Woodwind Vibrato

Something that is not often thought about in scoring for winds is the use of vibrato.  In the six families I have covered (flute, recorder, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon), some use vibrato, some do not, and others are in betweeners.


Flutes almost always will use vibrato.  I once wrote a flute passage where I wrote “senza vibrato” and the poor flute players were dazed and confused as to how to do this.  While flutes now play with vibrato as a matter of course, it used to now be this way.  Even some places in Europe (namely Vienna) never use vibrato.

Sir James Galway teaching flute vibrato.

Emily Beyon teaching flute vibrato.


As a general rule, recorders never use vibrato.  This is mostly due to the method of sound production where the player cannot control pitch or volume through manipulation of embouchure or airstream.  A subtle vibrato can be produced via the abdomen, but the essence of recorders is their quaint, rustic feel.

Laoise O’Brien teaching recorder vibrato.


Like flutes, oboes are generally played with vibrato.  The vibrato helps to smooth out the edge of the double reed sound.  Unless otherwise specified, an oboe player will always use vibrato.  For loud strident passages, senza vibrato can be asked for.


In the US and in most of Europe the clarinets are played without vibrato.  This makes it the only standard woodwind instrument that never uses vibrato.  The only time vibrato is called for on the clarinet is for jazz music where the sound is expected.  The non-use of vibrato is part of the clarinets coolness; it’s why a composer would choose a clarinet over an oboe.  I once heard a recording of a famous clarinet solo (Prokofiev 5) played by a Czech orchestra where the clarinets do use vibrato, and the sound just felt weird and unsettling.

Roeland Hendrikx explaining clarinet vibrato.

Eddie Daniels teaching clarinet vibrato.


Traditionally, the saxophone is always played with vibrato.  Also, its vibrato (produced by the jaw) is different from every other woodwind (produced by the abdomen).  This means that the saxophone’s vibrato always sticks out.  I have never understood why players use the jaw vibrato over the abdominal vibrato of the flutes, oboes, and bassoons.  Having heard saxophones played without vibrato, I find this sound immensely appealing, rich, and warm.  The vibrato detracts from the pure tone of the instrument in ensembles.  However, in solos, the vibrato is quite welcome.

Harvey Pittel teaching saxophone vibrato.

Timothy McAllister teaching vibrato.


The bassoons are our go between instruments.  Most bassoonists will know when and when not to play with vibrato.  If the instrument is in a large ensemble setting and buried in the sound, most players will not use vibrato.  However, in a solo or a soloistic passage, a warm fluid vibrato is used.  Range also plays a factor in the use of vibrato.  Low notes usually will not have vibrato.  The contrabassoon will almost never use vibrato except in the rare solo passage (Mother Goose and the Concerto for the Left Hand by Ravel).

Arthur Weisberg teaching vibrato.

Kristen Wolfe Jensen teaching vibrato.

High soprano

Instrument in the highest register (Piccolo, G Treble, and E-flat Flutes; A-flat and E-flat Clarinets; and Piccolo and Sopranino Saxophones) will use vibrato much less frequently than lower pitched instruments.  The reason for this is the unstableness of the notes will have an unsettling effect.  This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but a general word of caution.


In general, the lowest instruments in the ensemble should not use vibrato.  When vibrato is applied to the fundamental, the rest of the ensemble cannot have a stable base in which to tune to.  As the Contrabass Clarinet will never use vibrato, the only real worry here is the Contrabassoon (and only rarely the Contrabass Saxophone).

Scoring for Vibrato

Some examples of how to score for vibrato are to use instruments or instrument groups interchangeably.  For instance, have the flutes play a chord then have the recorders play the same chord (or a correlating chord).  The effect will be vibrato – senza vibrato.  The same can be done with clarinet-saxophone combinations.


As I continue through a brief tour of historical wind instruments, I come next to yet another double reed instrument, the dulcian or curtal.  Why am I spending so much time on double reeds?  Because historically, double reeds made up the bulk of all woodwind instruments.

The dulcians were the predecessor of the modern bassoons, but they are significantly different in sound and range to qualify them as a separate instrument.  There are two main differences. One is the shortened range.  At most, a dulcian was capable of only two and a half octaves, although a range of two octaves was far more common.  The second difference is the existence of a complete family of instruments.  Dulcians came in no less than six sizes from the small Soprano Dulcian, for which no corresponding size of modern bassoon exists, to the large Contrabass Dulcian, which is the same range as today’s Contrabassoon.

