In musical orchestra and marching bands, the instruments are divided into different groups based on the sound they make and the voice they play in the band. In every marching band and orchestra there are two distinct groups of wind instruments: brass and woodwind. Although the two are similar in some aspects, there are many characteristics that differentiate the two. From material to playing technique, these are the core differences between brass and woodwind instruments.
While there are many differences between brass and woodwind instruments, the main difference between the two is what they’re composed of. Woodwind instruments, such as clarinets and flutes, are made out of wood or metal, while brass instruments are made exclusively out of metal or brass. Since reeds are absent from brass instruments, there is no trace of wood or reed in brass instruments. Although both types of instruments use a force of air to make a sound, the mouthpiece of woodwind instruments requires a reed while the mouthpiece of brass instruments do not.
Directional vs. Non-Directional
One important difference between woodwind and brass instruments is that woodwind instruments are non-directional. With non-directional instruments, the direction or volume the instrument produces can’t be controlled. For example, the sound produced by a flute will sound the same standing in front of the flutist as it will if you’re standing behind. Brass instruments, on the other hand, are directional. This difference makes it more difficult to record a woodwind instrument accurately and plays an important role in marching bands, as brass instruments will be heard throughout the stadium while woodwind instruments will primarily be heard on the field.
While wind and brass instruments both rely on the player to supply the instrument with enough air to make a sound, the technique by which the note is played varies between the two. Brass instruments are lip-vibrated instruments, meaning the different pitches are caused by alterations of both the air flow and lip tension of the player. The difference in pitches of woodwind instruments, on the other hand, is caused when a player blows through a reed to cause air within the resonator to vibrate. The reed sits at the back of the mouthpiece and vibrates against the rest of the mouthpiece to help create the sound.
Valves vs. Keys
Valves are a crucial part of brass instruments, as they help direct air in and out of the instrument, creating different pitches. Woodwind instruments, on the other hand, rely on the keys located alongside the body of the instrument to vary air flow. This variance in air flow is what creates the different tones and pitches. While this may seem like a major difference, it’s also a similarity, as both the valves and keys rely on the air provided by the player to create sound. Additionally, many brass instruments require more breath and more air to fill the instrument than smaller woodwind instruments.
For more information about brass and woodwind instruments, check out the Parent’s Guide to School Band Instruments.