A basic orchestra today would consist of around 80 players, and it is divided into four families: Brass, Percussion, String, and Woodwind instruments. The origins of the orchestral music are largely credited to the musical era of the 1600s. However, it was not until the height of the classical period that the woodwind section was fully appreciated at the end of the 18th century. By the 19th century, the orchestral music compositions of Brahms, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner would include the use of flutes, oboes, and bassoons.
The Woodwind Family Instruments
In the early part of the 20th century, additional instruments were being added to the family as the woodwind section continued to expand along with the other families of instruments. A clear example would be Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8,” one of the massive-scale choral classical works, which was also dubbed as “Symphony of a Thousand.” It used many woodwind instruments including bassoons, E-flat clarinets, B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, cor anglais, contrabassoon, flutes, oboes, and piccolos.
These instruments are called woodwind due to the raw material from which they were made of, and that is wood. However, today’s instruments are made of a combination of different materials. Aside from wood, there are plastic and metal. The most common thing about these instruments is that they are some form of tube pipe with holes on both ends of the instrument: the mouthpiece and the closing hole at the other end. There are also holes in between them or caps to change tones and keys. Playing them would mean blowing air inside the tube pipe while tapping the holes in between by either closing or opening them to create musical sounds or notes.
Two Kinds of Woodwind Instruments
The flutes and the reeds are the two kinds of woodwind instruments that differ in the way they produce sounds. A flute instrument produces sound through the air that vibrates inside the tube pipe while a reed instrument creates music by having the air vibrate through a reed, which is a thin wooden piece located near the mouthpiece inside the tube pipe. Examples of flutes would be the flute and the Piccolo, and the reeds are the bagpipes, bassoons, clarinets, and oboes.
Basic Woodwind Instruments in an Orchestra
When World War I officially ended, the orchestral music had adapted to certain changes as well. More often than not, there were reduced numbers of instruments used during the performance of musical compositions. Through the decades, there were certain changes in the number of instruments included in an orchestra. It would often depend on the musical composition requirements as each song was arranged differently. It was quite evident in the evolution of the symphonies of the great masters, such as Mozart’s compositions. His early work would only require a few instruments, but his later work would demand a higher number of instruments.
The basic instruments that can be found in the woodwind section are bassoons, clarinets, flutes, and oboes. Two for each type of these instruments are the minimum requirements in today’s orchestra.
Woodwind Instruments in a Symphony or Philharmonic Orchestra
Creating unique sound would require more instruments and most symphony orchestra or philharmonic would include the following woodwind instruments:
The original Piccolo did not have any keys, but it evolved into something similar to that of the flute but created notes an octave higher due to its size, using the same fingering technique. It is half the size of the flute, and that is why it is often called the little flute. Italians called it Piccolo as it is the direct translation of “little” and the name stuck. Every instrument that is smaller in size, the Italians would commonly refer to them as such. It was originally created, so it would make the flute sounds more pronounced in military marching bands. In an orchestra, the second or third flute would typically play the Piccolo.
2) Alto Flute
Compared to a regular concert flute, the Alto Flute creates a deeper and powerful range of sounds as it is in the key of G. In appearance, they are longer in size, bigger in diameter, and a bit heavier in weight as they are made using thicker metal. After the standard C flute and the Piccolo, the Alto Flute is the third most known instrument in the woodwind family. The British would often refer to it as the bass flute due to the lower range of tone it creates, but do not be confused as there is a particular instrument that goes by that name with specific attributes.
There are two kinds of Alto Flutes: the Curved Head and the Straight Head. Basically, the curved version was made for those shorter players who won’t be compelled to stretch their arms that much. However, most players would prefer using the straight one for cadence and modulation. It is usually played by the flute player in an orchestra.