The most popular size was by far the Bass Dulcian, which was the same size as today’s Bassoon.  This was followed by the Tenor Dulcian (equivalent to the Tenor Bassoon) and the Great Bass Dulcian (equivalent to the non-existent Semi-Contrabassoon).  Alto and Soprano sizes were far less common, while the Contrabass was extremely rare with possibly only one extant instrument left.

Technique on the dulcian is both impaired and at the same time simpler than on the bassoons.  The bottom fifth of the instrument is completely diatonic.  However, within the middle range, speed is very easy in keys close to the home key of the instrument.  The speed of dulcian players is evident from the extant literature from the mid-1600s.

To my ears, the dulcian is the most pleasing of all the Renaissance wind instruments.  It is a very vocal and fluid sound that is unobtrusive and expressive.  Perhaps this is why it was used well into the 1800s in parts of Spain.

In a band or orchestral setting, the dulcians could be used as an easy doubling instrument for the bassoon section.  Any bassoonist can learn the instrument fairly quickly.  It could be used for more folksy elements or pastoral scenes.  Unlike the bassoons, the dulcians can also be used in a complete family from soprano to contrabass without any gaps in the sound.

While normally used by early music specialty groups, there seems to be no reason to exclude the dulcian based on antiquity.  While it may be an odd choice for sure, it could very well be an effective one.

An introduction to dulcians – Bass, Tenor, and Great Bass Dulcians

Alto Dulcian

Bass Dulcian – Bertoli Sonata 1

Soprano and Bass Dulcians



To my knowledge, the crumhorn has never been incorporated into a band, or for that matter, in a traditional orchestral setting.  The crumhorn is a Renaissance double reed instrument, but totally unlike any that are in use today.  There are three defining characteristics of a crumhorn.  One is a completely cylindrical bore.  No other modern double reed instrument has such a bore.  The second characteristic is the wind cap, a wooden cap that covers the entire reed of the instrument.  Because of this cap, the player’s lips do not touch the reed, and thus cannot control the reed for pitch or volume.  The last feature is the unusual J-shape of the instrument.

Due to the narrow cylindrical bore, the sound of the crumhorn is thin and buzzy.  There is little projection, and because of the wind cap, the volume cannot be adjusted.  In range, the crumhorn has the smallest range of all the wind instruments of only an octave and a second.  In fingering, they are exactly like the recorder and will have the same sort of dexterity.  Smaller sizes are more agile, while larger sizes are more cumbersome.  I have played Soprano, Alto, and Bass Crumhorns personally, and can attest to this fact.  The Bass Crumhorn was the most awkward instrument I have ever attempted (the finger span is nearly inhuman).

Tiny range?

Unplayable finger span?

Why go to all this trouble for such an unusable instrument?

Because its sound is truly unique.  No other instrument can make the joyous, buzzy sound of the crumhorn.

Five sizes of crumhorn exist: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, and Great Bass.  These correspond to the exact same sizes of recorder, but sound one octave lower than the recorders of the same name.

Proposal for a New Instrument

As I’ve done a few times on this blog, I am calling for the creation of a new instrument.  Oddly, these instruments are all double reed instruments, which I happen to play.  I try to remain unbiased in this regard.  Double reed instruments are the most undeveloped of all the instrument families.

If we look at all the wind instrument families, we see parallels.  We see corresponding families of conical bore and cylindrical bore instruments.  In the brass we have trumpets and trombones versus tubas and cornets, in the single reeds we have clarinets versus saxophones, in flutes we have traverse flutes versus recorders, but in the double reeds we only have conical bore instruments (oboes, bassoons, and the mostly extinct sarrusophones).

Our cylindrical bore double reed instrument will need to follow the pattern of the clarinet, as it will over blow the twelfth and not the octave like other double reeds.  Therefore, the instrument will need a register key.  It will also need a slight downward extension in order for the lower and upper registers to meet.  Full or semi-full keywork would be a must for technical agility.

Such an instrument would be easy to make for most repairmen skilled in a lathe.

The question of a wind cap on the instrument would best be asked through experimentation.

