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Musical Elements

Performing Media | Wind Instruments

Peter Kun Frary


Wind instruments produce sound via a vibrating column of air. Thus, wind instruments are classified as aerophones (air sounds) by ethnomusicologists. The air column is normally set in motion by a player blowing into a mouthpiece. Wind instruments control pitch by varying the length of the vibrating air column: longer air columns create lower pitches while shorter air columns yield higher pitches. Wind instruments are organized into two subcategories: brass and woodwinds.

United States Navy Band | Honolulu, Hawaii | Percussion on the far left, brass in the rear and mostly woodwinds in front.


Brass instruments are typically made of brass or other metals and create sound by players buzzing, i.e., blowing air through vibrating lips, into a mouthpiece. Vibrations from the lips are amplified in a coiled tube. The longer the coiled tube, the lower the pitch. Trumpet, trombone, French horn and tuba are examples of brass instruments. A few instruments constructed of wood or animal bone, e.g., didgeridoo and Renaissance cornett, are also considered members of the brass family.

Jesse Lethbridge Didgeridoo (2:27) | The didgeridoo is an aerophone and wayward member of the brass family constructed of wood.

Jeremy West Introduces the Cornett (2:45) | The Cornett (Italian, cornetto) is a brass instrument made of wood, leather and ivory.

B-Flat Trumpet | Pearl City, Hawaii | Under the player's right-hand fingers are the valves used, along with the player's lips, to control pitch.

Slides, valves, holes or keys may be used to change the length of the air column in a brass instrument while the player's embouchure, lip tension and air flow are used to select the specific harmonic or pitch produced from the air column. Brass instruments like the trumpet and tuba use valves to change the air column size.

Trumpet (13:11) | Alistair Mackie introduces the trumpet.

Trombones use a slide to change the length of the vibrating air column.

Trombone Parts

    1. tuning slide
    2. counterweight
    3. mouthpiece
    4. slide lock ring
    5. bell
    6. knob/bumper
    7. water key/spit valve
    8. main slide
    9. second slide brace/stay
    10. first slide brace/stay
    11. bell lock nut

Listen to the video of low (bass) brass instruments. The trombones use slides to change pitch while the tubas and cimbassos use valves.

Epic Low Brass Game of Thrones Theme (2:39) | 23 Low Brass: 11 Bass Trombones, 6 Contrabass Trombones, 6 Tenor Trombones, 6 Tubas and 3 Cimbassos.


Woodwinds were traditionally constructed of wood, hence the name, although many modern woodwinds are metal. Most woodwinds have a pipe-like body (are not coiled) and change pitch by varying air column length with a system of holes or keys. The woodwind family is subdivided into three categories: flute, single reed and double reed instruments.

Navy Woodwinds | Front row from left to right: 2 piccolos and 4 clarinets | Second row from left to right: 3 bassoons and 3 saxophones:


Flute and piccolo are the most common members of the flute family and are used extensively in classical and marching band ensembles. Flutes are held transverse to the player's body and played by blowing across a hole.

Flute (c. 1825) | Meacham & Co. | Museum of Fine Arts | Mouth piece is on the left and finger holes on the right.

Partita in A Minor, Allemande BWV 1013 (5:17) | J.S. Bach | Kate Clark plays a wooden Baroque flute. She blocks and opens holes to change pitch.

Single Reed Woodwinds

Clarinets and saxophones use a vibrating reed to create sound. A reed is a thin slice of bamboo or cane. The reed is attached to a mouthpiece and installed on the end of the instrument. A stream of air from the player's mouth sets the reed in motion. Like the flute, players of single reed instruments control pitch by opening and blocking holes or keys.

B-Flat Clarinet c. 1880 | Rivière & Hawkes (c. 1876–1889) | Museum of Fine Arts | This beautiful 19th century clarinet is made of rosewood with nickel-silver hardware.

Clarinet (13:09) | Mark van de Wiel introduces the clarinet.

Clarinet Reeds | Bamboo clarinet reeds | Image Photo courtesy JW Reeds

Double Reed Woodwinds

The oboe, English horn and bassoon use two narrow reeds held between the player's lips. A stream of air from the player's mouth sets the reeds in motion. Double reeds are temperamental and players spend a lot of time shaping, soaking and sucking reeds for optimal sound.

Bassoon (10:16) | Amy Harman introduces the bassoon.

Sixième Concert (2:57) | François Couperin | Gonzalo X. Ruiz, Baroque oboe


aerophone, brass, woodwind, flute, single reed woodwind, clarinet, double reed woodwind, oboe, English horn, bassoon

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved