The instruments of the woodwind family can produce a wide variety of sounds, from the shrill piping of the piccolo to the deep gruff blurts of the bassoon. But woodwinds generally produce music of delicacy and grace. As they are able to sounds only one note at a time, they mainly play melodies. There are two main kinds of woodwinds: edge-blown instruments, such as the recorder and flute, and reed instruments like the oboe, bassoon, clarinet and saxophone.
In edge-blown instruments, the mouthpiece contains an edge over which the performer blows air. This action sets the air in the pipe vibrating to give a sound.
A whistle is a simple woodwind instrument, often without any holes so that it can only sound one note. The mouthpiece has a square hole in which on side (the lip) has a sharp edge. It is the edge that sets the air vibrating as the whistle is blow. In whistles or penny whistles are long whistles with holes along the side. Whistles of this kind, which are sometimes called end-blown flutes, are played by folk musicians around the world with considerable dexterity.
The recorder has a mouthpiece like a whistle and eight holes. It has a light warm sound unlike the shrill tone of the tine whistle. The recorder is of ancient origin and was very popular from about 1500 to about 1750. It was then replaced by the flute, which musicians preferred for its richer sound. However, interest I the recorder revived about 60 years ago and now it is often the first musical instrument that children learn to play. Modern recorders are made of wood or plastic and come in six different sizes. The highest in pitch and smallest is the sopranino recorder. The come the descant (or soprano) recorder, which is the most popular recorder, followed by the treble (or alto), tenor, bass and low bass recorders. Only the lower recorders have keys.
The flute has a lovely mellow breathy sound that brightens as it ascends in pitch, making it a valuable member of orchestras and bands as well as an attractive solo instrument. Glues are side-blow woodwinds. The performer blows across a round hole in the mouthpiece, causing the edge of the hole to set the air in the flute vibrating. Most modern flutes are made of metal and all the holes are covered by key-operated pads. The flute family has four principal members. The smallest and highest in pitch is the piccolo, whose piercing tones can often be heard in full flight high above the orchestra. Then comes the concert flute, the most popular flute. The alto flute and bass flute are large, deeper-sounding flutes with a mysterious quality to their sound. The fife is a small flute without keys played in military and marching bands.
Reed instruments get their name because the mouthpiece contains one or two thin but stiff reeds. The player sets the reed or reeds vibrating by blowing into the mouthpiece, causing the air in the pipe to vibrate and sound.
The oboe has a nasal, rather plaintive sound. The mouthpiece consists of a double reed made of two slices of cane bound together. The player inserts the double reed between the lips and blows through it. A larger and deeper oboe called the cor anglais or English horn is also played in orchestras.
There are two kinds of bassoon: the bassoon and larger and deeper contrabassoon or double bassoon. They are big double-reed instruments similar to the oboe and have a deep rich sound. The pipe of the bassoon is folded in two (or into three parts in the contrabassoon) so that the fingers can reach the holes and keys.
The clarinet has a mouthpiece containing a single reed, which is a slice of cane fixed over the opening of the mouth-piece with a metal band. The instrument has a beautiful liquid sound that becomes warm and dark when low but bright and piecing when high. The clarinet most often plated is the soprano B flat clarinet, and it can be heard in all kinds of bands and orchestras. Some players use the slightly larger A clarinet. The clarinet family also includes a small high-pitched sopranino clarinet, and the bigger and deeper basset horn and bass clarinet, which are curved and have an upturned bell (the end of the instrument) to direct the sound outwards.
Unlike the other woodwind instruments, which all have ancient or early origins and have developed to their present form over several centuries, the saxophone is an invention. It is named after its maker, Adolphe Sax, and it dates from about 1840. The saxophone or sax is a hybrid reed instrument, having a mouthpiece like the clarinet and a system of keys and conical pipe like the oboe. The pipe is wide and made of metal. All these factors give the saxophone a very distinctive sound. In orchestras, military bands and dance bands, saxophones are played with a sweet, rather cloying tone. But in jazz, the tone of the saxophone has been developed into a wide range of very personal sounds by many musicians.