Woodwind instrument

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Woodwind instrument is the traditional name for wind instruments in which the oscillation of the air column is generated by means of an air blade or reed . Typical and common woodwind instruments include the flute , recorder , oboe , clarinet , bassoon and saxophone . Woodwind instruments are not always made of wood; For example, the first known flutes were made of bone, and many woodwind instruments today are made of metal or plastics. On the other hand z. B. zinc made of wood, but because of the way it generates vibrations, it belongs to the brass instruments .

Two reed mouthpieces for a tenor saxophone


It is difficult to define exactly which instruments belong to the woodwind instruments.

  • The typical woodwind instruments
    • are blown directly by the player with the mouth,
    • the pitch is given by the length of the vibrating column of air in the instrument (the frequencies of the sound generated are natural frequencies of this column of air),
    • and the air column length is selected by the player by opening and closing tone holes - either directly with the fingers or with flaps .
  • In a somewhat broader sense, woodwind instruments are also those that can only produce a single pitch and therefore have no tone holes, e.g. B. the pipes of the panpipe , the whistles , and non-mouth-blown instruments such as the labial pipes of the organ .
  • In an even broader sense, instruments are considered woodwind instruments in which there is a column of air, but the pitch is determined by the natural frequency of an elastic tongue . The column of air can be tuned to resonate with the tongue; this has a major effect on volume and timbre, but only slightly on pitch. Such instruments only ever produce a single pitch and therefore have no tone holes. This group includes the drone pipes of a bagpipe and the reed pipes of an organ . Because of the similarity in structure, partly also in sound, these reed instruments are often confused with reed instruments (such as clarinet, oboe, etc.).

The following text mostly only refers to the typical woodwind instruments with tone holes.

Sound generation


The air column in the instrument is stimulated to vibrate by the player on the mouthpiece . There are three types of woodwind instruments:

  • A flat air stream (air sheet) hits a blowing edge or labium ( Latin for lip) and starts vibrating there (e.g. flutes ),
  • or a single reed swings against a fixed opening (e.g. clarinets , saxophones ),
  • or a symmetrical pair of reeds swing against each other (e.g. oboe , bassoon ).

By operating the tone holes, a certain length of the vibrating column of air is selected. The oscillation then adjusts itself to a certain pitch through the formation of a standing wave . The lowest note results when all tone holes are closed, i.e. the air column has the length of the entire instrument, and the lowest of the natural frequencies given is excited. The air column length is then half the wavelength for most instruments , and a quarter of the wavelength for some.

As with every musical instrument, the oscillation is not purely sinusoidal , so it not only contains the fundamental tone corresponding to the length of the air column, but also overtones . These determine the timbre. The proportions of the different overtones depend

  • the type of vibration excitation (air reed, single reed, double reed),
  • from the blowing pressure,
  • the material of the instrument body (more precisely: the reflection and damping properties of the inner wall for sound waves of different frequencies),
  • the shape of the bore of the instrument: conical with the largest diameter on the bell (oboe, saxophone), conical with the largest diameter on the mouthpiece (recorder, transverse flute) or predominantly cylindrical (clarinet, Böhm transverse flute),
  • of irregularities and roughness of the inner wall. These also include the tone holes. Arthur Benade reports on an experiment to blow a normal plastic pipe with a double reed mouthpiece and describes the sound as dull and unappealing. The same plastic tube, provided with matching holes for finger holes, on the other hand, produced a sound with a nasal, warm wooden timbre that was reminiscent of an oboe.

Since at the beginning of each note the oscillation of the column of air must first build up ( settling process ), woodwind instruments react more slowly than, for example, a percussion instrument or piano and must be played "proactively" in this regard. A short settling process for all tones is part of the good "response" of an instrument.

The physics of sound development in woodwind instruments is not yet fully understood despite many years of efforts.


Overblowing is the name of the technique of playing the instrument in a higher register (sometimes called a register) by increasing the blowing pressure or taking other measures. One or more additional vibration nodes arise in the vibrating column of air . Depending on the number of these nodes, the frequency of the oscillation is an integral multiple higher: instead of the fundamental tone of the column of air, one of its higher natural tones is excited. In practice, with the exception of some flutes, woodwind instruments can only be overblown up to the third or fourth natural note.

Length and pitch

Physical research by Helmholtz , Raleigh a . A. showed that with a reed instrument with a cylindrical bore (like the clarinet) in the lowest register the wavelength of the sound is four times as great as the length of the air column, with all other woodwind instruments it is only twice as great. Since the air column length of the lowest tone that can be generated is approximately the length of the entire instrument, a clarinet achieves much deeper tones than a flute or oboe, despite being approximately the same size.


