I am not an Oboe

Most people are able to tell the difference between a saxophone and a clarinet (save for those rare individuals who call a Soprano Saxophone a metal clarinet or a Bass Clarinet a wooden saxophone), but the number of people who confuse bassoons and oboes is strikingly high.  Perhaps this is because the oboe family doesn’t descend into the bass register or the bassoon family ascend into the soprano.  Yet, the two instruments are fundamentally different. Continue reading “I am not an Oboe”

The Woodwind Section Part 3 – The Band’s Ensemble

In my previous post, I highlighted the various forms that the standard orchestral ensemble can take.  However, in the band, there is no real equivalent to such a thing as “woodwinds in twos” or “woodwinds in fours.”  instead, each section is though of as a single unit.  The distinct family structure of each ensemble of woodwinds is the real distinction between writing for band versus writing for orchestra.  In the orchestra, each woodwind instrument is a soloist.  in the band, it is the mass of woodwinds that make up the core of the sound.

Historic ensembles


In the Baroque Era, an ensemble of double reeds, trumpets, horns, timpani, and snare drums was the standard makeup of a band.  This is usually best exemplified by Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.  There are no flutes, clarinets, or trombones in the make up.  The other “normal” band instruments had yet to be invented.

Classical and Early Romantic

By the Classical Era, the ensemble had diversified.  Woodwinds in pairs (1-2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons) and pairs of horns were standard.  To this, trumpets and drums were usually added, especially in military music. Occasionally, we will see a pair of Basset Horns and a Contrabassoon added in.

Late Romantic

This standard pattern of the Classical and early Romantic Eras expanded in the late Romantic to include tubas, trombones, and occasionally saxophones (though only in France and rarely in Britain and the U.S.).  German bands saw use of Flügelhorns, while French bands saw use of saxhorns.


For the purposes of this post, I am going to refer to a standard American wind band line up.  Note, this line up will vary from country to country and from band to band.  This is one reason that composing for wind band is one of the hardest ensembles to write for.

Today’s standard line up is close to this:

  • 1 Piccolo
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English Horn
  • 1 E-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinets
  • 1 Bass Clarinet
  • 1 Contra Clarinet (Contra-Alto or Contrabass)
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 1 Tenor Saxophone
  • 1 Baritone Saxophone
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon

This would be the standard line up for a college or professional ensemble.  Instruments like the Contrabassoon, and to a lesser extent the Contra Clarinets and English Horn, are not universally found.

In the realm of the orchestra, this is somewhere between woodwinds in threes and woodwinds in fours (flutes, oboes, and bassoons are in threes; saxophones are in fours; clarinets in sixes).

To this,  we can often find Alto and Tenor (Bass) Flutes, Alto Clarinet, and Soprano and Bass Saxophones added to the mix.

Multiple Players on a Part

When dealing with the flutes and clarinets, we will most of the time run into the fact that each of the parts will have more than one person playing the part.  Larger bands can have many clarinet players playing a single part.  In some bands, clarinets alone will make up one third of the entire ensemble.

We might be able to expect 2-3 Flutes per part, and 3-6 B-flat Clarinets per part in a standard concert band.

This variability is full of potential, but it also makes composing for wind band extremely difficult as a composer has no dictation of the exact ensemble used for their work.  Band composers are usually just happy to have their piece performed rather than expect exacting specifications from ensembles.  This is the biggest difference from an orchestra.

Various Ensembles

I’ve covered various types of wind bands in previous posts.  Here are some links to those previous posts.

The Wind Ensemble

The French Band

The Wind Symphony

The American Wind Symphony


If we were to expand our horizons, it might be possible to start thinking of a wind band as something close to orchestral woodwinds in sixes or woodwinds in eights.  In order to do this, the double reeds (oboes and bassoons) can be though of as one family.

In order to think this, it is probably best to abandon the idea of multiple players on a part, and go with an orchestral standard of one player per part.

Woodwinds in Sixes

  • 1-2 Piccolos
  • 2-3 Flutes
  • 1 Alto Flute
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English Horn
  • 1 -E-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinets
  • 1 Bass Clarinet
  • 1 Contrabass Clarinet
  • 1 Soprano Saxophone
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 1 Tenor Saxophone
  • 1 Baritone Saxophone
  • 1 Bass Saxophone
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon

Here we have 6 flutes, 6 double reeds, 6 clarinets, and 6 saxophones.  It provides a nice balance from top to bottom.

