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Basic wind instrument

In between the mouthpiece and the bell, the space inside the instrument that the air moves through is the bore of the instrument. The bore of an instrument is often described as being either cylindrical or conical. A cylindrical bore stays about the same width from the mouthpiece to the bell. A conical bore gets gradually wider as it moves from the mouthpice to the bell. The bore of the instrument strongly affects its timbre . For more complete information on how the shape of a wind instrument affects its sound, please see Standing Waves and Wind Instruments .


Bore affects the timbre of the instrument. In general, instruments with a cylindrical bore have a more direct sound with less complex harmonics. Instruments with a conical bore usually have a mellower sound with more complex harmonics.

Lips, tongue, and fingers: playing the instrument

Most wind instruments require the player to do something very specific with the lips and the facial muscles while blowing, in order to get a good, controlled sound. (Brass instruments will get no sound at all unless the lips are buzzing against each other and the mouthpiece.) The formal term for what a player does with the lips and face is embouchure ; the informal term is chops .

Unless they are slurred , notes played on wind instruments are tongued . This means that the tongue, which has temporarily blocked or interrupted the airstream, begins each note by releasing the airstream again. Tonguing is usually done with the tip of the tongue, as if the player is saying "tah". But sometimes, when the music is very fast, some wind players will double tongue (tah-kah-tah-kah) or triple tongue (tah-kah-tah tah-kah-tah) the notes, using the back as well as the front of the tongue. Flutes can also get an effect called flutter tongue by using an articulation that resembles the rolled Spanish "rr".

In the meantime, the fingers are usually involved in making the column of air in the instrument shorter or longer, to make the pitch higher or lower. This may involve a sliding section of the instrument (as in a trombone), or fingerholes that can be covered or uncovered with the fingers (as in recorders).

In most modern instruments, however, it usually involves either keys or valves. The fingering of a note is the keys or valves that need to be held down for that note. But most instruments can get more than one note with the same fingering, by changing the embouchure to get different harmonics of the standing wave. In fact, brass winds can get so many different harmonics with one fingering that changing the embouchure is the main way to play the instrument. Brass usually use valves, and woodwinds usually use keys. Keys and valves work in fundamentally different ways.

That vibrating standing-wave column of air inside the instrument generally ends at the first place where air can escape from the instrument. So (this is simplified for explanation purposes), the more fingers a recorder player is holding down, the longer the column of air and the lower the pitch. But it can be difficult (on some large instruments, impossible) to completely cover all the holes with the fingers, so most modern woodwind instruments use keys instead. The fingers press down the keys, and the keys cover the holes as needed, usually with a pad that covers the hole more completely than a finger could, and sometimes also using a lever that lets the finger press in one easy-to-reach spot, while the lever presses the pad over a hole in a more-difficult-to-reach spot.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, A parent's guide to band. OpenStax CNX. Jun 25, 2007 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10428/1.1
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