chords’, which I mentioned a lot in the guitar and piano articles. Chords are produced when three or more notes are played at once. With just one flute, it is impossible to play chords or harmonies, since only one note can be produced by the instrument at any one time. This is one reason why in a n orchestra, there may be several of each wind instrument, but only one piano, as pianos can play several notes together on one instrument, while flutes cannot.
Now lets go back to looking at individual instruments of the family. The saxophone is perhaps the most unusually placed instrument in the woodwind family, since it is actually made out of brass. It is classed as woodwind however, since the sound is produced in the instrument in much the same way. The reed, which is attached to the mouthpiece vibrates when the player blows into it, and this vibration resonates within the tube, producing sound. While the main saxophone body is almost always made of Brass, there have sometimes been variations. In the 50s and 60s, plastic saxophones, which used the new state of the art technique of injection-moulding plastic, were quite popular, and some models are made from more precious metals like bronze or silver. The saxophone comes in a 8 different sizes and pitches from Contrabass, which is 6’ 4” in height, to Soprillo, which is only 12”. The most popular saxophones though are the Tenor and Alto saxophones. The instrument was invented by Adolphe Sax, who at the time received widespread disdain for his invention. Also unlike the rest of the woodwind instruments, the saxophone is rarely used in orchestral music, but is more of a jazz instrument.
In our final article on Woodwind instruments, we’re going to look at why there is such difference in the tones of differentwoodwind instruments, and have a closer look at a couple more popular types.
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