Until such an instrument can be made, we have the crumhorn with all its imperfections to satisfy our desire for such an odd sound.

Alto, Tenor, and Bass Crumhorns

Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass Crumhorns

Demonstration of Crumhorns


Horns Part 4 – Horns in the Band

Horns in the Band

            Traditionally, there are four Horn parts in every work for band (works for young ensembles excluded).  This number is rarely deviated from.  In the orchestra, there are numerous examples of scoring for more or less than the traditional four horns.  Most Classical works use only two horns.  Works like Holst’s Planets use six Horns.  Mahler used seven in his First Symphony.  Many, many composers have used eight.  Schönberg used ten in Gürreleider.  Strauss used twenty in his Alpine Symphony.  And Havergal Brian used 24 in his Gothic Symphony.  Yet, the band has never used more than four.

            With its nearly four octave range, huge chords spaced over several octaves are possible for a group of massed Horns.  This is one reason that the Horn section is always larger than the sections for other brass instruments.  Or rather, I should say that there are always more Horn parts than parts for other brass instruments.

            I would love to envision a work that utilizes the full section of eight Horns like the larger symphonic works.  It would take the edge off the trumpet dominant sound of modern band works.  Many groups, both professional and amateur, have access to eight competent Horn players.  Why not utilize the resources?

The Bumper

            I nearly every larger ensemble, there is always one more Horn player than is actually scored for.  This extra player is known as the bumper.  The bumper almost always plays off of the first Horn part.  In tutti passages the bumper will reinforce the sound or give the principal player a well-deserved rest.  While the ubiquity of the bumper is almost universal among professional and semi-professional groups, no composer has taken the opportunity to make use of this resource.  If a composer were so inclined, they could indicate when and where the bumper would play for a precise desired effect.  However, remember with the bumper, their main job is to make sure the principal player does not tire out.


            If dealing with a professional group, we might consider having four of the Horn players double on Wagner Tuba for a wider palate of sound.

Ranges and Scoring

            The Horn in its highest register is dramatic and exciting.  It can easily drown out an orchestra.

In the middle register, the Horn is the great blender.  The sound of the Horn in this range can blend in seamlessly with every other instrument of the band or orchestra.

In its lowest register, the Horn can be sinister and snarling at a loud dynamic or soft and unobtrusive when played softly.

As I mentioned above, the Horn can blend with every instrument with a good deal of success.  The low register of the flute can match the tone color of a muted Horn, Bassoons share the exact same range, clarinets share their ability to be able to blend.  The only scoring oddity is Horns and trumpets.  The timbres are somewhat dissimilar.  Don’t use Horns as the bass to a trumpet ensemble unless you are very careful (trombones will be a much better substitute).

Vienna Horns playing the theme to Back to the Future (12 Horns)

Vienna Horns playing themes from Pirates of the Carribean

Opening to Mahler’s Symphony 3 (8 Horns in unison)

Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie – part for offstage horns (12 off stage, 8 on stage – 4 move back and forth)


Today, I was gifted with the first ever review of Bandestration.  I’m more than please.  The review comes from Thomas Goss of orchestrationonline.com

Bret’s focus is on the main constituents of band music: winds and brass. His site is a cornucopia of valuable information and insights about these instruments, as relevant to orchestrators as it is to band arrangers. He’s got an approach that is reminiscent of the taxonomic approach of Norman Del Mar’s “Anatomy of an Orchestra.” From his section on clarinets:
“It is possible to think of the clarinet family as we would the taxonomy of living species.  The genus Clarinet has many species, and several of those species have further subspecies.  Just as in wildlife, the true taxonomy of some of these beasts is debated.  Many of these species and subspecies, again like our wildlife, are in danger of going extinct (and six members of the family already have expired). Genus – Clarinet.”
Bret’s got some great introductory writings on the heavy hitters of the winds and brass, along with their neglected cousins, like the lupophone, the contraforte, and the ophicleide. I appreciate not only how he gives these auxiliaries a fair shake, but even goes on to propose a revitalization to the orchestra through the addition of new members. Bandestration is more than just a blog or a reference site: it’s really its own philosophy about understanding the roles and relationships of brass and wind instruments.

