Orchestration: Introduction to Woodwinds - Part II
|A YC Tutorial
Justin P. Tokke
This page is a part of the Orchestration Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Orchestration masterclass
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Introduction to Wind Families
Unlike the other sections of the orchestra, the woodwinds are built up of several families of instruments. While the strings and (roughly) the brass are considered one big family, the woodwinds are made up of no less than four different families of instruments that are relatively contained and independent.
The flute family is based off of the main concert pitched instrument often just called "Flute."
Double Reed family
The characteristic feature of all the double reed family instruments is their unique method of sound production. Rather than a single reed like the clarinet or saxophone, these instruments have a double reed. The two reeds are placed together and the player blows through the very small gap between them. This creates a very nasal sound quality. The main instrument is the Oboe, the highest common member of the family. (The very rare "Musette in F" is a fourth above the oboe.) Other members are, in descending pitch: Oboe d'Amore (A), English horn (F), Baritone Oboe, Heckelphone, Bassoon, Contrabassoon. Sometimes, the family is split into two families of "Oboes" and "Bassoons", however, the two families have so much in common that it is wiser perhaps to consider them as one big family with Oboes and Bassoons as subfamilies of the larger double reed family.
The clarinet family developed over a longer period than almost any instrument.
The saxophone family was invented by famed instrument maker Adolphie Sax. In his initial patent, he registered 14 different types of saxophones to be grouped into two large families of similar instruments. The first was a group of 7 "orchestral" saxophones which were pitched in C and F alternating. The second was the 7 "military band" saxes which were pitched in B-flat and E-flat alternating. Initially, the saxophone was popular with a few isolated composers when invented, however, they fell into obscurity after a few years. It never became a regular member of the orchestra because it wasn't must needed; the woodwind section was already considered "complete" at that point. As a result, the orchestral saxes in C and F became very rare and are hardly seen today outside of special collections of saxes or the occasional C Melody Sax.
It wasn't until the rise of the jazz era of the 1920s did the saxophone have a massive surge in popularity. Jazz musicians used the saxophone because of its ties to the military band and was thus readily available (much like the trumpet and clarinet). Classical composers took note quickly and used the saxophone to elicit jazz-style music in their larger works. Gershwin and co. used saxes to literally imitate a jazz band while French composers such as Ravel and Milhaud used the sax a bit more abstractly to only hint at jazz music. Either way, it was relatively rare to have a saxophone solo for the sake of its timbre, like Prokofiev often did.
Today, the only realistically existent saxophones are the military band saxes in E-flat and B-flat. It is recommended to not ever write for the F and C saxes since they are hard to find and not much better (or very different at all) from their E-flat/B-flat counterparts. Unlike some other instruments, the saxes have changed very little over their history save for a few new additions to the extremes to the range of the family. The total members are thus:
- Soprillo (Bb) (extremely rare, only a few exist in the world)
- Sopranino (Eb) (somewhat rare. Usually not used outside of special uses.)
- Soprano (Bb) (available in curved and straight varieties)
- Alto (Eb)
- Tenor (Bb)
- Baritone (Eb)
- Bass (Bb) (not common. Not used commonly outside of bands or special uses.
- Contrabass (Eb) (nicknamed the "Tubax", also very rare)
The Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone are, by far, the most common saxophones. Anything in addition should be considered special and the composer should make sure the piece in question using them has a player available that has one of these instruments, or, provide an alternative in the absence of such an instrument.
Next Article: Techniques of Woodwinds