A Brief History of Wind Instruments


Over twenty thousand years ago primitive man noticed that a piece of hollow cane or dried up fruit shell could make a sound if blown in a certain way.

Primitive whistles2 276x300 photo

If vocal music was the first man-made music and percussion the second, wind instruments would undoubtedly be the third (and the first melody-making instrument). The idea that a dead bone or cut plant had a voice of its own was not simply considered interesting; it was magic – used to aid man with his communication with the world of spirits, to cure illness, protect crops etc.
Originally primitive one-note instruments would be blown in sequence by a collection of primitive beings to form a primitive melody. Amazingly around this time, the use of harmonics was also used to extend melodic possibilities (blowing harder to get a different note – a harmonic of the basic note). These instruments were considered so sacred that women or children found partaking in the act of creating simple melodies on such musical instruments were punished with death by poisoning or strangulation.

Typically, bands would consist of twenty members with each man responsible for playing his note in the proper place in the music – deviant members placing notes in the incorrect place resulted in a flogging and the band would have to make do without that note for the rest of the week.

While almost every country in the world has a primitive wind instrument, the solutions to the musical limitations the instruments presented varied. The South Americans developed pan pipes while Zulu shepherds impressively extended the use of harmonics obtained from a basic one-note whistle. Meanwhile, ancient civilisations in Egypt, China and Samaria were working on something altogether new.

Bolivia2 300x295 photoThe invention of finger holes proved a huge step in the history of music. Adding one, two, three and then four holes allowed pentatonic melodies to be created using root notes, with harmonics further extending musical possibilities. With the mastery of the basic scale soon came curiosity and progression – a need constant throughout human history. Further permutations of instruments came about, many of which live on today as folk instruments and are still audible in local "closed" traditions.

Using such simple instruments, fingering techniques were developed over thousands of years as musical knowledge grew and grew. It was not for thousands and thousands of years that makers and players realised that mechanics could do the hard work – simplifying fingering.

The rapid progression of civilisation in Europe led to the first money-making professional musicians and instrument makers in the 19th century. Spurred on, musicians and makers thrived on wave after wave of creation and invention in what became a melting pot of musical ideas. The 19th century yielded undoubtedly the finest instrument makers and arguably the finest instrumentalists. The account of 19th century woodwind music inevitably became a brilliant story of innovations and amazing characters – performers and craftsmen. This was perhaps the heyday of acoustic music – instrumentalists were in huge demand as it became possible to tour (horses made the best tour buses in those days).

modern whistle (mk whistle)This revolution was fuelled by developments in mechanics and theirs application to music. A German, Theobald Boehm could be accredited with the single most amazing contribution to modern woodwind music. Devoting his working life to the playing and making of flutes, the principles he developed would later be seen on all woodwind instruments as we see them today. The flutes he was making after several decades of his application (1860), left his hands in the same form as we see Classical flutes today (with the exception of minor adjustments carried out mainly in Paris). He could have been blamed for the relative disappearance of end blown whistles (save for the token recorder) as the new flute proved so popular.

Reed Instruments

Relatively little is known about early reed instruments. The simplest and earliest reed instruments made were fashioned from the stalks of plants by flattening one end creating a basic reed. More advanced variations followed from bone and wood. Unlike basic whistles the harmonic possibilities were more limited so these instruments were used for little more than scaring bears by shepherds.

Although the idea of over-blowing to get harmonic notes was limited with reed instruments, people soon found that they could use finger holes like on a whistle or flute.

Amazingly, even before the basic scale had been mastered, the idea of one person playing two pipes at the same time was being explored. This development could only have been driven by a fascination with harmony. Using one hand for each pipe, both a melody and harmony could be played. This form of wind instrument – based on the pentatonic scale – met huge popularity. The ancient nations adopted it one by one to the point that it was almost exclusively the only instrument used in wind music – and in fact any kind of music. No other wind instrument has held a monopoly of music for so long.

Although the double pipe became extinct, the principles were continued in bagpipes. As musical knowledge progressed, scales became more complex and it became impossible to play the basic scale with one hand. The bagpipes arrived as an amazing invention shaking the world of music and meeting trans-global popularity. Adding an air-bag to the pipe allowed air to be continually passing through the pipe and drones (this idea was later applied back to other reed instruments in the form of circular breathing – using your mouth as an airbag). The drones and pipe were often made of bones (skulls, legs, whatever), wood or metal with balls over the joints and a small flag. Part of the beauty of the bagpipes proved to be its "abrasive" sound which caused it to be the cornerstone of many an army. It must be true to say that an army moving in formation and time with the bagpipes must have truly been a spectacular and terrifying sight.

Further developments took place in the single pipe spawning a range of instruments including the oboe, bassoon and clarinet amongst others. They all suffered from complicated fingering systems before mechanics started to be used in the 16th century. The use of mechanics can be seen in extreme in the accordion or organ. Most of the other wind instruments made use of the Boehm key system as invented for the flute in the 19th century.

Born in 1814, Adolphe Sax was the Van Gogh of the music world. Burnt by exploding gunpowder, poisoned from mistaking sulphate of zinc as milk and narrowly escaping drowning in a local river, the Belgian escaped death on more than one occasion in his childhood. The son of an instrument maker, Sax was a genius. By 21, he had perfected the bass clarinet. Then came the sax itself. Sensing his genius, musicians hated Adolphe Sax. Ridiculed for his inventions and excluded from orchestral playing, he pressed on patenting his instrument in 1840. His accomplishments were not appreciated until after his death. Thousands upon thousands of saxophones later, it formed the cornerstone of an entire genre of music – Jazz.

In Summary

In the view of the timescale of the existence of wind instruments, there have been few progressions since the 19th century. With a history as rich as this it would be naive to assume we are at the end of the line in terms of woodwind instrument design. We can only hope that the next development will happen within our generation.


By MishaSomerville_BIBLIOGRAPY_Woodwind Instruments and their History Anthony Baines_The Flute and Flute Playing Theobald Boehm_The Oxford Junior Companion to music_www.classicsax.com_ www.klorg.com/adam/