Music Then and Now - A Brief History of
Music and Woodwind Instruments

By Dianna Joseph

Music is all around us. It is a mainstay of our society and is inherent in the souls of our beings. Even in utero it is said that the fetus is able to respond to music that the mother plays or sings. Music can be found in just about every environment around us: calming or happy music in restaurants, grocery stores, doctor/dentist offices, department stores, elevators, schools, or weddings; majestic music at firework displays or parades; or even serene music at a funeral. It can be heard on almost every television commercial and in the theme of every television show. Some people crave music like a drug and just cannot live without it playing in the car and even singing in the shower.

Every person has the ability to produce music whether vocally or with a music instrument. We may not all have accurate intonation or pitch vocally or may not produce a great sound due to a difference in how we process auditory information, as Simon Cowell so blatantly points out on "American Idol", but we have the capability of producing music. With some coaching or instruction, like many of the cast members of the television show "Glee" as reported by Emile Menasche', we can deliver a powerful vocal performance.

Over time, music has developed into an extensively large variety of categories and subclasses. These can include classical, jazz, blues, swing, symphony, opera, rock, rap/hip-hop, country, folk, pop, R n B, theatre, heavy metal, Latin, techno, tango, children's, electronic, Native American, inspirational, marching band, gospel, romantic, melancholy, or spiritual. Most of these types of music have come about as a part of the changes in the structure and function of our cultures.

Music also serves to be very therapeutic. From my own experience as an occupational therapist, music helps persons with a range of different disabilities to improve function whether it may be for communication or movement purposes. For example, in working with persons who have sustained a stroke and have expressive aphasia (able to understand language, but unable to formulate the words to verbally express it), singing allows them to say what they want since this involves a different part of the brain. In working with children with autism spectrum disorders, I have found music helps develop more coordinated movement and motor planning as it provides the timing and rhythm that these children are not able to access in their brain. Any music instrument can also be therapeutic, whether it is woodwind instruments, brass instruments, or string instruments, or even just dancing to music.

But where and when did woodwind instruments originate? If we look back in history we could find out what the first woodwind instruments were. However, as the late Curt Sachs so intelligently points out, music originates back to pre-instrumental music and primitive man. He states that "all higher creatures express emotion by motion" eg. stamping his foot on the ground, slapping his body, or clapping his hands. These audible actions were the precursors to our first woodwind instruments and most likely man was not even consciously aware of sound as a separate idea.

Through archeological findings, the first true music instrument noted in history was the strung rattle which consisted of nutshells, seeds, teeth, or bones strung in cords or tied in bunches and suspended from a part of the body (ankle, knee, waist, or neck) as a means of adding sound to body movements or dancing. However, this was a delayed sound after the body movement. Later, the sound became more direct, but not exact, as gourd rattles filled with pebbles or small hard objects were shaken in tribal dances. From there, other more direct sounding instruments were developed which used the feet or hands to produce sounds eg. stampers (used stamping sticks or devices to make sound on board or bark covering hole in ground), slit-drums (stamping on hollowed out tree trunk over a pit), drums (used hands or later sticks to hit membrane stretched over opening of hollow body of any shape), friction instruments (using a tortoise shell or rounded piece of hard wood with four notches cut into it and rubbing it on palms to make a humming or squeaking noise), bull roarers (quickly whirling a thin board attached to a cord overhead making a roaring sound), and scrapers (scraping a notched stick, shell, bone, or gourd with a hard object).

The ribbon reed was the first simple music instrument to be played with the mouth like the woodwind instruments. This was just a blade of grass taken from a reed stretched between the two thumbs held side by side and by blowing into the crack the blade would vibrate with a high pitched screeching noise (what young child hasn't done this even today?). More developed civilizations rolled up a wide blade of grass spirally to form a funnel tube with the thin end of the blade crossing the upper opening. Eventually, the flute was developed which was played like most other woodwind instruments: by blowing into the air column of the tube a vibration was created and produced a specific tone. Flutes and other reed woodwind instruments have been played since the Middle Ages (476-1400) and Renaissance period (1400-1600) as they have undergone various changes in design, however, orchestral woodwind instruments are of more recent origin.

The Baroque period (1600-1750) is noted for its radical revolution in music with the need for novelty in the style of composition. There was an emphasis on strong emotion ("What passion cannot music raise and quell" sung by Dryden) requiring a wide range of sound to express passion and the sudden changes from joy to grief. Just like the Middle Ages, the monodic style of singular parts being emphasized returned to music versus the polyphonic style of the Renaissance period in which equal weight was given to all the string, brass, or woodwind instruments played in concert. To achieve this sound, woodwind instruments underwent a variety of improvements and alterations. Instead of being made from one piece of wood or other material, they were now made of two or more pieces fitting tightly together in order to be able to regulate pitch by adjusting the length. Reed woodwind instruments changed the cut of reed and the bore was changed for a smoother tone. Oboe-like instruments were dismissed and only bassoons, smaller oboes, and flutes made up the woodwind instruments of an orchestra.

