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Woodwind instruments

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What are woodwind instruments?

Woodwind instruments is the technical term for

wind instruments

in which the vibration of the air column is generated by a reed (flat air stream) or a reed. The classification is based on the Hornbostel-Sachs system, according to which wind instruments are classified solely according to the type of sound production and not according to the material used.

Woodwind instrument is the generic term for two groups in the

Hornbostel-Sachs system

: “flutes (421)” (including transverse flute and recorder) and “shawms (422)”, today called reed instruments (including oboe,


bassoon and



Woodwind instruments can also be made of metal or plastic, sometimes in combination with wooden parts. The oldest surviving flutes are made of bone. On the other hand, the cornett, for example, is made of wood, but because of the way it produces vibrations it is similar to the

brass instruments


History of woodwind instruments

The oldest verifiable wind instruments, and at the same time the oldest musical instruments of all, were made from animal bones, mainly from birds, and from mammoth ivory. One of the oldest flutes found to date comes from the wing bone of a whooper swan and was found in a cave near Blaubeuren. The instrument is estimated to be over 40,000 years old.

The oldest preserved musical instruments in the world are Stone Age flutes made of bone and mammoth ivory, which were found in the Swabian Jura between 43,000 and 40,000 years ago. A flute made from the bone of a griffon vulture was found in the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen in the summer of 2008. Flutes with finger holes were also found in the Geißenklösterle cave, including two flutes made from a piece of swan bone and a third flute made from mammoth ivory with at least three finger holes and notches on the sides.

Other important finds of flute fragments come from the Vogelherd cave, including a flute made of bird bone and one made of mammoth ivory, which is preserved in three unconnected fragments. A third flute made of griffon vulture bones was found in the excavation of the Vogelherd cave and is on display in the Museum of Ancient Cultures in Hohentübingen Castle. This flute is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura”.

Sound or sound generation

The sound of woodwind instruments is produced by the excitation of the air column in the instrument by the player at the mouthpiece. Three main types of woodwind instruments can be distinguished depending on the type of vibration excitation: Instruments with a flat-shaped air stream and a blowing edge (e.g. flutes), instruments with a single reed that vibrates against a fixed opening (e.g. clarinets, saxophones), and instruments with a symmetrical pair of reeds that vibrate against each other (e.g. oboe, bassoon).

The choice of the length of the vibrating air column by operating the tone holes determines the pitch. The formation of a standing wave results in a certain pitch. However, the vibration contains not only the fundamental tone, but also overtones that influence the timbre. Factors such as the type of vibration excitation, the blowing pressure, the material of the instrument body, the shape of the bore and irregularities in the inner wall contribute to the variety of timbres.

Woodwind instruments react more slowly than other instruments such as percussion or piano due to the transient response. A good approach therefore requires a forward-looking game. The transient process, in which the vibration of the air column must build up at the beginning of each note, is crucial for the playability of the instruments. Although the physics of tone production in woodwind instruments is not yet fully understood despite many years of research, the factors mentioned above are of central importance for sound production.

List of woodwind instruments

  • Recorder
  • Chalumeau
  • Bagpipes
  • Duduk
  • Dulcian
  • cor anglais
  • Bassoon
  • Flute
  • Heckelphone
  • Clarinet
  • Contrabassoon
  • Luluk/Bone flute
  • Monster flute
  • Oboe
  • Pan flute
  • Piccolo flute
  • Pomeranian
  • Transverse flute
  • Rankett
  • Saxophone
  • Shawm
  • Suona


Woodwind instruments