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Fr. Hautbois ; It. Oboe ; Ger. Oboe ; Sp. Oboe

The oboe (1720s, France, hautbois, meaning literally high wood [1]) is a double reed instrument and a member of the woodwind family. The most notable feature of the Oboe is the double reed at the top of the instrument. This reed design was thought to have originated from the knowledge that two pieces of grass vibrate when put together and blown through [2]. Through the centuries the reed and the instrument itself has grown more complex, eventually arriving at the instrument we have today. The oboe has a musical range of about 3 octaves, from Bb3 to A6.

The modern oboe.

Score Placement

In orchestral and wind band scoring, the oboe is placed below the flutes and above the clarinets (though some composers of band music place the oboes below the flutes and above the bassoons). Though there are several auxiliary instruments, the English Horn (or Cor Anglais) is normally the only auxiliary in modern use. Players of lower chairs will usually play auxiliary parts while the principal oboist remains on the standard oboe, where their expertise is most needed.

In a standard modern orchestra, three oboes are used, with the third oboist almost exclusively playing the English Horn. In the wind ensemble of concert band, there are typically two oboe parts, though occasionally there may be a single oboe part or an additional English Horn part.

Timbre and Range

The oboe's sound has been described in many ways, but the most common description is that it sounds dark and pastoral in slow music, and free, almost humorous in faster music.

The lowest fourth of the oboe's range (from Bb3 to E4) is assertive and difficult to control, particularly at soft dynamics. A true pianissimo is impossible in this register. The oboe's timbre can be particularly strident and unattractive in this range in the hands of an unskilled performer.

The most characteristic and useful portion of the oboe's range lies from E4 to C6. It is in this range that the oboist has the most control over the instrument, and where most of the more famous oboe solos have been written. The timbre is reedy and pungent, becoming progressively sweeter and thin as the instrument approaches C6.

The highest register (from C6 to A6) is thin and delicate, and can be difficult for the performer to control. Due to the complex fingerings, difficulty speaking, and intonation control required, playing extensively in this register can be quite fatiguing to the oboist.

Illustration of written range of the Oboe.

Auxiliary instruments

English Horn

The English Horn (or Cor Anglais), the most commonly seen auxiliary instrument of the oboe family, extends the oboe family's range down by a tritone. Sounding a perfect fifth lower than written, it is commonly used as an expressive solo instrument, or to fill out the harmony within the woodwind section. The lowest fourth of the instrument's range (from written B3 to E4) is not as difficult to control as the same range on the Oboe, though the composer should be aware that additional effort is still required compared to other areas of the English Horn's range. Above written A5, the instrument's timbre thins noticeably, to the point that the English Horn may even sound slightly hoarse or throaty unless the performer is an exceptional player.

Illustration of written range of the English Horn.

Oboe d'amoré

The Oboe d'amoré is a larger oboe pitched in A (between the size of the oboe in C and the English Horn in F) that has a beautifully poignant timbre that is reminiscent of both the oboe and the English Horn, yet distinct from either. Rescued near-singlehandedly from complete obsolescence by Early Music enthusiasts, the instrument is still pitifully absent from the orchestral repertiore, though popular in music written around the time of Bach. It has been used rarely in modern times, with a solo passage in Ravel's Bolero being the notable exception.

Illustration of written range of the Oboe d'amoré.

Baritone Oboe and Heckelphone

The Baritone Oboe is pitched in C an octave below the Oboe. While this would be potentially a useful addition to the oboe family, the instrument is generally unsuitable due to its stuffy, thin sound and relative lack of availability (therefore causing a lack of competent oboists who play the instrument). A notable example of the use of the Baritone Oboe can be heard in Holst's The Planets, in the movements Mercury, Uranus, and Neptune, with a prominent solo in Saturn.

Illustration of written range of the Baritone Oboe.

The Heckelphone's rich, reedy timbre (also pitched in C an octave below the Oboe) would also seem to be a wonderful addition to the Oboe family, but like the Baritone Oboe, lack of availability dooms the instrument to obscurity. The Heckelphone and Baritone Oboe are similar in range (though the Heckelphone has an extended lower range to written A3) and are both double reed bass oboes, but their construction gives notably different timbres; The Heckelphone was designed by a bassoon maker and the Baritone Oboe by an oboe maker. A trio for Heckelphone, Viola, and Piano by Hindemith is a rare example of the instrument in action.

Illustration of written range of the Heckelphone.

Other Things to Remember

When writing for the oboe, remember that there are various schools of oboe playing, which can be divided into two main categories – the American School and the European School [3]. Players studying the American style of playing usually have what has been described as a dark, woody sound that varies in tone throughout different registers, while the European School prefers a bright, mellow sound with almost no variation in tone [4]. Concerning vibrato, the American vibrato changes speed and pressure at the will of the oboist, and is considered as an essential part of the American tone. Unlike the Americans, the standard European vibrato is switched on and off depending on the style of music and the temperament of the performer. Also remember that the oboe uses much less air than other wind instruments, and so can be sustained much longer [5].


[1-2] Goossens, Leon. The Oboe [3-5] Storch, Laila "Marcel Tabuteau: How do you expect to play the oboe if you can't peel a mushroom?"

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