Woodwinds in Eights

  • 2 Piccolos
  • 4 Flutes
  • 1 Alto Flute
  • 1 Tenor Flute
  • 2 Oboes
  • 1 English horn
  • 1 Bass Oboe
  • 1 E-flat Clarinet
  • 3 B-flat Clarinet
  • 1 Alto Clarinet
  • 2 Bass Clarinets
  • 1 Contrabass Clarinet
  • 1 Sopranino Saxophone
  • 1 Soprano Saxophone
  • 2 Alto Saxophones
  • 2 Tenor Saxophones
  • 1 Baritone Saxophones
  • 1 Bass Saxophone
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 1 Contrabassoon

This is a much larger ensemble (though only 2 extra players per section – 8 total).  We have a wider range and diversity of tone colors.  There of course can be additions and doublings here, but it is a solid arrangement that isn’t too outside of the realm of possibility.  The only uncommon instrument here is the Bass Oboe, which should really become more widely used – especially in the band world.

The Woodwind Section Part 4 – The Contrabass Register

The most misunderstood, frequently misused, and neglected instruments in the woodwind section are those in the contrabass pitch level.

For the purposes of this article, I will refer to woodwind instruments whose bottom notes fall within the lowest octave of the piano (A0 to A1).  In this category, there are two distinct subsets of contrabass instruments, namely the full contras and the half contras.  Full contras will have a lowest note somewhere around C1, whereas half contras will have a lowest note somewhere around G1.

Half Contras

  • Sub-Bass FluteSub-Bass Flute in G range
  • Contra-Alto ClarinetContra-Alto Clarinet
  • Bass SaxophoneBass Saxophone

Full Contras

  • Contrabass Flute (a.k.a. “Double” Contrabass Flute)Contrabass Flute range
  • Contrabass ClarinetContrabass Clarinet range
  • Contrabass SaxophoneContrabass Saxophone
  • Contrabassooncontrabassoon range

In these two categories we see that the flutes, clarinets, and saxophones have representatives in each, whereas the bassoons have only the single member, and the oboe family is absent.  The bassoon family’s Semi-Contrabassoon, were it to be resurrected, would be a half contra.

Half vs. Full

Halves and fulls both have their places and uses.  In general, the halves are far better as solo instruments, whereas the fulls are better at harmonic support.  The easiest comparison is between the two Contra Clarinets.  The Contra-Alto is a more flexible instrument whereas the Contrabass is slower and even sluggish.  Choice of one versus the other will depend entirely on circumstance.  If it is the extra range of notes that is needed, full contras are far better. However, if it is the tone that is desired, the half contras are better.


As these are the largest of the woodwinds, they are also the most expensive, therefore they are harder to come by.  The following is a rough ranking of the availability of the instruments based on numbers extant.

  1. Contra-Alto Clarinet
  2. Contrabass Clarinet
  3. Bass Saxophone
  4. Contrabassoon
  5. Contrabass Saxophone
  6. Contrabass Flute
  7. Sub-Bass Flute

It might surprise some people to see the seemingly normal Contrabassoon in 4th here, but numbers of instruments manufactured far favor the single reeds.  Contra-Alto Clarinets can be found in most high school band halls.  Many schools will also have a Contrabass Clarinet.  In the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Bass Saxophones were cranked out by the hundreds by several of the large American manufacturers.  Contrabassoons, however, have always been specialty instruments made by hand by only a few German manufacturers and a single American maker.

Contrabass Saxophone numbers, worldwide, are almost assuredly lower than 50 instruments.

The two low flutes numbers are almost negligible.  Only 3 Sub-Bass Flutes currently exist, and the numbers of Contrabass are about double that, but still probably in the single digits.

If you write for these instruments, you have a far better chance of securing a Contra Clarinet than you will a Contrabassoon.  Note: this bit of advice comes from someone who has made money as a professional Contrabassoonist.


The lowest tones of these instruments are towards the bottom end of human hearing (the lowest note of a Contrabassoon is 29 Hz).  However, all of these instruments will have a large overtone series that will make the fundamentals seem much more present.

The Contrabassoon and the saxophones will have the largest array of harmonics due to their conical bore structure.  These instruments will have a larger carrying capacity and will be more audible in solo or semi-solo settings.

The Contra Clarinets, on the other hand, have a limited harmonic array due to the cylindrical nature of their bore.  These instruments function better as harmonic support rather than melodic or soloistic.

The soft sound of the flutes is so soft that they cannot be used in an ensemble setting save in the lightest of accompaniment. Human lungs cannot cope with the volume of air required on these instruments.

Because the entire spectrum of harmonics lies within the limits of human hearing, these instruments will all have distinct tone colors that will be readily heard by all ears.  This will lead to interesting orchestrational questions. Such as:

  • Can one instrument support the tone colors of the other families?
  • Can several or all of these instrument be combined into a homogeneous contrabass unit?


The range of dynamics of these instruments is huge.

The Contra Clarinets will have the ability to go from an inaudible pianissimo to a strong fortissimo.

The low saxophones will not be able to match the delicacy of the clarinet’s soft end, but can far surpass the upper end.

The Contrabassoon’s dynamic is neither as soft nor as loud as either the clarinets or the saxophones.  It occupies a happy medium, but cannot provide the delicacy or the power needed at times.

The low flutes have a maximum dynamic of pianissimo and are thus useless.


In the orchestra, the only guaranteed instrument is the Contrabassoon.  It has been used fairly consistently for 200 years and is a standard member of every major orchestra’s roster.

The Contrabass Clarinet has been making rare appearances since around 1900, but is becoming more frequent.

The Bass Saxophone has never made a significant contribution to orchestral literature and has only appeared a handful of times since the invention of the saxophone.

I know of almost no works that call for the Contra-Alto Clarinet or the Contrabass Saxophone.


Both Contra Clarinets, Bass Saxophone, and Contrabassoon appear frequently in works for band.  Usually the parts for the Contra Clarinets are interchangeable, but not always. Bass Saxophone parts appear more often in older works than in modern works.  Contrabassoon use appears to be limited to works written for college level and higher.

Again, I know of no works that make use of the Contrabass Saxophone.


Instruments in this register will be used far more than instruments in the super treble register.  The human ear tolerates low notes far more than high notes.  Take a look at an orchestral score and figure out how often the string Basses are used, and figure that in a band, these instruments will play about that same percentage (perhaps 60% of the time).  In an orchestra, because of the Basses, these instruments will play less as the primary contrabass role is taken and the woodwinds serve only as color.

Octave Doublings

When writing in this register, it is best to make sure that the lowest notes are doubled an octave higher is power is wanted.  A single pedal C1 will not have much carrying capacity (see the opening of Zarathustra), but add the upper octave, this will become a much richer and audible sound.

Personal Thoughts

I compose for all of these instruments frequently.  I have played most of them on some level.  Here are my thoughts on how to use each instrument effectively.

Low Flutes – Useless

Contra Clarinets – These instruments are best at soft harmonic support.  Must be doubled at the octave for effect to be noticed.  The Contra-Alto is better for solos than the Contrabass.  There is something eerie and ominous in their ability to  play their bottom notes at am impossible to hear soft dynamic.

Low Saxophones – Pure power.  For a rough, and raucous bass, there is no sound better than the Bass and Contrabass Saxophones. They will blend best with the brass.

Contrabassoon – This chocolaty sound is the best of all worlds without the extremes.  It blends best with the strings.

Were I to have my limitations, I would pick a full contra instrument over a half contra.  My personal option would be Contrabassoon followed closely by Contrabass Clarinet.  The rarity of the Contrabass Saxophone is lamentable, but understandable.

The Contrabass Flutes are useless.

The Woodwind Section Part 10 – The Piccolo Register

In this post, I will define the piccolo register as the register that plays routinely one octave about the standard soprano instruments.  This register would start at roughly C5, one octave above the middle C.

There are three instruments that fall easily into this category (I will leave out the recorders for the time being as their whole family is skewed pitch-wise an octave higher than normal).  These instruments are:

  • Piccolo
  • A-flat Clarinet
  • Piccolo Saxophone

There is no member of either double reed family that extends into this range.  The mechanics and physics of a double reed simply will not allow this.

