Welcome back to our orchestration series! I hope that you found the strings articles helpful and informative. This time I would like to present to you the underused gems of the orchestra; woodwinds! Following the same structure as for previous articles, I will first look at their ranges, registers, characteristics and capabilities and then I will discuss different ways in which you can use woodwinds to orchestrate your melody and harmony. So, following our tradition, grab a cup of your favorite beverage and let’s get down to business!
Woodwinds are probably the most underused instruments within new composer’s circles yet they can add a huge variety of interesting colors, timbres, flourishes and extra layers to an orchestration. While they can serve as excellent ‘fillers’ (providing wonderful runs, trills, rips and all sorts of interesting effects playing behind or between melodies), they are also capable of a vast range of expression when given solo melodic lines and can work wonders in adding ‘attack’ and poignancy to your harmonic material.
What are woodwind instruments?
Sounds like a rather silly question but bear with me for a second. When I was a little girl, if asked what kind of instruments are saxophones I would exclaim “BRASS” without any hesitation. Why? Because I thought that wind instruments were classified into wooden and brass according to the material from which they are constructed. However, I later found out that the distinguishing factor according to which winds are classified is the material from which their mouthpieces are constructed. Brass instruments have brass mouthpieces and woodwinds have wooden mouthpieces.
Woodwinds are further classified according to how many reeds their mouthpiece consists of.
- Single – Reed : clarinets and saxophones
- Double – Reed : oboe, cor anglais and bassoons
- No – Reed : flutes. While flutes do not have a wooden mouthpiece, they are considered woodwind instruments because they used to be constructed from wood. Some piccolos are still made of wood.
The most common woodwinds used today
If we were to explore the entire range of woodwind instruments we would need a few articles just for that! The clarinet family alone has 7 instruments!!! Therefore, we are only going to look at the woodwinds used most commonly in modern music;
- FLUTES : Flute in C, Piccolo flute in C and Alto flute in G
- CLARINETS : Clarinet in Bb and Bass Clarinet in Bb
- OBOES : Oboe in C and English Horn (Cor Anglais) in F
- BASSOONS : Bassoon in C and Contra Bassoon in C
While the saxophones also belong in the woodwind family, they deserve an article of their own and will be covered in the near future!
II. SOUND CREATION AND BREATHING
Woodwind instruments produce sound as air is blown into their tubes through their mouthpieces. Different pitches are possible through the alteration of the tube length with the opening and closing of the different holes.
The first and foremost point you should remember when writing for woodwinds is that woodwind players are humans and not robots. While a note sustaining for 5 bars is feasible in strings or even virtual woodwinds, a real woodwind player will have a LOT to say about that! So when writing for woodwinds keep in mind that players need time to breath! If you cannot sing a phrase in one breath, chances are a player won’t be able to play it in one breath either…unless they are using an iron lung!
Another point I would like to bring to your attention is the relation between instrument size and the air required for it to produce sound; the larger the instrument the more air the player needs in order to produce sound. While a passage may be easy on the clarinet, a bass clarinetist might need much more time to breath in order to execute the same passage. When writing for woodwinds, try to put yourself into the player’s role and provide ample time for breathing and preparation.
Finally, the louder the dynamic, the more air is required and the quicker the air is consumed. Therefore, be extra careful when asking your players to play forte passages.
III. TIMBRE, DYNAMICS AND FLEXIBILITY
Woodwinds are not like strings; their timbre and color changes as they move from the lower to the higher end of their range. In fact, many scholars and orchestration books suggest that one should look at each woodwind as three different instruments : low, middle and high. This is because a flute, for example, sounds completely different when playing at its low register than playing at its middle or high register. We will look at these differences in more detail in the next section. For now, what you should keep in mind is that :
- the middle register of each instrument is the easiest for a player to control (both in terms of pitch and dynamics);
- the high register lends itself for loud dynamics and more ‘intense’ passages, and;
- the low register is more suitable for soft dynamics and more subtle passages.
In other words, woodwind players can do pretty much everything on the middle register but have difficulties executing loud passages in low registers and soft passages in high registers.
IV. INSTRUMENTATION NOTES
Below you will find information regarding range, registers and characteristics for each individual woodwind, presented in a table format for easier comprehension.