Woodwinds of the Orchestra | Sunday Observer

Woodwinds of the Orchestra

2 May, 2021

As most of you study music, we decided to have a look at the composition of an orchestra and its instruments. Srimal Weerasinghe, Chief Conductor of the Gustav Mahler Orchestra of Colombo takes you on this musical journey as part of the Gustav Mahler Society’s Educational Program.

In our previous article we learnt about general characteristics of Wind Instruments and the physics and functionality of Woodwind Instruments. Today, let’s discuss about each of the Woodwind Instruments.

The Flute is one of the most commonly used Woodwind instruments at present. As discussed in the previous article, the flute produces its sound by vibrating an air column against the edge of the embouchure hole. Modern flutes are generally made of brass and a variety of metals including silver and gold.

Then you might wonder, if the flute actually belonged with the woodwind family as the body is made of brass. Initially, flutes were manufactured using wood and did not have much of the keywork that we see on modern flutes.

As a result, they were less powerful and the technical capabilities were somewhat limited. However, as the size of the Orchestra grew larger with time, these instruments were not capable of projecting their tone against a sea of strings and powerful Brasswind instruments.

Therefore, manufacturers started to make them using brass and larger bore sizes to address these matters. Also, their key system was also developed with time. Theobald Boehm was a pioneer in developing the flute to its form today. A flute player is known as a flautist or flutist.

The flute is a non- transposing instrument. Mozart’s G major and D major concerti are among the most commonly performed solo repertoire for the instrument.

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Bizet’s Carmen Intermezzo are some of the well-known orchestral solos for the flute.


English horn


 The English horn belongs to the oboe family and is also known as Cor Anglais. It is a transposing instrument pitched in F (sounds a Perfect 5th lower than the written pitch).

The English horn is significantly larger than the Oboe and uses a metal crook to connect the reed to the instrument.

Its fingering is similar to that of the Oboe hence doubled by Oboe players in the orchestra. Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, Rossini’s William tell Overture are two of the most famous English Horn Solos.


The piccolo is the highest sounding instrument of the Orchestra.

It is half the size of a flute but looks identical in construction. Fingerings for the piccolo are almost the same as the flute, in fact most of the time flute players double on piccolo in the orchestra. The piccolo is a transposing instrument as its notes sound one octave higher than the written notes.

The piccolo’s presence in the symphonic repertoire became greatly popular after Beethoven included the piccolo in his 5th Symphony.

Vivaldi’s C major concerto is a very famous concerto for the instrument. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and Mahler’s 2nd Symphony are among the pieces with well known orchestral solos for the piccolo.



The Oboe is a double reed instrument. It is a non - transposing instrument. An oboe player is called an oboist. Oboes are made of wood (Granadilla, African Blackwood, Cocobolo…etc.) and the oboe reed is made of cane tied to a metal tube with a cork base which can be inserted into the instrument. The oboe has the most complex key system among the woodwind family.

It is a very sensitive instrument to temperature and humidity making it one of the most difficult instruments to play.

It is the first instrument you would hear if you go to see an orchestral concert as all the instruments of the orchestra are tuned to the note A given by the oboe.

The oboe is one of the very first wind instruments to be used in the orchestra. Its construction has varied dramatically with time acquiring the complex keywork and the refined body from just two keys of the Baroque Oboe (1600s).

Oboe players often have to make their own reeds to suit the individual styles of playing. It is not the most powerful nor the softest instrument, but oboe players are blessed with the most beautiful solos both in orchestra and as concerti.

Mozart and Strauss are two very famous Oboe concerti that you must listen to.

Beethoven’s Eroica, Rossini’s La Scala di seta, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde include some of the most famous Orchestral Solos.