What Clarinets, Oboes, Bassoons & English Horns Have in Common

by Steven J. Miller
The clarinet is a member of the woodwind family of instruments.

The clarinet is a member of the woodwind family of instruments.

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Clarinets, oboes, bassoons and English horns have several elements in common with each other that allow them to play harmoniously together as an ensemble or execute lyrical solo passages. Each instrument has several components that are shared by the other members of the family. Learning about these differences will make you a better informed listener.


The clarinet, oboe, bassoon and English horn are all members of the woodwind family. This means that they are constructed of wood or, at least, traditionally the instrument was made of wood. Some woodwind instruments are not made of wood but the initial design was. Woodwind instruments do not create a homogeneous, similar sound when played together. Each instrument in the woodwind family has an airy sound but the timbres are all radically different. This is unusual, as most instrument families have a homogeneous sound.


English horn, bassoon, clarinet and oboe all use a reed to produce sound. The air column from the player rides over the reed causing it to vibrate. One interesting difference includes the distinction between a double and single reed. The English horn, oboe and bassoon utilize a double reed and the player actually has to blow between the reeds to make a sound, giving the instrument a nasal quality. The clarinet has only one reed which gives it a softer tone.


Each instrument has the same basic construction. This stems partially from the fact that clarinet, oboe, bassoon and English horn are all woodwind instruments. There are a set of keys that allow the player to quickly play chromatic pitches. When the keys are depressed the air travels further down the instrument, changing the pitch and making the music higher or lower. The more keys that are depressed the further the air must travel, thereby lowering the pitch.

Musical Uses

All four instruments may be used to play the melody in the orchestra, solo or ensemble setting. The nature of the instrument makes it possible for these instruments to play extremely soft dynamics but a single woodwind instrument will not be able to compete with the loudness of a single brass instrument. Each of these instruments has the capability of making large skips easily and with grace. These instruments can be found playing jazz, classical and in some cases even rock music.


  • "The Study of Orchestration"; Samuel Adler; 2002

About the Author

Steven Miller graduated with a master's degree in 2010. He writes for several companies including Lowe's and IBM. He also works with local schools to create community gardens and learn environmentally responsible gardening. An avid gardener for 15 years, his experience includes organic gardening, ornamental plants and do-it-yourself home projects.

Photo Credits

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