3) Bass Flute
The British in the mid-1900s would interchange this name to that of the alto flute. The important thing to remember to avoid confusion is that the Bass Flute is in the key of C similar to the concert flute, but it pitched an octave lower. Surprisingly, even with its name, it is considered the tenor member of the flute instruments due to its playing range. In appearance, it is quite longer than the regular flutes, so it comes with a J-head to be able to handle the instrument comfortably. It also comes with a bigger diameter for the embouchure hole as it requires more air than the other instruments in the flute family.
4) Oboe d’amore
Oboe d’amore is considered as a reed in the woodwind family of instruments. Similar to the oboe and English horn, it uses a double reed air vibration inside the pipe. Oboe d’amore means Oboe of Love in English as it gives out a mellow, lyrical, and tranquil sound, which is a quieter version of the regular oboe. It is referred to as the alto of the oboe family and was created in the early 1700s but was unused during the latter part of the decade until popular musical composers and conductors picked it up again a hundred years later. In appearance, it has a pear-shaped bell with a smaller bocal version of the cor anglais (English horn), which is a little larger than the regular oboe. The oboist would normally be the one to play it in the orchestra.
5) Cor Anglais or English Horn
This woodwind instrument with its double reed attribute is quite similar to that of the oboe, but a bit bigger and the sound it creates is quite lower in pitch. It has an E natural for the lowest note while an oboe has a B flat. The French words, Cor Anglais, has a literal translation of English horn but it is not a horn, nor it is English, but no one knew specifically why the instrument was given that name; some credited it to the resemblance of its appearance to the horn-like shape of the tenor oboes used in the past.
However, this instrument evolved from the shawms used in the middle ages, and it was in 1720 when it was developed by adding a bell with a pear shape on the other end. An oboist would sometimes play it, but generally, a Cor Anglais specialist would play it in an orchestra.
6) Bass oboe or Heckelphone
Another member of the reed woodwind type, but using a double reed, is the Bass Oboe or Heckelphone. It looks like the regular oboe but longer, almost double in size. It creates an octave lower pitch than the regular oboe with a limited functional range, and it is more similar to the English horn, but it is in the key of C.
Most musicians would interchange Bass Oboe and Heckelphone as they have a similar distinctive range and serve the same purpose. Some people would also refer to it as the Baritone Oboe. Still, whatever name may be used to identify the instrument, it is not as popular as other family members in the woodwind section. Even if there are musicians who wanted to use the instrument in their musical scores, they cannot as it is not easily found in the market today. In an orchestra, it would be the oboist who would be playing the instrument.
7) E-flat Clarinet
In the Clarinet family, the E-flat clarinet is the smallest one but has the highest pitch. It has a distinctive squeal in the orchestra that only the brave musicians with incredible skills would use this instrument. Some refer to it as the most exposed woodwind instrument in the orchestra as it can create a piercing and shrill sound.
In appearance, it would be similar to the regular clarinet but about a half smaller in length, and this is the main reason why it can produce the highest notes. This is used by clarinet players in an orchestra.
8) Basset Horn
This is a single-reed woodwind instrument in the clarinet family designed in a large cylindrical bore with a bent end near the mouthpiece. Basset Horn is one of the favorite instruments by legendary classical music composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. As more instruments are being invented and added to the orchestra, it was unused for an extended period. It was hard to adapt to the orchestra until Richard Strauss made use of it extensively in his compositions.
To avoid confusion, the Basset Horn is not connected to the brasswind horn instruments. The name was due to the resemblance of the early designs of the instrument to horned animals. Today, there are three basic types of Basset Horn, which mostly pertain to the size of the bore: small, medium, and large.
9) Bass Clarinet
Many referred to the Bass Clarinet as the grandfather of clarinets for its huge size as compared to the standard-sized clarinets. It was largely used by composers to express a darker tone to imply gloomy and somber inflection to the music. Still, it can also produce a warm, comforting sound as those regular clarinets often do.
