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The bassoon (left) and contrabassoon (right).
Fr. Basson ; It. Fagotto ; Ger. Fagott ; Sp. Fagot

The bassoon is the bass of the woodwind section and a disputed member of the oboe family. It is a double reed instrument with a body which is folded over on itself such that the bell points upwards. Due to its conical bore, it overblows at the octave like the flute and oboe. It is often considered the most difficult woodwind to learn and play, but the most difficult aspects of playing any double reed instrument usually concern only the reed.

Score Placement

In orchestral writing, the bassoons should be placed below the clarinets and above the horns. In wind ensemble or concert band writing, the bassoons may be placed either below the oboes and above the clarinets, or below the clarinets and above the saxophones.

In both orchestral and band settings, it will usually be the lower chair players who double on the contrabassoon (typically the third bassoonist, who may play contrabassoon exclusively). The principle bassoonist in an ensemble will aways stay on the 1st Bassoon part.

Timbre and Range

The bassoon has a very unique nasal tone quality to it and is hence characterized as the clown of the orchestra. It is very dark and reedy, and has often been compared to the qualities of the male singing voices. When it is played softly it has a delicate tone, yet when it is played very loudly it becomes brassy much in the way that the French horn does. Like other members of the double reed family, the lowest notes of the bassoon tend to sound rather harsh compared to its other registers, while the uppermost notes are particularly sweet with a singing quality to them, though sometimes stuffy when proper care is not taken.

The bassoon is a non-transposing instrument encompassing four octaves of practical playing range from Bb1 to about D#5. The instrument also carries an incredibly unreliable set of high notes ranging from E5-C#6. These notes are extremely shrill, very loud, often uncomfortable to play, have very awkward fingerings and require consultation with the performer beforehand, to make sure the performer can even play these notes.

The lowest register (from Bb1 to Eb2) is very rich and full, being difficult to attack or control at low volumes. While the bassoon is an agile instrument, in this lowest register this agility is somewhat lessened due to fact that motion between notes requires the bassoonist to use the left thumb almost exclusively.

The middle register (from E2 to G4) is clear, reedy, and shows off the agility of the bassoon well. It is in this register that the most characteristic timbre is produced. Above C4, the bassoon becomes more easily covered, and the timbre becomes increasingly strained or intense.

The upper register (above G4) has a strained, intense quality. In general, all passages in this highest register are more difficult than in other ranges of the instrument, due to the complex fingering required and unsure speaking of notes (the large reed does not vibrate as well at such a high frequency through such a long tube).

Illustration of playing ranges for the bassoon.

Despite many improvements to the instrument, the keywork of the bassoon is a fairly complicated affair plagueing a deceptively simple instrument. Hence, there are many trills/tremolos that are difficult or impossible to execute on the bassoon. For instance, many amateurs may find a trill between E2 and F#2 to be impossible and other trills or tremolos involving accidentals should be carefully considered, especially when writing for students, amateurs, or doublers.

Auxiliary instruments


Also referred to as the double bassoon, or simply, the contra, the contrabassoon is pitched one octave below the standard bassoon and is fitted with a larger reed and metal bell. Due to the sheer length of tubing needed to produce such low frequencies, the body of the contrabassoon is folded over on itself several times. Most fingerings between the bassoon and contrabassoon are shared, but several about the register break and upper range can be different. The contrabassoon, like the standard bassoon, is also a relatively agile instrument. While it can not play parts as active as an oboe, most people neglect it's nimble characteristics.

The timbre of the contrabassoon can be described as gravelly, with an audible rumble, especially in the lower half of the instrument's range. The modern contrabassoon is often equipped with an extension to written A1 (sounding A0), which can often be felt rather than heard.

The range of the contrabassoon is just as large as the standard bassoon, with a reliable range written range of Bb1-C4.

Other bassoons

Though several other types of bassoons have been used in the past, none of these are regarded as more than a curiosity today. The tenoroon is a generic term for two other bassoons. The first of these two are the Quart Bassoon which is a fourth above the bassoon. The second is the Quint, a fifth above the bassoon. The 'soprano' voice of the bassoon family is the "Octave" Bassoon. This bassoon is a full octave above the standard bassoon. The Quart, Quint and Octave bassoons are extremely rare, and seldom used, and most are music for these instruments are written in baroque music.

Left to right: Contrabassoon, bassoon, oboe and English horn reeds.

The Reed

Though one would not deduce it from a concert performance, the reed is the bane of a bassoonist's life. Most double reed players make their own reeds to suit their needs. Reed making is a very delicate procedure, as every detail can have a vast effect of the tone, range, and playing resistance, all of which can constitute trouble for the lesser-experienced bassoonist as well as the professional. Many bassoonists will play a concert using more than one reed, alternating between them as necessary. The is because when a reed is properly balanced to play well in the higher register, its lower register suffers, and vice-versa. Relatively few reeds come along that are capable of playing throughout the low and high range equally as well and this should be taken as a consideration by the composer when writing demanding parts that encompass the instrument's full range.

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass