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