Woodwind Instruments: Types, History & Facts

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  • 0:28 Flutes
  • 1:35 Reeds
  • 2:12 History
  • 4:12 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Ranging from saxophones to flutes to clarinets, woodwind instruments make up a sizable chunk of not only a classical orchestra, but also bands in several other musical genres. That said, woodwind instruments not only predate many other instruments, but also appeared before farming and the domestication of animals.

Types of Woodwind Instruments

Woodwind instruments take a variety of forms, but all are united in the fact that they create music by causing air to vibrate within a given area. That said, two major types of woodwind instruments exist: those that are flutes, which vibrate air in a given space, and those that use a reed, or small piece of wood, to vibrate the air to create the note.

Flutes

Flutes are the more basic of the two designs of woodwind instruments and require only a length of hollow material and a way of moving air inside. This can be accomplished by blowing air into it, or by blowing air across a mouthpiece to create movement of the air inside. This means that flutes can be easy to improvise, although they can be among the most ornate.

Flutes come in a number of varieties beyond what many think of as the traditional flute, which is more precisely called a Western concert flute. In a typical orchestra, one will also find piccolos, a smaller variant of the flute.

Sketch of a modern concert flute
Flute

Due to the fact that flutes often (but not always) play at a higher pitch, they were very popular during the Baroque period but lost their esteem during the later Classical period of music.

Although not surprising, given their construction, is the fact that the flute design is very common around the world. Indian versions show Hindu deities playing the flute, and the instrument is quite popular in places as far as China and South America.

Reeds

The other group of instruments in the woodwind family is the reed instruments. These instruments make music when the musician blows on a reed (in some instruments there are two), which then causes the air in a chamber to vibrate. The air then escapes through holes to create a certain note.

Example of a modern reed
Reed

Instruments such as the clarinet and saxophone are single-reed instruments, while the oboe is a double-reed instrument. Also under the classification of double-reed instruments are bagpipes. These instruments, along with string instruments, now form the core of many modern orchestras.

History

The very first woodwind instrument dates back to more than 43,000 years ago. To put that in perspective, humanity did not start farming and domesticating animals until 12,000 years ago. Needless to say, woodwind instruments were among the first tools created by humanity. The first woodwind instrument was a flute carved from the thighbone of a bear. Bone was a natural choice for a flute because after the marrow is extracted, the length of the bone is hollow. The other major class of woodwinds - those that use reeds - was developed around the same time as farming in 10,000 BC, most likely starting out as animal calls.

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