C Piccolo Range

A-flat Clarinet range

Piccolo Saxophone range

Acoustics of the Piccolo Register

It could almost be said that instrument choice makes little difference when it comes to instruments that are this high.  The overtones that form the basis of timbre are to some extent outside the range of human hearing, especially in the topmost octave.  Percy Grainger exploited this phenomena in his rarely performed Hill Song no. 1, which has 19 double reed instruments – and two piccolos.  I have heard this piece both live and on recordings and the piccolos do not detract from the nasal quality of the double reeds.  instead, they serve as the upward harmonics of the sound.

In this range, the note is important, the timbre is secondary.

The Three Instruments

Of the three piccolo instruments, only the Piccolo (Flute) is widely (ever?) available.  It is standard in both the orchestra and the band.  Nearly every flute player will possess and be able to play the instrument.

The other two instruments are far rarer. The A-flat Clarinet used to be a rare visitor to bands, especially European bands, but today it is a rare sight even there.  The Piccolo Saxophone is one of the newest of all woodwinds (marketed under the brand name “Soprillo” by Eppelsheim).  As the instrument has only been made for around a decade few are extant, but the numbers are increasing.  Due to the nature of the single reed, both of these instruments are exceedingly difficult to play well.


The A-flat Clarinet is the middle ground between the two instruments, it has an even timbre and dynamic range from top to bottom.  The Piccolo, like all flutes will sound loudest in its upper register and softest in its bottom.  The Piccolo Saxophone is the opposite of this sounding loudest in its bottom register, though still able to play quite loudly as it ascends.

The A-flat Clarinet will be able to play the softest of all three instruments, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will play the loudest.

Both the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo will have roughly three octave ranges, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will have at most 2.5 octaves.  However, the Piccolo will be able to play an octave higher than either of the single reed instruments.

Orchestration and Use

This register of any ensemble should be used the least.  Human ears grow tired very quickly of high pitched sounds.  Perhaps 10-20% of a piece should/could contain passages for these instruments.  This advice is also keenly noted for the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo Saxophone whose players will tire extremely quickly due to the extremely firm embouchure.

These three instruments can easily be doubles for larger members of their family.

Final words

Unless you know for certain that the A-flat Clarinet and/or Piccolo Saxophone are available (or you’re crazy), only score for the Piccolo.

The Woodwind Section Part 2 – The Family That Isn’t a Family

When we think of a cohesive family, we think of a group that all has similar characteristics.  They must all share common traits.  The woodwind family may be the most dysfunctional “family” in all of music.  The only thing that the different instruments have in common is that they are pipes with holes pierced throughout their length through which a vibrating column of air produces the sound.  Past this, the similarities end.

Let’s look first at the most cohesive group in the orchestra, the strings.  There are four standard instruments that make up the string family: the Violin, the Viola, the Cello, and the Bass.  All of these instruments operate on a very similar principle: a length of string is set into motion by a bow or by being plucked.  The quibble over the Bass being a member of a slightly different family (the Viol family) is so minor that it is hardly worth a mention.

Is the woodwind family like the string family?


In fact, that’s a big no.

If we look at the standard orchestral winds, we see four sections: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons.  All four of these sections can be seen as a family in their own regard.

The flutes are the clear outlier.  Their sound is the only one not produced by a vibrating reed.  The flute is usually the soprano extraordinaire, and it is this role that it is most often used in as a member of the woodwind “family.”

Oboes and bassoons can easily be grouped together.  While they are mechanically different and constructed very differently from each other, they are both fundamentally conical bore, double reed instruments.  Their ranges neatly mesh together to form a solid section from soprano to bass.  With this grouping, the double reeds are the largest family of woodwinds in most orchestras.

Clarinets form a family all to their own.  It is the largest family from the point of view of number of species.  It is also the only family to have a uniform timbre from the deepest contrabass to the highest treble.

Where does this leave us?

It leaves us with three woodwind families and not one.    It leaves us with our most disjunct section of the orchestra.