Root scale

Like other wind instruments, woodwind instruments are often given a tone name for a more detailed description: They say “the oboe is a C instrument” or “is in C”, sometimes a bit misleading “the oboe is tuned in C”. This refers to the basic scale , i.e. the major scale that is easiest and best playable on the instrument, such as C major on the soprano or F major on the treble recorder. The more a key deviates from the basic scale, the more difficult it is technically. Clarinetists in the symphony orchestra therefore do not always use the same instrument, but rather a clarinet in A or B, depending on the key and according to the composer's specifications.

Sometimes “tuned in C” only means that the notes for this instrument are usually written in the real pitch and not transposed (see also transposing musical instrument ). Correspondingly, for example, tuned in Bb means for some instruments (clarinet) that the usual notation is one whole tone higher than the actual sound. For recorders, on the other hand, which are also available with different fundamental scales, transposed notes are not common.


The tuning in the sense of the absolute pitch of a certain tone - usually the a 1 - is given by the construction of the instrument and, unlike string instruments, can only be changed within very narrow limits (approx. A quarter tone). Modern instruments have z. B. a 1 = 440 or 442 Hz , baroque instruments (original or reconstructed) often between 395 and 415 Hz, renaissance instruments also 466 Hz.


Wind instruments in the Pleistocene

One of the oldest musical instruments known to man, a flute made from griffon vulture bones, Vogelherd cave (approx. 40,000 years old, Aurignacia), UNESCO World Heritage “ Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura ”, Museum of the University of Tübingen

The proven oldest wind instruments - and at the same time the oldest musical instruments - were made from animal bones, especially birds, and from mammoth ivory . One of the oldest instruments discovered so far, a flute made from the wing bone of a whooper swan from a cave near Blaubeuren , is estimated to be more than 40,000 years old.

The oldest preserved musical instruments in the world are around 43,000 to 40,000 years old Stone Age bone and mammoth ivory flutes that were found in the Swabian Alb . A flute made from the bones of a griffon vulture was found in the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen in the summer of 2008 . Relatively well-preserved or reconstructable flutes with finger holes were discovered in the Geißenklösterle cave. The finds show that people made music as early as the Stone Age, more precisely in the Upper Palaeolithic . Two of the flutes from the Geißenklösterle are made in one piece from swan bones. The third consists of two joined half-tubes carved from mammoth ivory; it was provided with at least three finger holes, tuned roughly at a third interval (a fourth could have broken off) and decorated with notches on the side.

Fragments of two other flutes come from the Vogelherd cave . One of them was made from bird bones, the other is from mammoth ivory and preserved in three unconnected fragments. In overburden the Vogelherd cave also a third flute was discovered. It consists of a fragment with two cut handle holes and is made from griffon vulture bones. This flute exhibited in the Museum of Ancient Cultures in Hohentübingen Castle is part of the UNESCO World HeritageCaves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura ”.

Wind instruments in modern times

A wide range of woodwind instruments is documented by sources and individual finds as early as the ancient world. In Europe, the end of the 15th century saw the first development spurt. The various instruments were built in a wide variety of sizes and the limits of production technology at that time were exhausted. The sizes soprano, alto, tenor and bass based on the vocal quartet were common. In particular, instruments with double reeds as tone generators were newly developed in many different versions or further developed from medieval instruments. During the Baroque period, a large part of the woodwind instruments from the Renaissance period were forgotten again. At the beginning of the 19th century, a second phase of development began in Europe, which was based primarily on the new manufacturing techniques for building complicated flap mechanisms. Since the second half of the 20th century, in addition to modern instruments, instruments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance have been reproduced and in some cases further developed.


  • Arthur H. Benade: woodwind instruments. In: The physics of musical instruments. ISBN 3-922508-49-9 , p. 22 ff.
  • Günter Dullat: woodwind instrument making . Moeck, Celle 1990, ISBN 3-87549-032-0 .
  • Eugen Brixel : Series of publications for young musicians. Book 1: The Clarinet and the Saxophone. Music publisher Stefan Reischel, Oberneunkirchen, Austria, 1983.
  • Frank Peter Bär: Woodwind instruments in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Family education and music theory. Schneider, Tutzing 2001, ISBN 978-3-7952-1045-8 .
  • Bettina Wackernagel: woodwind instruments. Schneider, Tutzing 2005, ISBN 978-3-7952-1180-6 .

Web links

Wiktionary: woodwind instrument  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
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