If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking into a bassoon for your musically inclined child or thinking about getting into it yourself. Either way, bassoons look pretty complicated and that’s because they are. Fortunately, you won’t have to worry about hundreds of different variations complicating things even further.
The fact is, there are only two kinds of bassoons; small and large, otherwise known as a bassoon and a contrabassoon respectively. The fundamental difference between them is the low frequency of the contrabassoon, contrasted by the slightly higher frequency of the standard bassoon.
Some musicians may find an overwhelming reason to get extra complicated about it, counting off more “types” of bassoons, such as the Buffet, Heckel, and Contraforte, however, these are not different types but rather, they are variations of the two categories of bassoon.
As aforementioned, the fact that you’re here indicates that you are still in the learning stages of what bassoons are, how they play, and the types that are available, along with their various iterations. Not to worry, we’ll cover them all.
The Two Types of Bassoon
The bassoon is one of the most common and popular woodwind instruments, in terms of low-level sounds. When we saw “low-level,” it is not like a Tuba, in that it is only useful in a full orchestra where it can stand in as a form of deep and resonating bass.
In other words, the bassoon is low-key but offers plenty of easily detectable notes to formulate a solo that is quite beautiful to hear. The bassoon is by no means an instrument of coordination and conglomeration, but a singular and fascinating instrument all on its own.
Both the standard bassoon and the contrabassoon are “double-reed” instruments, meaning they both have two reeds that are attached to the mouthpiece.
When you blow across the two reeds, they vibrate, creating a single note that passes through the tube of the bassoon, producing different notes depending on the keys you press, which cover and uncover holes along the tube passage.
Originally developed and rising to a high degree of popularity in the 1500s, the Bassoon is a woodwind instrument that was designed—and over the years, perfected—as an instrument that could fill in the gap of low register notes.
Fortunately, that’s not all that it’s good for, and it became more and more popular as an addition to orchestras, with its wide range and a surprising degree of versatility. It is more than capable of being played as a solo within a larger musical piece.
While it plays notes that are considered to be lower-frequency notes, it still has a good degree of range and is loud enough to easily be heard on its own, as well as acting in a perfect accommodation role within an orchestra. The tenor and bass role is the primary function of the bassoon and it performs this role admirably well.
The bassoon wasn’t always the perfect tenor and bass role. Initially, bassoons were designed out of harder wood, but as the instrument was studied and modified over the decades and centuries to follow, Maple became the wood of choice.
Now, almost all bassoons are constructed with Maple, although you will find cheaper varieties made of plastic. The mouthpiece that attaches to the bassoon is a double-reed mouthpiece, which is true for both the standard and contrabassoon types.
The bassoon is complicated in its construction and includes:
- The Wing Joint, also known as a Tenor
- The Butt Joint, also known as the Double Joint
- A Bass Joint, which is also called a Long Joint
- A Bell Joint
- The Crook, which is also known as a Bocal
In other words, almost every label along the Bassoon diagram has more than one, defining word. Of course, this makes the instrument far more complicated-sounding than it needs to be. So it’s best to just stick with one term.
The standard Bassoon is easy to identify amongst several bassoons of which some are the double, or Contrabassoons since it is not folded to reduce the difficulty of managing the length of the double bassoon.
If you’re a newcomer to Bassoons or instrument play in general, there are a few bassoons that may be worth your time and consideration, especially considering the fact that these are usually the highest-rated bassoons for beginners.
The immediate thing that you will notice about the contrabassoon is that it is a huge and, at times, almost ungainly instrument; despite the fact that its design has been altered over the years to fold the tube multiple times so that players can handle the length of it.
It is almost a perfect double in size of the standard bassoon, which is a large instrument in its own right. Everything about the contrabassoon is double in size over the bassoon, and that includes the double-reed. In fact, it is the single, largest woodwind instrument available today.
The contrabassoon, also known as the double-bassoon, plays everything a full octave lower (deeper) than the standard bassoon. Despite that, it still creates a very pleasant register that can be played all on its own, without accommodating an orchestra or a much higher octave instrument, such as a flute.
It is also several centuries younger than its bassoon sibling, designed in the 18th century, or the early 1700s to be more specific. The original contrabassoon was far more simplified than today’s version, having only three keys and primarily used in church settings.
Today, it resembles a simplified saxophone, although it is constructed of Maple and virtually identical to the bassoon, even considering its massive size and curved tubes. You can even play it in the exact same way that you play a standard bassoon, with all of the notes an exact match, albeit an octave lower.
While not played as a solo with nearly the same degree of frequency as the standard bassoon, the contrabassoon is finding more solo opportunities in recent years as orchestras are migrating towards its unique sound and capabilities.
The Heckel bassoon is a variation on the standard bassoon and was developed in Germany. Today it is the most popular version of the bassoon all over the world and the one that you will see with the most frequency in orchestras all the way down to grade school.
It is one of the simpler bassoons to play, which makes it popular amongst grade school musicians who are still learning to play. It has 23 keys, occasionally having fewer keys for beginners and learners.
The Buffet Basson is the French counterpart of the Heckel Bassoon and was developed as a total overhaul of the baroque bassoon. Its keywork was designed based on the baroque but slightly reconfigured. It is far more complicated to play than grade-school level Heckel bassoons but similar to the baroque.
In fact, it’s different enough from the Heckel bassoon that even those who frequently play the Heckel will have to start all over again when learning to play the buffet. It has 23 keys and, although it still maintains the lower frequencies that the bassoon is known for, it has slightly higher notes.
This makes the Buffet Bassoon far more likely to have solo parts in an orchestra.
Like there are different varieties of the bassoon that fall under the same category, there are also different varieties of contrabassoons, of which the contraforte is a primary example. The contraforte is actually the most recent development amongst the bassoon lineup and places it as the newest of the bunch.
It is almost exactly like the contrabassoon, with a lone exception, it has a more “voluminous” sound and, although it remains in exactly the same range as the contrabassoon, it sounds better in almost every way.
It’s like having a better player step onto the court who has all of the same moves as the veteran player but does all of it so much better. The fingering positions have also been realigned in order to play them with a little more ease.
The contrabassoon is such a large instrument that it makes sense to adjust it so that it is more accessible and easy to play.
You will find more varieties of bassoons out there as you look for the best one for either yourself or another. However, they are not “types” of bassoons so much as they are varieties; each with their own modifications and musical versions of a personality.
All Things Considered
Bassoons are fascinating instruments that have a large and fairly innovative history. Although it looks like an especially complicated instrument—the contrabassoon even more so—it’s nowhere near as bad as it seems.
Ultimately, there are two types of bassoons and limitless choices in terms of what you want to play and how you want it played. If you’re shopping for your child, it’s an excellent woodwind instrument and practically the king of all woodwind instruments to learn from.