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Unlocking The World Of Double Reed Instruments

Double Reed Instruments

Double Reed Instruments

There are several reed instruments around the globe, and this encompasses a special group known as double reed instruments.

Double-reed instruments bring melodious sounds to life through the vibration of two thin pieces called reeds.

In this article, we will explore the fascinating realm of reed instruments, focusing specifically on double-reed instruments.

These unique instruments have not just one but two reeds, creating a distinct sound that has enraptured musicians and audiences for centuries.

Let’s delve into the enchanting world of double-reed instruments, understanding how they work, exploring notable examples, and appreciating the allure they bring to the world of music.

What Is a Double-Reed Instrument?

Double-reed instruments are musical instruments that utilize two small, flexible reeds to create sound. Unlike single-reed instruments like the clarinet or saxophone, double-reed instruments have two reeds attached at the base.

These reeds are usually made from materials such as cane (Arundo donax) or synthetic materials, and they are carefully crafted to ensure a proper fit and alignment.

When playing, the musician places the reeds in their mouth and blows air through them.

This air causes the reeds to vibrate against each other, resulting in the production of sound waves. The instrument then amplifies these sound waves to create the desired musical tones.

The roots of double-reed instruments can be traced back centuries, with early versions found in ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia.

Over time, these instruments evolved and gained popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe.

Double-reed instruments have a unique and expressive tone that is often described as warm, mellow, and rich.

The special timbre of double reed instruments adds depth and color to musical ensembles, captivating the attention of listeners.

One captivating aspect of double-reed instruments is their ability to convey emotions.

Musicians can manipulate the sound by controlling techniques like embouchure, breath, and articulation.

This enables them to express a wide range of feelings, from delicate and lyrical melodies to vibrant and energetic passages.

These instruments are renowned for their distinctive sound and play a vital role in various music genres, including classical, jazz, and folk music.

They contribute significantly to the overall texture and character of musical compositions.

The Mechanism of Double-Reed Instruments

The mechanism of double-reed instruments involves a pair of reeds that are bound together and vibrate against each other to produce sound.

The reeds are made from thin pieces of cane that are carefully shaped and attached to a metal tube known as the staple. The staple is then inserted into the tubular body of the instrument.

When the musician blows air into the instrument, the air pressure causes the reeds to vibrate rapidly against each other.

This vibration creates sound waves that travel through the instrument and produce musical tones.

The musician can control the pitch and intensity of the sound by adjusting the air pressure and the position of their embouchure (the way they shape their lips and mouth).

To play different notes, the musician uses various fingerings and key combinations.

These keys cover or uncover tone holes on the instrument, altering the length of the vibrating air column and changing the pitch of the sound produced.

The mechanism of double-reed instruments requires precise control and technique from the musician.

It takes practice and skill to produce clear and expressive sounds, as well as to navigate the instrument’s range and perform complex musical passages.

The Reed of The Double Reed Instruments

The size and shape of the reed vary depending on the type of double-reed instrument.

There are two main groups: conical and cylindrical. Even within instrument families, such as the oboe family, there are variations in the reeds used.

For instance, the reed used for the oboe is distinct from the reed used for the English horn.

In European double-reed instruments, the reeds are typically made from a type of cane called Arundo donax. 

Non-European instruments normally use similar wetland grasses, bamboo, or young leaves from toddy palm trees to make their reeds.

There are also reeds made from plastic and other synthetic materials for different types of reed instruments.

However, plastic reeds for the oboe are not commonly used and are less easily found compared to other instruments like the clarinet.

Nonetheless, they do exist and are produced by brands like Legere.

The reed is considered a challenging component of the oboe because each reed possesses its own unique characteristics. This aspect of the oboe makes it difficult to attain a consistent sound.

Furthermore, the width of the reed affects its sound and response, so reed makers constantly experiment to achieve the desired results.

Reed length, which broadly affects pitch, varies more globally as different orchestras tune to different frequencies.

For instance, oboe reeds are usually around 7 mm (0.3 in) wide. On the other hand, bassoon reeds are wider, ranging from 13.5 to 15.9 mm (0.53–0.63 in).

Auxiliary double reeds like the English horn and contrabassoon have their own specific measurements based on player requirements.

