Woodwinds are musical instruments that utilize vibrating reeds (or sculpted blowholes) and conical air columns to produce musical tones. Most woodwinds have keys which cover up holes in the body of the instrument, changing the size of the air column contained inside and thus altering the tone. Some woodwinds, like flutes, just have the fingerholes and don't actually use reeds at all, it being played in the same manner as your beer bottle when you blow across the top after a few.

The department of the orchestra which comprises all of the wind instruments save for the horns and heavy brass.

Woodwinds are rarely made out of wood anymore, but when the term was coined, they all were. To the uninitiated this sometimes causes confusion since most woodwinds are made out of metal (and in some cases, plastic) like the flute; also, the saxophone has been invented since this term came to be and they have never been made out of wood. But fear not! I promise to make these noble instruments easy to understand.

Woodwinds are a vital and necessary part of any orchestra, as it is extremely rare to find a piece which omits the woodwind section all together. Konzertmusik fur Streichorchester und Blechblaser is a popular example but it is definitely an exception to the rule. Even though the section might be small or occupied by few participants who double on different instruments, to be considered an orchestra woodwinds must be present. The actual woodwinds themselves which can be categorized by how they are played:

  • Non-reeds - Flutes and piccolos are played by sending a stream of air over a hole in the head joint. The flute is more commonly seen than the piccolo, and usually a piccolo part is relegated to the principle or secondary flautist.

  • Single reeds - All clarinets and saxophones are single reed instruments. These are played by sending air into the mouthpiece between the ceiling of the mouthpiece and a reed, causing the reed to vibrate and as thus change the size of the column of air within the instrument, producing different tones. There are five widely used types of clarinets and a whopping eight types of saxophone, although four of the eight are most usually seen.

  • Double reeds - Oboes. Bassoons. English Horn. These unique instruments are played with a double reed, split in the middle so that in between the lips of the player there is a top and a bottom piece. Air is sent into this space and the resulting vibration (which, without the horn sounds like a very high pitched duck-quack) is sent into the horn. These instruments are easy to identify in that the oboe and english horn are held very much like clarinets but have no mouthpiece; the bassoon is quite a bit larger with many curves and swoops of wooden piping, and yet still it has an itty-bitty double-reed for playing.

Woodwinds have vibrant tone colors and offer an indispensable set of tools in the composer's bag of tricks. Each woodwind instrument type features three to four individual colors within the playable ranges of each instrument.

For instance, in Russian Christmas Music Alfred Reed uses the English Horn as a soloist for his Antiphonal Chant. Considering all of the work preceding and following this movement is relies on the heavy brass to make its point, the 12 measure(!) english horn solo presents the true introspection of the piece. It connects the primal opening statement to the chanting songlike lyricism of the latter half. Before the brass can make a bold statement again (following the solo), the woodwind section is joined by a walking double bass soloist in a literal translation of an ancient antiphonal christmas ritual song practiced in Russia.

This is bookended by a reprise of the english horn solo which developmentally leads us into the jubilant final statement of the piece. It's the pathway between the village christmas practices and the larger scale celebration of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In essense, the English Horn and it's woodwind counterparts lead us from the woods and the small satellite villages into St. Petersburg.

So remember, piccolos aren't just for marches and clarinets aren't just for jazz. The next time you are listening to classical music, really listen to what the woodwinds are doing. They don't cut through the harmonic texture like the strings and horns do, but I guarantee you would miss them if they were gone.

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