This means that mixing of instruments within the woodwind section is one of the trickiest skills for an orchestrator to learn.  It means that in an orchestra all the woodwinds are treated like soloists, whereas in a band, this cannot be the case.  In a band, the woodwinds must be thought of as separate choirs.  This is due to the lack of a cohesive sting section.  It is also why the auxiliary members of the woodwind family are far more imperative in a band than they are in an orchestra.

I have left out two instruments, the recorder and the saxophone.  These two form their own complete family separate from the others.  Recorders are closest to the flute, while saxophones are an add-mixture of clarinets and double reeds.

By thinking of the woodwinds as 3-5 separate families and not as a cohesive unit, this will help with acoustical problems of blending, spacing, and intonation.

The Woodwind Section Part 1 – Orchestral Ensembles

Much has been written over the years about how to properly constitute a woodwind section, but these words have been used almost exclusively for orchestra, not band.  Before I go over the band constitution, it will be a good idea to go over the typical orchestral arrangements.

An auxiliary instrument is defined as any instrument in the woodwind family that is not a C Flute, Oboe, C, B-flat, or A Clarinet, or Bassoon.

Note on clarinets: anytime the simple term Clarinet is seen on here it could mean C, B-flat, or A Clarinet.  The choice of the instrument is up to the composer, and there are many works where all three are used throughout the course of the piece.

Woodwinds in Twos

This is the standard setup for a Classical or early Romantic orchestra.

  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 2 Bassoons

8 players

There are no auxiliary instruments in this line up.

Woodwinds in Twos (plus)

This would have been a standard setup for an early Romantic orchestra in France

  • 2 Flutes (opt. Piccolo)
  • 2 Oboes (opt. English Horn)
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 4 Bassoons

10 players

This is the setup for a work like Symphonie Fantastique. French orchestras of the day almost always used 4 Bassoons.

Another configuration would be closer to woodwinds in threes:

  • Piccolo
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 Clarinets
  • 2 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon

10 players

This setup is used by Beethoven and Brahms.

Woodwinds in Threes

  • Piccolo (=Flute 3)
  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • English Horn (=Oboe 3)
  • 2 Clarinets
  • Bass Clarinet (=Clarinet 3)
  • 2 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon (=Bassoon 3)

12 players

In this setup, each family has one auxiliary instrument.  This is the standard modern orchestral composition.

Woodwinds in Fours

Woodwinds in fours is what would be used for a standard “large” orchestra.

  • Piccolo
  • 3 Flutes
  • 3 Oboes
  • English Horn
  • E-flat Clarinet (=Clarinet 3)
  • 2 Clarinets
  • Bass Clarinet
  • 3 Bassoons
  • Contrabassoon

16 players

Note, in this configuration, only one new auxiliary is added (E-flat Clarinet).  Holst in his Planets goes a bit further by having one Flute player also play Alto Flute and one Oboe player play Bass Oboe.

Woodwinds in Fives

Only rarely will we encounter a section of woodwinds in fives (Mahler symphonies and The Rite of Spring).  This set up will usually have multiple auxiliaries (e.g. 2 Piccolos, Alto Flute, 2 English Horns, etc.).  There is no standard arrangement.

20 players

Maximum effects

The largest works call for huge woodwind sections.

Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder

  • 4 Piccolos (=Flutes 5-8)
  • 4 Flutes
  • 3 Oboes
  • 2 English Horns (=Oboes 5, 6)
  • 3 Clarinets
  • 2 E-flat Clarinets (=Clarinets 4, 5)
  • 2 Bass Clarinets (=Clarinets 6, 7)
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 2 Contrabassoons

25 players

Brian’s Gothic Symphony

  • 2 Piccolos (1=Flute)
  • 6 Flutes (1=Alto Flute
  • 4 Oboes
  • Oboe d’Amore (=Oboe 5)
  • 2 English Horns
  • Bass Oboe (=Oboe 6)
  • 2 E-flat Clarinets (1=Clarinet 5)
  • 4 Clarinets
  • 2 Basset Horns
  • 2 Bass Clarinets
  • Contrabass Clarinet
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 2 Contrabassoons

30 Players (save for bassoons, this is woodwinds in eights)

Note: none of these ensembles use saxophones or recorders as part of their make-up.