Small changes in temperature, humidity, altitude, weather, and climate can also impact the sound of the reed, as can minute changes in the physical characteristics of the reed itself.

Notable Examples of Double-Reed Instruments

The double reed family encompasses various instruments, each with its own unique characteristics.

The most well-known members include the oboe, bassoon, English horn, and contrabassoon. These instruments differ in size, pitch range, and the timbre they produce.

They are well known for their unique sound and are commonly found in orchestras, concert bands, and chamber ensembles.

The oboe and English horn produce high-pitched and expressive melodies. Similarly, the bassoon and contrabassoon deliver rich, deep tones, providing a solid foundation for the ensemble’s sound.

Together, these double-reed instruments contribute to the diverse and colorful palette of the woodwind section.


The oboe is a highly popular double-reed instrument, renowned for its elegant design and enchanting sound.

It belongs to the woodwind family and is typically crafted from wood. However, craftsmen can also use synthetic materials like plastic, resin, or hybrid composites.

When playing the oboe, the musician blows air into the reeds with enough pressure to make them vibrate along with the air inside the instrument.

The harmonious interplay between the two reeds produces a captivating mix of frequencies. The mix of frequencies results in a tone that is both alluring and rich.

The oboe’s versatile and distinctive tone is often described as “bright,” and it finds its place in a wide array of musical genres, including classical, jazz, rock, pop, and contemporary music.

Its rich timbre and expressive capabilities make it highly prized in orchestras and chamber ensembles.

For approximately 400 years, oboes have played an essential role in orchestras. As a result, they have solidified their position as one of the oldest and most respected instruments in the ensemble.

They also have a significant role in tuning the orchestra, as their unique “A” sound sets the pitch for the entire group.

Moreover, the oboe frequently takes center stage as a solo instrument in symphony orchestras, concert bands, and chamber ensembles, where it showcases its captivating sound.

Its presence adds depth and character to musical arrangements, captivating the hearts of both musicians and audiences alike.


The bassoon, a low-pitched member of the reed instrument family, is played using a double reed similar to the oboe and English horn.

When you blow air through the bassoon’s double reed, which is made of two pieces of cane, the reed vibrates and produces a sound.

This double-reed instrument consists of a wooden pipe, often made of maple, with keys that allow you to open and close finger holes.

Due to the low pitch of its lowest notes, the bassoon requires a tube that is approximately nine feet long.

To accommodate this length, the tube is doubled back on itself. The bassoon has a conical bore and is assembled in four sections.

With an extensive range, the bassoon can play from the third B-flat below middle C to the second D above middle C. It primarily reads music written in the bass clef, although it occasionally uses the tenor and alto clefs.

The bassoon creates a rich, deep, and slightly vibrating sound in the lower notes while producing a sweet and nasal tone in the higher ranges.

When played as a solo instrument, the bassoon has the ability to express a wide range of emotions. Its warm vibrato gives it a human-like quality, similar to the resonant voice of a baritone singer.

Playing the bassoon can be quite challenging, as it requires the use of all ten fingers, including the thumbs.

In fact, it is one of the few instruments that necessitates the use of all fingers for proper performance.

The bassoon has been a prominent instrument in almost every major orchestral composition since the eighteenth century, and it plays a vital role in wind ensembles.

It also holds a significant place in concert bands and chamber music and occasionally makes appearances in pop, rock, and jazz genres.

English Horn

The English horn, also known as the Cor Anglais, belongs to the oboe family and is another popular double-reed instrument.

When you first see it, the English horn looks similar to the oboe, but it is longer and has a curved shape with a pear-shaped bell called a Liebesfuss. The Liebesfuss gives the English horn a more covered timbre compared to the oboe.

Just like the oboe, the English horn has the same number of keys and fingerings, allowing any oboist to play it.

This is often the case in practice. Additionally, the English horn is a transposing instrument, which means its music is written a fifth higher than it sounds.

It originated in the 18th century and was initially made in a curved shape.

The English horn produces a softer, darker, and more muted tone compared to the oboe.

Its range spans a little over two octaves, from the E below middle C to the second A above middle C.

English horns are commonly made from African blackwood, also known as Grenadilla.

However, some makers offer instruments made from alternative woods like cocobolo or violet wood, which can slightly alter the sound and produce a more mellow tone.