Horns Part 3 – Horn Technique


            As the Horn differs in playing than all other brass instruments (hand in the bell, use of 16 harmonics, backwards playing position, etc.), it is only natural that its technique should be different.  Much, like the use of valves is similar, but the Horn poses its own unique scenarios.

Pedal Notes

            Like all brass instruments, the Horn can play pedal notes.  These are the fundament pitch of the harmonic series.  These notes are not general used in everyday literature, but can be effective.  Pedal notes are usually only used on the B-flat side of the Horn, and thus will make a natural chromatic extension down from the normal range.  I myself once wrote a pedal E-flat (written) below the bass clef.  The players looked quizzical at first, but were able to produce the note (1st valve on the B-flat side) with some confidence.  Much lower than this and the production can be suspect.  The pedal F (sounding a low B-flat) is widely used and should present no problems, but as the pitches descend, the notes will be harder and harder to produce.  Pedal notes on the F side are nearly impossible.



            There is only one mute available for the horn, the straight mute.  It is used just like on other brass instruments to change the timbre to a buzzier and somewhat softer sound.  As the mute covers the whole of the bell opening, the Hornist’s hand will be displaced, which means that the hand cannot be used to affect the tuning.


            Stopping is a technique that only Horn players can utilize.  It involves forcing the hand inside the bell to close off the airway.  In doing this, the sound will become brash and buzzy.  It can be used for loud aggressive passages or soft distant ones.  One special note, when player stops the Horn, the instrument will sound a minor second lower.  The composer does not have to notate the passage any differently.  The player will do all the transposition necessary.

A demonstration of stopping.  Note: the player goes into more detail about how the hand stopping affects the pitch than I do.  The composer needs not worry about the transposition.

Wait… does the pitch go up or down when you stop…  Evidently, there is considerable debate here.  I leave that to horn players to figure out.

Hand Horn Technique

            The Hand Horn is a colloquial name for the Natural Horn without valves.  Other natural brass instruments (i.e. trumpet) are limited to notes within the harmonic series.  By using the hand placed in the bell, Natural Horn players can alter the pitch of notes to be able to add a considerable variety of notes outside of the harmonic series.  All pitches half a step lower than notes in the harmonic series are available as fully stopped notes.  In essence, a Horn in F could become a Horn in E when stopped.  Half and three-quarter stopping will also give varying shades of pitches.  It is beyond the scope of this blog to mention every pitch than a Horn can produce via hand techniques.  What should be noted is that the notes outside of the natural harmonic series will sound different than the pure notes.  The will have either a full stopped or a half-stopped sound.

            While all modern Horns possess valves and a fully chromatic range, hand Horn technique can be utilized by all players on any instrument.

The famous 4th Horn solo from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Done on natural horn with hand horn technique.


            All brass instruments are capable of producing more than one note at a time – or at least giving the impression of doing so.  In order to do this, the player must play a one note, usually in the lower register, while singing another note in a higher register.  Usually, the sung note is a note harmonious to the played note (e.g. a perfect 5th, an octave, etc.).  The result is not the two notes that are played/sung, but a fully fleshed out chord.  The Horn was the first brass instrument to exploit this technique.  The most famous example of this is Weber’s Horn Concertino written for natural Horn.  The cadenza of the works utilizes extensive multiphonics.

            Multiphonics should only be used for solo playing.  Their sound is weak and usually won’t project through a mass ensemble.

Weber’s Horn Concertino

Note: this performance uses a Natural Horn, so it is an excellent example of hand horn technique.  Listen for notes that do not sound like those next to each other.  Multiphonics start at 11:00.

Bells Up

            The last major technique is “bells up.”  This is where the Horn player tilts the instrument ninety degrees so that the instrument is parallel to the ground.  This effort is to produce more volume and to have a visual effect.  The visual effect only works in a live performance and is not apparent on recordings.  One thing to consider is that the player’s hand position will have to change, and therefore, the tuning will change.  Only use bells up on occasion for massive, loud passages.  It works best for unison lines or passages in octaves.

There are many passages in Mahler and the Rite of Spring where Horn players will use bells up.  Just before the Sacrificial Dance there is a huge unison Horn line where all 8 horns throw their bells in the air and shout out the theme.

An excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s The Bells.  Towards the end of the clip, the whole Horn section can be seen with their bells in the air.

A good example of historical Horns, hand Horn technique, and stopping.