Woodwind instruments are the most common instruments employed in the western orchestra aside from the strings. Claudio Monteverdi employed groups of families of instruments for one of the first staged operas in Europe, L’Orfeo, based on the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice. The main core of the ensemble was the strings, but he also incorporated woodwind and brass instruments. Since its beginnings, woodwind instruments have been played one on a part, although by the late 18th century and thereafter, pairs of woodwind instruments were often employed in large orchestral works. For example, the woodwind section of Don Giovanni (1787) by Wolfgang Mozart (libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte) is comprised of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, and two bassoons, each with their own separate part.
Unlike the string instruments of the orchestra, the sound of each woodwind instrument is not uniform, even though much overlap between registers exists. However, woodwinds create sound in fundamentally the same way: by blowing air into a tube whose air column is shortened and lengthened by holes along the tube. Higher pitches are created from short air columns in which fewer or no holes are closed, and lower pitches result from longer air columns in which more holes are closed. The difference in tone color is often due to the mouthpiece.
The use of woodwinds is limitless: solo sonatas, a solo or accompaniment in a song, woodwind quartets and quintets, solo quintets (such as an oboe quintet which includes solo clarinet and string quartet), and large orchestral music, to name but a few examples. They can also be used for primary and secondary musical material.
Limited special effects are available on woodwinds, primarily trills, tremolos and flutter tonguing. Among woodwinds, harmonics are only possible on the flute. It is important for the composer to understand each woodwind instrument’s tone color, strengths, limitations, and weaknesses to create the desired musical experience.
Select a woodwind instrument (below) to explore its videos and textual explanations.