In recent times, there have been English horns made from materials such as plastic resin and maple, with the latter being the traditional wood used for bassoons.

The English horn is a standard instrument in the symphony orchestra and is also used in chamber music for wind instruments.

It can even be used as a substitute for the Oboe da Caccia in baroque music.


Bagpipes are a wind instrument that utilizes enclosed reeds and a bag to produce sound. The bag acts as a constant source of air for the instrument.

Bagpipes consist of one or more reed pipes connected to a bag.

When playing, musicians hold the bag under one arm, blow air into it through a blowpipe, and use their arm to squeeze the air out like a bellows. Typically, the bag is made of goatskin or sheepskin.

The bag’s air is then directed through two types of pipes. One is called the chanter, responsible for producing the melody and featuring eight finger holes (seven in front and one at the back for the thumb).

The other type of pipe is called a drone, which plays a single low note. Usually, there are one to three drones. The air continuously flows through these pipes, creating a steady sound.

Bagpipes have spread extensively across Europe, the Middle East, and many regions of the former British Empire.

While the name “bagpipe” is commonly associated with the well-known Great Highland bagpipe, there are actually numerous types of bagpipes with unique characteristics.

In western Europe, most types of bagpipes have double reeds and wide conical bores, resulting in the distinct, shrill sound often associated with Highland bagpipes.

Since the 1960s, bagpipes have been incorporated into various music genres, including rock, metal, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and classical music.

They have found their place in different styles, demonstrating their versatility and ability to add a unique touch to various genres.

Other Double-Reed Instruments

In addition to the well-known double-reed instruments from the Western world, there are numerous other instruments around the globe that also use double reeds.

Some of these instruments have been used traditionally in their places of origin, while others have gained popularity worldwide.

In this session, we will explore a few of these instruments and learn more about them.


Image of Algaita

The algaita is a wind instrument with a double reed. It is commonly found in West Africa, specifically in Nigeria and Niger, especially among the Hausa and Kanuri peoples.

Crafted from a long wooden tube, the algaita features finger holes and a mouthpiece that houses the double reed.

While its design resembles the oboe-like rhaita and the zurna, it distinguishes itself with a larger, trumpet-like bell.

Unlike instruments with keys, the algaita relies on open holes for fingering, akin to the zurna.

When played, it produces a unique and vibrant sound with a piercing tone.

Traditionally, the algaita is a staple in African music, particularly during ceremonies and festive events.

Its energetic and rhythmic melodies contribute to the lively atmosphere of the music, making it highly regarded in the cultural traditions of the region.


The balaban, also known as the balaman, is a wind instrument with a cylindrical bore and double reeds. It measures about 35 centimeters (14 inches) in length and has eight finger holes and one thumb hole.

This instrument is commonly played in the eastern part of Iran’s historic Azerbaijan region and in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Balabans are typically made from mulberry or other sturdy woods like walnut.

The bore of the instrument has a diameter of about 1.5 centimeters (0.59 inches).

It consists of a body called the govda and a flat reed mouthpiece that is placed in the mouth when playing.

The balaban itself is around 280–300 millimeters long and has a diameter of 20–22 millimeters.

The double reed used in the balaban is made from a single tube of cane, approximately six centimeters long, and flattened at one end.

When playing the balaban, the performer uses air stored in their cheeks to maintain a continuous sound while inhaling air into their lungs.

This technique, known as “circular” breathing, is commonly used with double-reed instruments in the Middle East.

The sound produced by the balaban is mellow and light, and due to its relatively low volume, it is often played in enclosed spaces and intimate gatherings.


The bombard is a contemporary woodwind instrument that features a conical bore and double reeds, and it is commonly used in traditional Breton music.

It belongs to the same family as the oboe and shawm.

When playing the bombard, the musician holds a wooden body that can range from 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50 cm) in length.

The instrument is equipped with six finger holes and one or two keys on the front, along with a cane reed and a wide metal bell that flares outward.

Similar to other shawms, the bombard is capable of producing a robust and powerful sound that bears some resemblance to a trumpet.

To play it, the musician places the double reed between their lips, and the second octave can be achieved by either increasing lip and air pressure or using an octave key.