Romanticism (1750-1900) created additional transformations for woodwind instruments, although the musical style was reminiscent of the 16th century. The expressive emotional music brought about a significant increase in the quantity of timbres and woodwind instruments were changed to be able to modulate from timbre to timbre with greater ease through a variety of technical enhancements. Woodwind instruments were required to have a stronger, more powerful sound in concurrence to society's change from an aristocratic to democratic culture. Overall, the arts evolved from aristocratic reserve to unrestrained passion. To advance the woodwind instruments to meet the changing musical style, technical changes were made for improved musical flexibility, fluency of tonalities, accuracy of pitch, and freer modulation. Addition of keys, position of holes, key placement, key mechanisms, key padding, and sizes of bores were altered. This created more efficient woodwind instruments that were easier to play and maneuver through the ranges. The woodwind instruments section of an orchestra now included not just the oboe, flute, and bassoon, but also the saxophone and clarinet. Families of woodwind instruments were also created eg. soprano, alto, tenor, baritone to enhance the melodies and harmonies and create a fuller sound.

The twentieth century brought about many radical changes in musical styles such as jazz, swing, pop, and rock. However, aside from the introduction of electric instruments (eg. piano, organ, stringed instruments), the amount of changes to woodwind instruments were not as great. Woodwind instruments in the twenty first century today still retain their prototype of the nineteenth century, but can be made from different metals, their mouthpieces are made of differing lengths/widths and reed sizes, and some persons prefer varying colors for their woodwind instruments.

Flute & Piccolo

The flute is the highest pitched instrument of the woodwind section. In Bach's time, back in the 18th century, recorders were used in the orchestra but gradually the brighter tone and increased power of the 'transverse flutes' replaced the recorder. In the 19th century flute technique really took off with the invention of the Bohem System, which is the set of metal keys and pads that cover the surface of the flute and enable far more complicated music to be played than was previously possible.

The fingering of tthe Piccolois identical to that of the flute and flute players often alternate with piccolo. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the piccolo’s debut in a major work, where it adds a bright florescence to the Finale. Beethoven’s delighted rushes and trills also caught on, and the piccolo quickly became the go-to instrument for jubilation, a faculty it has never lost.

Oboe & Cor Anglais

The oboe and its larger relative, the cor anglais both produce a beautiful, sweet, haunting sound. When used as solo instruments the sound is sometimes described as a 'pastoral' sound. This is because they are descended from the type of reed instruments that have been used in folk music and by shepherds the world over for thousands of years. Modern oboes blend superbly with all instruments of the orchestra and can also be surprisingly agile.

The Oboe and the Cor Anglais (or English Horn) are wooden conical bore, double reed instruments. Other types of oboe include the Oboe d'Amore and the Hecklephone. Oboes have been used in orchestras for about 400 years and are among the most established instruments of the orchestra.


Clarinet & Contrbass

The clarinet's plaintive, clear sound can be perfect for a romantic melody or when agitated for creating angular accented textures and effects. They can make a surprisingly loud sound or play incredibly softly. Clarinets are also associated with the sound of jazz and are perfect for producing the typically rhythmic, swooping, rippling sounds of traditional jazz and swing.Clarinets come in many shapes and sizes, from tiny high pitched sopranino clarinets to the largest contrabass instruments which can play lower than a double bass.

Huge and rarely seen, it makes a wondrous low sound unlike any other from an acoustic instrument. Contrabass clarinets come in different shapes, but all have loops and some double loops. The instrument is a favourite of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who exploits its other-worldly timbral qualities in his Violin Concerto.

Bassoon & Contra Bassoon

The bassoon's double reed gives it a rich, slightly buzzing quality in the lowest notes and a sweet nasal sound higher up. Bassoons can be extremely expressive as solo instruments and their warm vibrato enables them to sound remarkably human, a little like a resonant baritone singer. They are also great for creating punchy rhythmic lines and as bass instruments they help provide support for the whole orchestra.

To accommodate all that length, the bore doubles back twice on itself like a paper clip in contrast to the bassoon's hairpin shape. The reeds, too, are thicker and heavier, and the fingering is different. The contrabassoon's lowest notes are the lowest of the orchestra, and the instrument's deep profound buzz was thought suitable only for reinforcement of bass lines until modern composers were able to find delight in the contrabassoon's strangeness. This is another of the instruments Beethoven introduced into symphonic repertory with his Fifth Symphony.


The instrument has many characters such as the smooth sounds that defined the Big Band dance music of the 1940s and a raunchy edge that helped turn the 70s track Baker Street into a global hit. It is also widely used in orchestral music, but even today less so than the other members of the woodwind section.

The reluctance of many composers to adopt the instrument wholeheartedly is something of a mystery given that the saxophone was invented as long ago as 1840: four years before Mendelssohn wrote his Violin Concerto and 25 years before the first production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. When it is actually used in the orchestra, in pieces such as Ravel's Bolero or Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the effect can be wonderful. It has the power to carry a solo line over large orchestral textures and like other reed instruments the sound when soft can be quite melancholy. Another benefit of its use is that in passages when all the woodwind section is playing chords together it adds a slightly harder and clearer outer shell to the sound.