Woodwinds of the Orchestra

Several months ago, Cammi posted on the strings of the orchestra. Today, I’m going to explore the woodwinds of the orchestra.

So, to begin with, what is a woodwind?

Like all sections of the orchestra, woodwinds are defined by their method of producing sound. The strings of the orchestra produce sound through vibrating strings; the woodwinds produce sound by directing wind through pipes.

Before we get into the instruments themselves, I’d like to introduce the two main types of woodwinds: flutes and reeds. These are differentiated by how they deal with wind. To produce sound on a flute, you must blow above the edge of a hole in a tube. (While that definition sounds complicated, it’s really quite simple if you think of the most common type of flute – the Western concert flute. One merely blows over the hole at the top and the air is channeled through the flute.) In contrast, to produce sound on a reed, one blows into a mouthpiece, which causes the reed, or reeds, to vibrate.

Here is a seating chart of the orchestra.

The woodwinds are at the center of the orchestra in the green section. They sit behind the strings and the brass sits behind them. Let’s begin in the bottom left with the flutes.

The Flute

Flute.jpgJust as the violin largely represents the string section, the flute represents the woodwinds. Technically, your typical flute is called the Western concert flute, and there are at least four of them in the modern orchestra. The Western concert flute is a type of open flute—as opposed to a closed flute—which means that the player’s airstream is blown across an edge which splits the air. In contrast, the airstream in a closed flute is channeled through a duct called a “windway”.

Flutes are sweet and rich, and in my opinion, best used in smallish doses. Still, I can’t help loving this flute-laden beginning to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2… It reminds me of an exotic perfume. Ravel was a master with woodwinds; I love how he mingles them with the strings in Beauty and the Beast from his Mother Goose Suite.

Fun fact: the oldest flute ever discovered is said to be about 43,000 years old and made from the femur of a cave bear. (Another one aged about 35,000 years was made from the wing bone of a vulture.)

The Oboe

Oboe.JPGThe oboe is a reed. Specifically, a double reed. Even more specifically, an exposed double reed. This “double reed” business just means that the oboe is made of two pieces of cane bound together, and “exposed” means that the oboist blows directly into the reed. (Bagpipes, on the other hand, are “capped” – a bagpipe player never blows directly into his reed.)

While the flute would seem to be the standard woodwind, the oboe is actually more firmly rooted in the orchestra. Today, there are typically at least four oboes in the orchestra, and the principal oboist—not the principal flutist—is the section leader. Also, due to their stable tuning and penetrating tone, the oboes give the concert A for the orchestra to tune to.

Here is a lovely concerto for oboe by Domenico Cimarosa.

The Piccolo

piccoloAh, the poor, lonely piccolo. It’s so small and so alone among the other instruments! I rather pity it, with its fierce, high-pitched tweeting, as though protesting that the other instruments aren’t taking it seriously. Still, though there’s only one piccolo in the whole orchestra, it isn’t so alone as you might think; it has its parent, the flute, to stand up for it. The piccolo is actually just a half-size flute – it is shaped similarly and has many of the same fingerings, but its notes are an octave higher. 

There are surprisingly few works featuring piccolo, but I did find this interesting contemporary piece, The High and Mighty, by Michael Daugherty.

The English Horn

The English horn reminds me somewhat of Voltaire’s quote about the Holy Roman Empire, who said that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Likewise, the English horn is neither English nor a horn. It originated in Poland around 1720 and wasn’t played in England until the 1830s. And it’s not supposed to be called “English” at all. Due to its resemblance to horns played by angels, it was titled the engellisches Horn, “angelic horn”. However, engellisches at the time could also mean “English”, so it became the English horn. Considering its pitch and shape, however, it should really be titled a “tenor oboe”.


English horn

There is a special place in my heart for this misnamed but lovely instrument; I suppose I carved it out the first time I heard this English horn solo in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

(The English horn comes in at 5:53.) It’s heartrendingly beautiful after the previous section’s unease and tension.oboe-family

While we’re on the topic of members of the oboe family, here they all are. From left: piccolo oboe (pitched a 4th above the regular oboe) regular oboe, oboe d’amore (a 3rd lower), English horn (a 5th lower), and bass oboe (an octave lower).


The Clarinet


The clarinet is a single reed instrument with a larger range than any other woodwind. Its name is derived from a medieval term for the trumpet. The clarinet is well-known as a versatile instrument, having a place in not only orchestras but also marching bands, jazz ensembles, etc.

Bass Clarinet.jpg

Bass clarinet

There are usually four clarinets in the orchestra, along with one bass clarinet. The bass clarinet is similar to the soprano clarinet, but with a curved neck and small bell. Bass clarinets are an octave lower than soprano and are thus more mellow.

Here is a delightful clarinet quintet by Brahms for you to enjoy.

The Bassoon 

If the orchestra is a galaxy, each section in it is a world unto itself. The high-pitched and low-pitched instruments complement each other and work in perfect harmony (pardon the pun) in their own little world.

The previous woodwinds we’ve discussed have been relatively high-pitched. Now meet the bassoon, the harmonic backbone in the world of woodwinds. There are usually two of them in the orchestra, though some works call for as many as four.

Beyond offering harmonic structure and support for the high woodwinds, the bassoon is a valuable instrument in terms of character and tone color. It is often described as being similar to a baritone voice, with versatile character and smooth, dark colors. I find the bassoon to be a rather comical-sounding instrument, as though everything it says is a lopsided joke. 

Listen to this charming bassoon concerto by Mozart and see if you don’t agree. 

The Contrabassoon

bassoon-vs-contrabassoonThe contrabassoon, also known as the double bassoon, is pitched an octave lower than the bassoon. In terms of strings, double bassoon is to bassoon what contrabass (double bass) is to cello. Whereas the double bass is more or less the same shape as the cello, however, the contrabassoon looks quite different from the bassoon.

Notice how the contrabassoon on the left curves around itself twice. You may not be able to tell in the picture, but the contrabassoon is noticeably larger than the bassoon, too.


There are a few other woodwinds which appear in the orchestra on occasion: 

Alto flute
Bass flute
Oboe d’amore
Bass oboe or Heckelphone (similar to bass oboe but with a different shape)
Basset horn
Soprano, alto, tenor, or baritone saxophone

I hope you enjoyed learning about and listening to the woodwinds of the orchestra! 

~ Maggie  


2 thoughts on “Woodwinds of the Orchestra

  1. WOW MAGGIE I had no appreciation for those instruments, but after hearing the two audio pieces I thought the sounds were really beautiful! I never really differentiated between many orchestra instruments simply because I am not a musician and all those sounds seemed to just blend together so beautifully!
    Thanks so much for once again educating me, and introducing your followers to such a wonderful part of our world!


    • Gramps,
      I couldn’t agree more! The woodwinds are an underappreciated but crucial part of the orchestra, in my opinion. We have only to become more familiar with the woodwinds to not only differentiate between them but also value each one in its place.
      ~ Maggie


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