The bombard has a range that spans a diatonic scale of up to two octaves. However, modern versions usually incorporate additional keys to facilitate playing chromatic notes.


Shawms are a family of double-reed woodwind instruments that have a long history. They are found in various cultures around the world.

They are known for their distinct and piercing sound. Shawms have a conical bore and are typically made of wood, often with a metal bell attached to the end.

The design of a shawm consists of a cylindrical body with finger holes, a double-reed mouthpiece, and a flaring bell.

The double reed is made of two pieces of cane that vibrate when air is blown into the instrument.

The player produces sound by blowing air into the mouthpiece and controlling the embouchure, or the shape of the lips, to create different pitches and tones.

Shawms come in various sizes, ranging from soprano to bass, each with its own unique sound and range.

They are usually played by holding the instrument horizontally and using the fingers to cover and uncover the finger holes to change the pitch.

Some shawms also have keys or additional holes to extend the range or enable the playing of chromatic notes.

Throughout history, shawms have been used in various musical contexts.

They were popular during the medieval and Renaissance periods and were commonly used in military bands, courtly music, and outdoor festivities.

Shawms were known for their loud and vibrant sound, which made them suitable for outdoor performances.

They were often played in ensembles along with other instruments, such as drums and brass instruments, to create a lively and festive atmosphere.

Today, shawms are still played in both traditional and contemporary contexts.

They are often utilized in early music ensembles to recreate the sounds of the past. Additionally, they can be heard in various genres such as folk music, world music, and experimental music.


The duduk is a woodwind instrument with a double reed made from apricot wood.

It originated in Armenia and can also be found in other countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

When played, the duduk is often performed in pairs. One player plays the melody, while the other creates a steady drone called “dum.”

The combination of these two sounds produces a captivating and haunting tone.

The reed of the duduk is unique compared to other double-reed instruments. It is wider and made from one or two pieces of cane, giving the duduk its distinct and mournful sound.

The cylindrical body and unflattened reed contribute to a sound that is closer to an English horn than an oboe or bassoon.

The significance of the duduk is recognized by UNESCO, which proclaimed it and its music a “Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2005 and inscribed them in 2008.

The enchanting melodies of the duduk have been featured in several films, including “The Russia House” and “Gladiator.”


The crumhorn is a woodwind instrument that is part of the musical family. It has a distinct curved shape resembling the letters “J” or “L.”

Its name comes from the German word “krummhorn,” which means “curved horn.”

During the 16th century Renaissance, the crumhorn enjoyed popularity in courts across Europe. It particularly gained favor in the English court during that period, under the reign of King Henry VIII.

It has a cylindrical wooden body with finger holes and a curved mouthpiece. The reeds are enclosed in a cap, which creates a buzzing sound when air is blown into the instrument.

The crumhorn possesses a special feature: its capped double reed, which imparts a distinctive nasal and reedy sound.

Unlike the shawm or oboe, the reed of the crumhorn is not directly played with the lips. Instead, the instrument is equipped with a cap on top that directs the airflow onto a specific portion of the reed.

However, using a cap comes with limitations. Unlike the shawm or oboe, where one has direct control over the reed and can adjust the volume, the cap restricts such control.

Consequently, volume adjustments and dynamic changes are not possible. With a capped reed instrument, the sound is either on or off.

The crumhorn has a restricted range and produces varying pitches depending on how the player covers the finger holes. Despite this limitation, it remains a remarkable instrument.

While its popularity waned by the end of the Renaissance period, the crumhorn has experienced a resurgence among early music enthusiasts and performers.

Its unique and distinct sound continues to be appreciated in both historical and contemporary music.

Catalan Shawm

The Catalan shawm is a wind musical instrument played in northeastern Spain, specifically in Catalonia.

It belongs to the family of double-reed musical instruments, similar to the oboe.

There are two main types of shawms used in Catalonia: the tible and the tenora.

They are often played together with other instruments during the traditional Catalan circle dance, known as the Sardana. The tenora has a lower pitch than the tible, approximately a fifth lower.

While shawms are found in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, Catalonia stands out as one of the few places in Europe where they are still widely used.

Additionally, Catalonia is unique in having incorporated modern mechanisms, such as keywork, into these traditional instruments, similar to what is found in orchestral woodwind instruments.


