Oboe: Definition & History

Instructor: Cathy Neff

Cathy has taught college courses and has a master's degree in music.

The snake charmer plays his music, and the snake slithers and climbs out of its earthen pot. The music that typically accompanies this scene is often imitated with the sound of an oboe. In this lesson, we will learn about the instrument called the oboe and examine its history.


In many movie scenes, a snake charmer plays a nasally sounding instrument, and a snake slithers out of an earthen pot and climbs into the air. You can probably hum that tune in your head as you envision this familiar scene. The snake charmer actually plays a wind instrument called a pungi, but the oboe is often used to imitate it because of its similar, nasally sound. The oboe is a more common instrument in modern music and contains a rich history.



The oboe is part of the woodwind family of instruments. Woodwinds get their name from the fact that they were traditionally made of wood, although they are made of a wide variety of materials now. The player blows air, or wind, through the instrument to make a sound. There are two main branches within the woodwind family: flutes and reeds.

To play a flute, the player blows directly into the instrument, but to play a reed instrument, the player blows through a thin piece of wood called a reed, which is attached to a mouthpiece which vibrates and causes the air in the instrument to also vibrate and produce a sound.

Some of the instruments in the reed branch of the woodwind family actually use a reed that is two pieces of wood that vibrate against each other, called a double reed. The oboe, along with its relatives the English horn, bassoon and contrabassoon, belong to the double reed branch of the woodwind family.

Oboe Reed
oboe reed

Oboe Parts

The oboe reed is made from dried cane grown in Spain and France. Most oboe players cut and wrap their reeds themselves, which is an art in and of itself and is often referred to as the most difficult part of playing the oboe.

The oboe is made from African Blackwood, or grenadilla. It is tube shaped with holes covered by metal keys, and it has a conical bore, which means the oboe gets wider from top to bottom. This gives the oboe a mellower sound than if it were a straight tube shape. The end of the oboe is flared and is called a bell. Just over two feet long, the oboe is played vertically, like a clarinet, not horizontally, like a flute. The body of the oboe comes apart in three sections, making it easier to store and carry.

Oboe Parts
oboe parts


When a player covers or uncovers the holes of the oboe with the keys, it makes the tube shorter or longer, so the pitch goes up or down accordingly. It takes a lot of air to make the double reeds vibrate, and there is very little difference between the air pressure needed to produce a soft sound or a loud sound, so the player has to have excellent breath control.

The sound of an oboe is a distinct, nasally sound which can be smooth and lulling, or short and whimsical. The tone of the oboe is distinct from the texture of all the other instruments in the orchestra, which makes it a popular solo instrument.

The oboe is a non-transposing instrument, which means that the note it plays is the note that is heard. The notes that an instrument is capable of playing are called its range, and this is the range of the oboe:

Oboe Range
oboe range


Double reed instruments are considered by many to be the oldest type of instruments. In ancient Greece, the double reed aulos was used to accompany outdoor theater productions, and in modern renditions, the oboe is often used to imitate this sound.

During the Crusades, the double reed shawm was introduced to Europe; it was an outdoor instrument used in the military and for dancing. In the 17th century, opera and orchestral composers, such as Jean Baptiste Lully, used an indoor version of the shawm, called a hautbois, and 19th century orchestral composers, such as Claude Debussy, used an oboe d'amore, which was longer than the modern oboe. The oboe as we know it today was developed in 19th century France by the Triébert family.

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