In appearance, it is similar to the popular saxophone. This instrument was heavily influenced by the earlier versions of the bass clarinet due to the upturned metal bell and curved crook, but they are different in so many ways. Clarinets generally share the same diameter of its bore with the rest of the body, which is quite different from the sax’s conical shape. This difference in design gives a different tone when played.
Initially, when it was invented by Denner in the 18th century, it only has two keys. Today, it has evolved into 16 keys as designed by Boehm, and his keys and fingering system have survived up to this day.
10) Contrabassoon or Double Bassoon
The contrabassoon is commonly known as the grandfather of the woodwind section of the orchestra. Compared to the standard-sized bassoon instruments, it is quite long and has a wider pipe. If a regular bassoon when straightened is about 9 feet in length, imagine how long a contrabassoon is, and that is the reason it is also called double bassoon. It takes a lot of air to make a sound that is an octave lower than the sound coming from a regular bassoon.
While these two instruments are similar, they are also notably different. For one, the reed used in contrabassoon is quite bigger and thicker that allows for a substantial amount of vibration to produce a very low range of tones. Even the fingering technique is different as the system in producing sounds in this instrument is a bit more complicated. It would often be played by a bassoonist, but someone with special skills and solely focused on using the contrabassoon. It would be difficult for a bassoon player to just literally put down a regular bassoon and proceed to play with a contrabassoon immediately.
11) Soprano Saxophone
Among the family of saxophones, the Soprano Saxophone is the third to the smallest. It was invented in 1846 and can easily be distinguishable not only for its size but also with the design. While it is also made of gold brass just like its saxophone cousins, the overall shape is more similar to that of the brass clarinet.
The design has evolved through the years with its removable necks. This allows the player to choose how to handle the sax more efficiently and sometimes to direct the bell to the floor or the audience. It is also considered to be a transposing woodwind instrument with some modern versions having additional keys and allows the player to create different ranges of sounds instead of just the regular ones. It can produce a variety of tones, but some professional musicians would interchange it with the clarinet or the oboe when it is not available to them to recreate the same sound.
12) Alto Saxophone
The Belgian instrument inventor Adolphe Sax was credited for the saxophone instruments in the woodwind family, and the Alto Saxophone was one of those he patented in 1846. While saxophones share the same fingering technique so any player can switch between instruments without difficulty, the Alto Sax is in the key of Eb, an octave higher than the baritone sax. Still, it is the fourth above the tenor sax.
A player can enjoy the wide range of the Alto Saxophone, which is from concert Db3 to concert Ab5, and putting their knee on the bell would extend the range to concert C3 if needed. While it had a major role in jazz music development, it had a limited role in classical music.
13) Tenor Saxophone
Out of the 14 instruments that Adolphe Sax invented, the Tenor Saxophone is considered one of the most popular. To avoid confusion with other saxophones, it is more significant in size and heavier in weight compared to alto sax with the neck a bit bent down. It still looked comparably the same using a single reed located near the mouthpiece end of a conical tube, which is flared to form a bell on the bottom end.
It has a key pitch of Bb, and just like in most instruments, the bigger ones in size are designed to produce deeper and richer tones. There is a visible difference between the tenor and alto sax. The tenor saxophone has a larger mouthpiece and has a distinct curve in the neck near the mouthpiece.
14) Baritone Saxophone
The Baritone Saxophone, most commonly referred to as Bari Sax, is a fixture in most bands and orchestra. It often doubles the voice of the first Alto Sax and produces the lowest range in classical big-band musical compositions. In appearance, it is longer than the Alto Sax and twice its size with a looping mouthpiece on one end and has a single reed and bell-shaped conical tube of thin brass on the other end. Aside from the orchestra, it is often found in concerts, military bands, and those whose main genre is jazz music.
The number of instruments being played in the orchestra’s woodwind section has increased and decreased several times, adapting to the changing times brought about by war, technological advancement, and global influence. Through these changes, musicians try to explore new individual woodwind instrument combinations while appreciating the classic orchestral musical compositions created by past legendary composers and conductors.