The guan is a type of Chinese wind instrument that uses double reeds. It comes in different versions, such as the guanzi or bili in northern China and the houguan in Cantonese.

According to the ancient Chinese instrument classification called Ba Yin, the guan is considered a bamboo instrument.

The guan is made differently depending on the region. In northern China, it has a short tube shape made of hardwood.

However, in the Guangdong region of southern China, it is made from bamboo and referred to as houguan, which literally means “throat guan.”

The guan stands apart from other double-reed woodwind instruments, such as the Chinese suona or the Western oboe, due to its cylindrical shape rather than a cone shape.

This distinctive characteristic provides the guan with a unique blend of mellow and piercing buzz-like timbre.

Additionally, every guan contains a wide double reed crafted from a type of cane called Arundo. This reed is inserted into the top end of the tube.

Hardwood guans require a hard reed, while bamboo guans typically use a soft reed. However, sometimes a different hardness of reed is used to alter the sound quality, known as the timbre.

Traditionally, the guan is designed with seven finger holes on the top and one thumb hole on the back.

The length of a traditional guan can vary from 7 inches (18 cm) to 13 inches (33 cm). Furthermore, a large Cantonese houguan can even measure up to 50 cm.


The piri is a double reed musical instrument from Korea that has a unique sound. It is a type of oboe that has two reeds and is made from bamboo.

People in Korea have been playing the piri for a long time, even during ancient times like the Three Kingdoms period.

The instrument came to Korea from China, which got it originally from Central Asia.

The piri is used in both traditional and classical music in Korea. It is known for having a mellower tone compared to other oboes.

A typical piri has eight holes for fingers. Seven of these holes are on the front, and there is one more on the back for the thumb.

To play the piri, you should sit up straight, pull your chin slightly, and straighten your back to make it easier to breathe.

Hold the flute with both hands and put it in your mouth, biting it gently.


The taepyeongso is a wind instrument from Korea, also known as the “big peace wind instrument.”

It is a double-reed instrument belonging to the shawm or oboe family. It is believed to have descended from the Persian sorna and has close ties to the Chinese suona.

The taepyeongso has a cone-shaped body made of wood, which can be yuja (citron), daechu (jujube), or yellow mulberry.

It features a metal mouthpiece and a bell-shaped metal end. Its origins date back to the Goryeo period (918–1392).

On the front of the taepyeongso, there are seven fingerholes, but typically only the upper five are used.

Additionally, there is one fingerhole on the back, usually covered by the left thumb.

Traditionally, the reeds for the taepyeongso were made from hollowed-out river reed stems (galdae).

They underwent a process of steaming, drying, sanding, and shaping. Besides, they were bound with thread at the bottom to secure them to the mouthpiece. Nowadays, many players use pieces of plastic drinking straws instead.

The taepyeongso is known for its loud and piercing sound. This has made it popular in Korean folk music, particularly in “farmer’s band music” and marching bands.

It was often performed for royalty in a genre called daechwita.

Additionally, it is used sparingly in other genres, including Confucian, Buddhist, and Shamanist rituals. It is also used in neo-traditional/fusion music and Korean popular music.


The zurna is a wind instrument played in central Eurasia, Western Asia, and parts of North Africa. It is often heard alongside a davul (bass drum) in Armenian, Anatolian, and Assyrian folk music.

The zurna is made from the durable and slow-growing wood of fruit trees like plum or apricot. It has a cylindrical shape with a bell that curves out in a parabolic manner. This design enables the zurna to project the sound straight ahead.

There are various types of zurnas, but the Armenian zurna is the most common.

The kaba zurna, used in Bulgaria, is the longest and produces the lowest pitch.

However, in Messolonghi and other villages of the Aetolia-Acarnania region in Greece, people play a shorter and higher-pitched zurna, often making it from bone.

Similar to the oboe, the zurna is found in areas where the common reed grows.

It uses a short cylindrical reed attached to a conical brass tube, with a narrow slit at one end serving as the sound source.

To produce any sound, the zurna requires significant air pressure, resulting in a loud, high-pitched, sharp, and piercing tone.

This characteristic makes circular breathing, a technique that enables continuous playing without breaks, suitable for zurna players.

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