What is a woodwind instrument?

The woodwind family of instruments is a subset of the more general category of wind instruments. Within the woodwind family, there are two main types of instruments: reed instruments and flutes. The reason reed woodwind instruments are identified as “woodwind” is based on the way they produce their sound which is by splitting the player’s air stream on a sharp edge, such as a reed. Many people are confused by the name woodwind, thinking that these instruments should be made exclusively from wood. However, they can be made of any material such as wood, brass, cane, silver, gold or platinum.

Woodwind instruments are incredibly popular with beginner and professional players as well as hobbyists. Many young band students start their musical careers on a woodwind instrument and will go on to play several within the family.

You can hear woodwind instruments featured in all types of music, from classical and orchestral pieces to jazz to blues to rock & roll and nearly everything in between.

Examples of woodwind instruments

The woodwind family of instruments includes these 6 major instruments:

  1. Flutes and piccolos
  2. Saxophones
  3. Clarinets
  4. Oboes
  5. Bassoons
  6. English horns

Also included in this category are recorders and modern electronic wind instruments, plus dozens of accessories for woodwind players.

Shopping for woodwind instruments

The woodwind family of instruments is broad and contains thousands of models from hundreds of manufacturers. If you’re shopping for a woodwind instrument, be sure to do your research and understand your playing level and style. You’ll also need to understand your budget, as the price range for these instruments is wide. Here’s a general overview of the major types of woodwind instruments with some tips for buying.


Flutes are the oldest of all instruments that produce pitched sounds rather than just rhythm. Originally made from wood, clay or reeds, they are now usually made of silver, gold or platinum. Flutes are played by holding the instrument sideways with both hands and blowing across a hole in the mouthpiece, much like blowing across the top of a bottle. The player’s fingers open and close the keys, which changes the pitch. Flutes generally play melodic parts of a composition. Learn more about buying a flute.

Piccolos are like flutes, but about half the size. They are played in the same manner and flute players often learn both instruments. Piccolos have the highest range of any of the woodwinds and the high piping sound can be heard in marching bands or drum corps as well as in some orchestral pieces.

Single-reed Instruments

Clarinets are known as single-reed instruments, because they use one reed, attached to the horn by a ligature, to produce sound. Clarinets come in a number of different sizes, and the standard Bb clarinet is just over 2 feet long. Clarinets can play both melodies and harmonies, expressing a dark, rich sound in their lower notes, while the upper part of the clarinet’s range is bright and resonant. The clarinet is played by holding it upright, blowing through the mouthpiece and reed, and using the hands to change the pitches by opening and closing the keys with your fingers. See our clarinet buying guide for more details.

Saxophones, also single-reed instruments, are relatively new, invented just 150 year ago.  They are important instruments for jazz and blues styles of music, but also have been incorporated into classical works.  Saxophones can range in size and pitch from soprano to contrabass.  Alto and tenor are the most popular types, but if you learn to play one, you can easily learn to play all of them.  The saxophone is played in the same manner as the clarinet. Learn how to buy the right saxophone for you.

Double-reed Instruments

Double-reed instruments include oboesbassoons and English horns. Double-reed instruments use two precisely cut, small pieces of cane bound together at the base. The finished, bound reed is inserted into the instrument and vibrates as air is forced between the two pieces (causing the air within the instrument to vibrate as well).

Oboes look similar to clarinets and are played the same way.  The tones produced by the oboe are just below those of the flute.  They produce a wide range of pitches, from haunting sounds to warm, velvety smooth notes, which make the sound of the oboe memorable. The instrument is an important member of orchestral woodwind sections and is often featured in solos. Learn more about buying an oboe.

Bassoons are the largest member of the woodwind family and with the lowest pitch, similar to that of the cello. The bassoon is a long pipe, doubled in half, made of wood, with many keys. The bend in the pipe makes it possible for musicians to play it comfortably. If it were straight, the bassoon would be around 8 feet long! Bassoons most often play harmony, but occasionally can be heard in melodies. Check out our bassoon buying guide for help selecting a bassoon.

English Horns are not English and are not horns! This instrument, closely related to the oboe, also uses a double reed, and is played in the same manner. It’s longer than an oboe and its tube is a bit wider. At the bottom end of the English horn it opens out into a rounded bell shape, which gives it a warmer, fuller sound. Because it’s larger, the English horn also has a lower pitch range than an oboe. An oboe player will often play English horn if it is needed.


Related Articles

Essential Accessories for the Flute

How to Hold a Flute: An Essential Guide for Beginners

Learn More

8 Lesser-Known 2020 Grammy Nominees Who Should Be On Your Radar

Learn More

Meet our Semi-Finalists for the 2019 Music Educator of the Year Award

Learn More

How Weather Impacts Your Sound

Learn More