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The Woodwind Family: Part 3

The Woodwind Family: Part 3

So far, in our wind instrument articles, we’ve covered the basic structure, style, and use of the woodwind instrument family, and looked in more detail at a few of the most popular woodwind instruments. In this article, we’ll discuss a few more, and also consider different mouthpieces used by woodwind instruments and their importance.


As we’ve discussed previously, many of the woodwind instruments are very similar in how they work. They have a series of buttons to open holes along a tube, and the vibrations released from inside the tube result in sound. So you may be wondering why, if they’re so similar they all manage to sound different. The reason for this is mostly a combination of the shape of the instrument, and the type of mouthpiece. There are several types of mouthpiece used by woodwind instruments. Some instruments, such as the flute, have a mouth hole, known as the embouchure, which the mouth should not be pressed against, but that should be blown across. This creates quite a graceful, soft tone. Other instruments use reeds which are vibrated by the mouth when blown through. Instruments such as the saxophone or clarinet are known as single-reed instruments, since they have a mouthpiece, which has a single reed attached to it, so that when blown through the vibrations of the reed against the mouthpiece will eventually be heard as sound. Some instruments, such as the Bassoon and Oboe are known as double reed instruments, since they have two reeds held together, which lead directly into the instruments tube. Blowing into them, makes the reeds vibrate against one another, which then also leads to sound being produced.


The Clarinet is a single reed instrument. It is used in both jazz and orchestral music, and it has several variants tuned differently, so that they can reach higher or lower notes. They are most commonly tuned in either Bb or Eb (I’ll discuss more on the tuning in a later article).  It was based on a French instrument named the Chalumeau, which looked sort of like a recorder with 8 holes, although the name Clarinet actually means little trumpet. It was also the last instrument that was added to the typical symphony orchestra arrangement. Clarinets are generally made from black wood, which makes them stand out against other woodwind instruments, and they are one of the few woodwind instruments that have the same diameter across their whole length, compared to saxophones and oboes, which have a bell-shape at one end. Actress Julia Roberts, director Steven Spielberg, and television presenter Jimmy Kimmel are all clarinet players. Clarinets made in Germany and Austria still use the Ohler fingering system, with a different number of keys and holes, meaning that those bought in these countries will have to be played differently to most modern clarinets.


The flute is probably the most well-known member of the woodwind family, and it has a unique graceful sound that fits in well with orchestral music, though it is sometimes used in jazz. There are several different sizes of flute, and surprisingly one of the most popular is the piccolo, which is the highest in pitch. It’s a short black instrument that might not easily be recognised as a flute. However, the most popular is probably the standard concert flute, which is the one you’ve probably seen many times before. Famous flute players have included George Washington and Leonardo Da Vinci. They are one of the earliest instruments, and it is thought that they were first used in Germany around 35,000 years ago. Strangely, there is also not just one name for a flute player. They are known as flutists, fluters, or flautists.


This concludes our brief overview of the woodwind instruments. There are many further instruments in the family, but I’ve covered most of the ones that are widely used. I’ll still be covering some information relevant to the woodwind family in my next set of articles on the Brass family, since they are quite similar instruments, so if you’ve enjoyed learning about them, then keep following this section of the magazine for more interesting facts.


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