The oboe is the soprano member of a whole family of instruments, called, appropriately enough, the oboe family.

The oboe is a descendant of a long line of double reed instruments, possibly beginning as early as ancient Egypt. This line also includes the aulos or double aulos of ancient Greece.

The more direct lineage of the modern oboe begins in the Renaissance with the shawm, another double reed instrument, which shares an ancestor with the bagpipes. The shawm, played without the lips on the reed, was a loud, obnoxiously-toned instrument, explaining perhaps the French, hautbois (literally, high or loud wood). The transition in this lineage from shawm to oboe occurred as it became necessary to find an indoor equivalent for the shawm in the mid-17th century. The modern oboe was invented by Jean Hotteterre and Michel Danican Philidor to suit the needs of French ballet, specifically, the tastes of Louis XIV. It has a more narrow bore than the shawm, and is played by placing the lips directly on the reed.

The earliest oboes utilized minimal keywork, beginning with two to four keys. As traditions and technique solidified, keys were added, reaching fifteen by the nineteenth century. The oboe of today was first introduced in 1880 by the Loree firm in France, and has existed effectively unadjusted since.