Wind Instruments

From Bagpipes to Tubas

Wind instruments produce sound by a vibrating column of air, either using a reed or a musician's lips. They are classified into two groups: woodwinds and brasswinds. In ancient civilizations, wind instruments made of animal horns were used as a warning signal.


A young man playing Great Highland Bagpipe during the summer Highland games at Tobermory
A young man playing Great Highland Bagpipe during the summer Highland games at Tobermory. Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

Bagpipes contain at least two single- or double-reed pipes that each create a single note and an animal skin or cloth bag. The bag is inflated by mouth or an external bellows, and the musician's fingers play notes on a separate melody pipe. Bagpipes take more time to master than other wind instruments and require a musician to have lung power to play. Early versions may date back to 100 BCE.


Bassoon player in orchestra
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By the early 17th century, bassoons and their low registers were included in orchestras, although the instrument would achieve more prominence in the 18th century. The bassoon can be traced back to a musical instrument called curtal. Stretched out, a bassoon would be 9 feet long.


A member of the Mauritian Police Force Band plays the clarinet.
A member of the Mauritian Police Force Band plays the clarinet. By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Felicito Rustique [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The clarinet has undergone many changes since its first inception during the late 1700s. It wasn't until the 1800s that the design, key, and range were standardized, much to the relief of composers.


Contra-bassoonist Margaret Cookhorn
Contra-bassoonist Margaret Cookhorn. " Contrabassoon, Musicircus (6/14 jp31)" ( CC BY 2.0) by Ted and Jen

Also known as double bassoon, this reed instrument is bigger than the bassoon. That's why it's called "the bassoon's big brother." It is pitched an octave lower than the bassoon, playing the lowest notes in the orchestra, and demands lung power from a musician.


Boy Playing Cornet in Music Class
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The trumpet and cornet are quite similar: They are usually pitched in B flat, and they both have valves. But whereas the trumpet is used in jazz bands, the cornet is usually used in brass bands. Trumpets also have a more powerful sound and have a cylindrical bore. Cornets, on the other hand, have a conical bore. A cylindrical bore enables an instrument to project well, and a conical bore provides a fuller or warmer sound due to the flare in its tubing on its way to the instrument's bell section.


Dulcian, 1700, Museu de la Música de Barcelona. By Sguastevi (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The dulcian is a double-reed wind instrument of the Renaissance period. It is the predecessor of the modern-day bassoon. Because it was expensive, it was more likely to be owned by aristocrats and royalty than an average musician. Replicas are available today for people interested in playing Baroque- and Renaissance-period music.


Charles Lloyd plays the flute.
Charles Lloyd, Brecon Jazz Festival, Powys, Wales, August 2000. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The flute belongs to the wind family of musical instruments (no reed involved). It is of ancient origin and was first made of wood. Now, however, the flute is made of silver and other metals. There are two types of methods used in playing the flute: side-blown or end-blown.


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The flutophone is a lightweight, pre-band musical instrument that serves as an introduction to playing other wind instruments such as the recorder. Flutophones are also inexpensive and easy to learn, making them a good starting point for young children.


Harmonica player
Bluesman RJ Mischo. " Blowin’" ( CC BY-SA 2.0) by MarcCooper_1950

The harmonica is a free-reed wind instrument and is used in blues and folk music. Musicians such as Larry Adler, Bob Dylan, and Sonny Boy Williamson have played the harmonica. It is portable and affordable and offers a lot of opportunities for jam sessions.


A woman plays the oboe.
Orkestar Slivovica. " Honk Fest West 2010-297" ( CC BY-SA 2.0) by Joe Mabel

The oboe can be traced back to instruments used in periods such as the shawm of the Renaissance, though its ancestry can go as far back as Ancient Greece. The soprano oboe was particularly favored during the 17th century. The oboes used today have been standardized since the late 1800s—though professional musicians' versions have more trill keys for more challenging pieces.


Children Playing Music on Recorders
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The recorder is a wind instrument that emerged during the 14th century but disappeared during the mid-18th century. Fortunately, interest in this instrument was revived, and today all kids get their turn at learning on a plastic one in music class.


Sax lesson
" sax lesson with paul carr" ( CC BY 2.0) by woodleywonderworks

The saxophone is family of a reed musical instruments, the tenor version of which is a mainstay in jazz bands. Newer than other musical instruments in terms of its history, the saxophone was invented by Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax in 1846. He was working on a design to combine the ease of playing a reed instrument like a clarinet with the ease of fingering found in a bigger instrument.


Shawm on display in a museum.
Shawm on display at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology - Hanoi, Vietnam. By Daderot - Own work, CC0, Link

Many instruments that emerged during the Middle Ages reached a peak during the Renaissance period. The shawm is a free-reed wind instrument that was used during the 13th to 17th centuries. After that, use of the dulcian and oboe became more prevalent than the shawm. It is still used to this day, especially from Morocco eastward and in Islamic West Africa. It may have been developed from the pipes on a bagpipe.


Child Musician plays in Jackson Sq
Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

The trombone descended from the trumpet but is played by sliding part of the horn back and forth to change pitch. When playing in a wind band or orchestra, music is written in the bass clef. When playing in a brass band, the music is written in the treble clef. Beginners start with the tenor trombone.


Happy little boy playing trumpet
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The trumpet belongs to the brass family of wind instruments. This instrument is considered an orchestral instrument mostly used in jazz bands. The trumpet has a long and rich history, even before greats such as Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong got a hold of one. It is believed that it was used as a signaling device in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Near East.


Men playing tubas in festival, Sucre (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Bolivia
Men playing tubas in festival, Sucre (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Bolivia. Ian Trower / Getty Images

The tuba is deep-sounding and is the largest instrument of the brasswind family. Like the trombone, music for the tuba can either be written in the bass or treble clef. Although it doesn't require as much lung power as the trumpet, the tuba can be difficult to handle due to its size and weight. The versions used in marching bands are often sousaphones and can weigh 15 pounds for a fiberglass version to 30–35 pounds for a brass version. (Sousaphones wrap around the player.) Orchestral tubas can weight 25–30 pounds as well, but the musician is able to play while seated.