The crumhorn is a double-reeded wind instrument first developed in the early 15th century. The player's lips do not touch the reed, but rather blow into a slotted cap. It is the most common instrument of the reed cap family which also includes the kortholt, cornamuse, and hirtenschalmei. This design may have evolved from the bladder pipe, with which the player blows into an animal bladder where a double reed vibrates. The name comes from the German word "krumhorn", meaning "curved pipe", or possibly the old English "crump", from which the word "crumpet" also comes from.
The crumhorn has a fingering system similar to the lower register of a clarinet. It overblows a twelfth rather than an octave because of the cylindrical bore (rather than a conical bore) and the reed closing the end of the resonating tube. It's normal range is limited to an octave and one note. The higher notes are extremely difficult to reach and maintain due to the lack of control over the capped reed. Crumhorns may have been occasionally played without the cap in order to make the higher notes easier to play, when necessary.
Crumhorns have the distinct sound of a rich, somewhat nasal buzzing. Pitch is controlled by the opening and closing of the finger holes and by breath pressure. This way, the crumhorn is played at a fixed dynamic level. It is similar to the change in pitch of a bagpipe chanter as the player begins to fill the bag.
A crumhorn is constructed by first boring out a length of wood. The hollow cylinder is then filled with sand and steamed to soften it. The lower end of the instrument is curved into a half circle, giving it the appearance of a cane or umbrella handle. This is for decoration only; the curve does not affect the sound at all.
Today, the crumhorn is little more than a goofy novelty instrument popping up at Renfests. However, it played a serious role during the Renaissance. It was played for all manner of occations from dances to church mass. Crumhorns were particuarly popular in Germany and Italy, but didn't catch on in Great Britain. Around 1500, crumhorns were played as accompaniment for the wedding of Duke Johann to Sophia of Mecklenburg. King Henry the Eighth of England owned twenty-five crumhorns, and had them played in his court. A crumhorn ensemble is typically comprised of an alto crumhorn (tuned in F or G), two tenors (C) and a bass (F). Occasionally, a soprano (C) or great bass (C) may be used.
Some early music ensembles play crumhorn today, so there is a possibility to hear the instrument in concert. However, as said before, it is very difficult to play and is capable of making exceedingly obnoxious noise when played poorly. Therefore, be sure that the performer knows exactly what he or she is doing. Otherwise, you could be in for a painful concert.