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What are Woodwinds?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The woodwind family of instruments is a group of instruments which are played by blowing into a mouthpiece and casing a reed to vibrate, generating a unique sound. Flutes are also counted in the woodwind family, even though they do not include a reed, because of the way in which they are played. In an orchestra, the “woodwinds” are the section of the orchestra which includes all of these instruments, and the players are frequently seated together. Woodwinds can be very easy or very difficult to play, depending on the instrument, and most musicians start with the recorder, since it is easy to learn on.

Open woodwinds such as the flute are played by placing the mouth at a precise angle with the instrument and blowing to generate sound. Closed flutes have a mouthpiece which directs the air as it is pushed through by the lips of the player. The term “woodwinds” in reference to flutes can be confusing, since most flutes do not include wooden elements. However, in both open and closed woodwinds, the sound is produced by directing air against an edge, as opposed to vibrating the lips against the mouthpiece, as is the case with brass instruments.

Reeded instruments have either one or two reeds. A reed is traditionally made from wood or cane, although modern reeds are made from molded plastic. The reed is mounted into the mouthpiece, and as the player blows, the reed vibrates. The vibration of the reed generates a sound, which can be modulated with keys on the instruments to make different notes and tones.

In a single reed instrument, there is only one reed. Single reed woodwinds include the saxophone and clarinet. Double reed woodwinds have two reeds, and include the oboe, English horn, and bassoon. Some ethnic woodwinds have even more reeds, with up to four. Some of these woodwinds are made from wood, but most of them include metallic elements, or are made entirely from metal.

Although some woodwinds could be confused with brass instruments, since they are made entirely from metal, they have a very different sound. The sound is not directional, and it is much softer and less aggressive. Most orchestras have a combination of woodwinds and brass instruments to achieve a rich blend of sound, combining the more delicate sound of woodwinds with the harsher tones of brass instruments. Many musicians are capable of picking up both woodwinds and brass, since the basic skills needed to play them are very similar.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By SarahSon — On Dec 21, 2011

The flute was the first musical instrument I learned to play. Other than a few years of piano lessons, the flute has been the woodwind instrument I have played for many years.

After college there don't seem to be very many opportunities to play these musical instruments any more. I was thrilled when we joined a church that had an orchestra.

Finally, I had the chance to play the flute again. Every Christmas we put on a musical production, and our brass and woodwind section always play some numbers together.

Being able to play again on a regular basis is something I look forward to every week.

By LisaLou — On Dec 20, 2011

When I was old enough to be in band, I had two choices for an instrument - a clarinet or a saxophone.

My sister who was older than me chose the saxophone, so I was left with the clarinet. Even though they are both woodwinds, they have two different distinct sounds.

I really don't think it would have mattered which woodwind instrument I had, I really never liked playing a reed instrument.

I love the sound each one of them make, and really enjoy listening to others play, but is something I never found much pleasure in.

After a couple years I gave it up, and started learning how to play percussion. That is what I really wanted to learn, and kept with that all through high school and college.

By Izzy78 — On Dec 19, 2011

I think maybe the most forgotten woodwind instrument is the bagpipe. A lot of people never really think about what category it belongs in, since you don't see them very often, but they actually do have a set of reeds inside of them that air gets pushed through to make the sound.

The other forgotten reed instrument I was wondering about would be the reed organ. I have never seen one in action, but I think they work by someone pushing air through reeds using a foot pump. How would that be classified, though? Would it be a keyboard instrument or a woodwind?

By stl156 — On Dec 19, 2011

I played a saxophone all throughout high school and into college, so I might be kind of biased, but I think woodwinds are so much more fun to play than brass instruments. The sound I think is a lot more expressive. The biggest downfall, though, is that woodwinds aren't as well represented in a lot of ensembles. Orchestras usually just have a couple of saxophones, if any, and a few flutes and clarinets.

Even though I have been in several bands, I have never really known anyone that plays a double reed instrument. Everyone I see, though, keeps their reeds in some sort of liquid. What is the purpose of this? Does anybody know?

By Emilski — On Dec 18, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I think it is great your son is looking to join the band. Playing an instrument is a great hobby to have, and can provide a lot of future opportunities.

If this school is anything like mine was, the band director will probably have some sort of an orientation type thing where he or she meets with the kids and introduces them to what band is. I know when I started, my director gave us a short diagnostic test to see what our different skills were from the start (whether we understood melody or rhythm better, etc.). After that, he met with us individually and let us pick up and play the different instruments and see what we liked.

All in all, though, I would let your son choose his own instrument. It will be more enjoyable if he gets to choose rather than gets forced to play something. As for cost, though, that really depends on the instrument choice. The thing to consider with woodwinds is that you continually have to buy new reeds, which, depending on the brand can get sort of expensive, but they last a while if you take care of them.

By cardsfan27 — On Dec 17, 2011

My son is just entering the 3rd grade and is interested in joining the band. Unfortunately, I was never in band when I was in school, and I don't play any instruments, so I don't really know how to approach this.

I think I understand the differences between the types of instruments like woodwinds and brass, but I don't really know anything about any of them.

Are there any certain types of instruments that are better for certain types of kids? Is one group easier to learn how to play than another? What about cost? How much would some of the different types of instruments run, and are there any other associated costs I might not be thinking about? Thanks for any help.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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