For those who are new to woodwind instruments, perhaps exploring options for your child or interested in woodwind instruments in general, oboes are a good entry point. There are several types of oboe and several more variations on the types of oboe.
In simplest terms, there are four types of oboe woodwind instruments. You could also consider them to be categories, as each category has a few or several variations. There is the Baroque oboe, Classical, Viennese, and Modern.
Of those four categories, there are numerous variations. Some of the different woodwind instruments aren’t even called oboes but are considered to be a type of oboe, such as the Piston, Piffero, Heckelphone, and Bass Oboe.
So it’s a good entry point instrument, despite the seemingly complex nature of its design, because the available types are abundant, giving you a wide range of choices to assuage your personal preference or that of your child.
Four Oboe Categories
As aforementioned, there are four types of oboe, with a bunch of little variations on the instrument that offer subtle changes to both how they operate and how they sound. But for now, it’s important to know what the four main ones are and their differences.
Although the Baroque Oboe exists and is still in use today, it’s considered to be the predecessor of the modern oboe. It’s the most simplistic of the instruments as well, with only three keys along its body. Two of these keys are called “side keys” and the remaining key is known as a “great key.”
The bore of a Baroque Oboe is wider than its cousin, the modern oboe. Because of the bore size, Baroque Oboes are much easier to differentiate between themselves and other oboes. It’s also an octave or half an octave lower than the others.
Like all oboes, it is a double-reed instrument, with shorter and wider reeds within the mouthpiece to accommodate the larger bore. Also, like other oboes, it is a very loud woodwind instrument.
Though it flows well with a violin, it can often overtake it in terms of loudness and you really don’t want to go full out with an oboe of any type in a small room, especially if you enjoy your quality of hearing right where it is.
Of the four, the Baroque oboe is probably the least popular, which may be due to its archaic design and function. It certainly looks more along the lines of the kind of musical instrument you get for free in private school classroom supplies.
However, many musicians still love to play it and often perform solo recordings with nothing but a Baroque Oboe.
The Classical Oboe is aptly named, as its inception occurred during the Classical period when the Baroque Oboe was modified to design an oboe with a more narrow tube. Also, several keys were added to the original three.
G-sharp, D-sharp, and F were initially added, followed by what is known as a “slur” key. With the additional keys and a more narrow bore, the Classical Oboe is more able to reach higher notes and do so easier.
The modifications and enhancements to the Baroque Oboe created a surge in popularity with the Classical Oboe and composers such as Beethoven and Mozart began including the Classical Oboe in their musical compositions.
Due to the fact that it can be a very loud instrument, with a good deal of range, solos are a far more frequent occurrence with the Classical Oboe over other woodwind instruments, such as the Bassoon.
Commonly referred to as the Weiner Oboe, the Viennese Oboes are a combination of several designs, mostly of Austrian and Germanic origins. The bore is a little wider than the bore you would find on a Classical Oboe, along with adjustments to the double-reed, making them shorter and slightly wider.
This created an increased level of richness to middle and upper registers, over what the Classical Oboe is capable of. It is also considered to be one of the loudest oboes, so it is mostly used in very large orchestras.
It also has a distinctly bell-shaped bell, which is a distinct variation from the Classical Oboe and the French Oboe, whose bell has an innovative and flared shape to it.
Today, the Viennese Oboe is exclusive to Vienna Austria, where it is frequently used and played in the numerous orchestras that perform there.
Modern oboes are predominately the oboes that you see today, all over the world, from high school concerts to full-fledged orchestras. It can be a challenging instrument to play, however, the average starting age for the oboe is 12 years old.
Like the above-mentioned oboes, the modern oboe is a double-reed instrument, with a narrow bore and more keys than any of the previous iterations. The modern oboe has two and a half octaves of range.
There are many woodwind instruments that fall within the “family” of the modern oboe, including:
Each one is subtly different from the others, with some, such as the heckelphone which is gigantic in comparison to the Modern Oboe. The English Horn is longer than the Modern Oboe, with a bulb-like bell. It plays a fifth lower than the oboe.
The Oboe D’amore is a little bit longer than the Modern Oboe, although it looks similar to the English horn, with its bulbous bell. It also plays lower than the Modern Oboe, by a third.
The Heckelphone and the Musette are rarely played anymore, especially the Musette. Out of all of the oboes and their different variations, the Musette is far and away the absolute loudest of all.
The Bass Oboe is one octave lower than the Modern Oboe and is the least played of all of the instruments in the Oboe family, with the exception of the Musette, which is hardly played at all. It’s also a little larger than the English Horn.
As for the Modern Oboe, it is now most commonly used in orchestras and for solos. Most Modern Oboes are constructed out of grenadilla wood, while rarer types come from wood that is harvested in the rainforest and is usually made with 45 keys, though there can be one or more situational keys available as well.
History of Oboes
Today, most oboes are made of wood, with a select few made out of plastic or a type of resin. It’s always been a double-reed instrument, however, at least as far as history reveals because the history of the oboe isn’t all that cut and dry.
Double-reed instruments have been around since at least 3,000BC, perhaps even longer. Egyptian hieroglyphs reveal that much at least.
From what we know the oboe, is a descendant of a variety of woodwind instruments, most notably the Tibia, Aulos, and Zurna; all of which are still around today, in one degree or another.
Most historical scholars peg the predecessor of the oboe to around the Classical period when more keys were added to a traditional woodwind instrument, perhaps a variation on the three progenitors of the oboe.
The oboe is certainly not a new woodwind instrument, as there are numerous examples of it throughout the Classical period and beyond, up into the modern age.
Buying an Oboe
The Oboe can be a difficult instrument to play, depending on the type that you are going for. The biggest thing you should do before purchasing an Oboe is to have a full understanding of how the keys work.
Oboes come in three levels of complication; student, intermediary, and professional. If you are familiar with woodwind instruments but have never played the Oboe, it’s advisable to start off with a student rather than an intermediate.
Student models aren’t loaded down with keys and they begin with the basic keys that are necessary for playing the Oboe. Intermediate and Professional increase the number of keys as you advance in skill levels.
Once you have mastered the keys and sounds of an intermediate Oboe, professional oboes are certainly a consideration unless you are satisfied with your current instrument.
With a professional Oboe, there will be a deal more expense involved, but they are predominately made of wood and have all 45 keys that are designed on modern Oboes, plus additional keys that are usually situational types of keys.
Professional oboes, however, can easily reach $12,000, so you need to know your business and the subtle differences between Oboes if you’re planning on making the leap from an intermediate Oboe to a professional one.
Three professional Oboes by different manufacturers all may have their own, subtly different, and unique sounds. It is highly advisable to try them all before ultimately deciding.
Oboes, especially Modern Oboes, are plentiful on the market and the Modern version is the one that you will run into the most. However, there are other Oboes available, such as the Baroque, Classical, and variations of the Modern version. If you want the Viennese, you’ll have to move to Vienna.