Orchestrating for Woodwinds

woodwinds - bassoons

What You Need to Know about Woodwinds

We call them woodwinds because the tone is generated by the player’s breath and originally all instruments were made of wood. Even though these days some are due of metal (e.g. flutes) the acoustic principle is not affected by the material. In other words the sound comes from the mouthpiece and instrument design and dimensions, NOT, the material.

The main woodwind instruments in modern western music are: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and saxophones. Each instrument is subdivided into a family of different sizes and pitches, (e.g the flute family: C flute, piccolo, alto flute, bass flute) The basic orchestral woodwind section consists of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, usually with two, three or sometimes four players for each instrument or family of instruments. In the orchestra the 1st or lead player will usually play the main instrument of the family and the 2nd, 3rd or 4th players will play any other instruments as required. (When a player plays more than one instrument this is referred to as doubling)

As a section the woodwinds have the greatest variance of tonal and dynamic characteristics between the individual instruments. This means that each instrument has a very different character, allowing a great deal of variety of expression within the section. For the same reason it may be difficult to achieve a blend within the woodwind section, without a great deal of knowledge and experience of their tonal and dynamic characteristics. Close intervals in the harmony help with the blend but due to the rich overtones of most woodwinds wider intervals low down are inadvisable. This is of course true of all instruments but more so of woodwinds.

When writing for woodwinds you should take care that rests so that the player can breathe. This is especially true in the case of oboes and bassoons which are physically tiring instruments to play for sustained periods. Circular breathing (breathing in while still playing a note) is possible but not something you should expect most players to do. It is usually only used by improvising soloists. In other words, don’t write charts that rely on a player being able to do it.

With all woodwinds the notes are generally started by the tongue making an action as if pronouncing the syllable tu either against the reed or in the case of the flute against the upper part of the mouth. It is the action of tonguing or not which differentiates the different types of phrasing or articulation: Where phrases are not marked by slurs or staccato dots all notes should be lightly tongued and given their full length. The action of normal tonguing should not be an audible sound, rather it is just the way to start a note precisely. Different types of articulation and effects:

Legato The phrase is marked by a slur. The first note only will be tongued and the phrase will sound very smooth.
Soft legato Every note is lightly tongued, sometimes with the syllable du instead oftu.
Staccato Notes played shorter (usually half their length. Every note is started and stopped by the tongue.
Double tonguing The player tongues very fast alternating the syllables : tu, ku. Works best on the flute.
Triple tonguing The same as double tonguing but alternating tu,ku,tu
Flutter tongue The player vibrates the tongue as if rolling the syllable rrrr

Traditionally when writing for woodwinds the flutes (or piccolo if there is one) usually play the top part, followed downwards in pitch by oboes, clarinets and bassoons. This is not only because of the range of each instrument but also because of the various strengths and weaknesses of parts of each individual instruments range as will be discussed later. If the chord is high the clarinets may be voiced above the oboes.

Two identical instruments in unison may have intonation problems, but three or more are fine due to the chorus effect of slight tuning differences.

Some woodwinds (and brass) are transposing instruments. The notes and key signatures that are written are different to the notes and keys that sound. The reason for this is so that a player does not need to learn a new set of fingerings for each different instrument that they double on. E.g. traditionally the note that sounds when three fingers of the left hand and four of the right are stopping the holes in the instrument, that note is called C, whether it’s an actual C as with the flute, an Eb as with the alto or baritone saxophone, a Bb as with the soprano or tenor saxophone and so on. This allows an instrument to be made in many different sizes and pitches without causing the player too much difficulty. An instrument that sounds the same note as written is said to be in concert pitch.


Saxophones are made of brass but they are classed as a woodwind instrument because of the method of generating a sound: the vibration of a single reed. The saxophone was invented in the 19th century and was largely viewed as a novelty instrument.

Composers such as Bizet and ravel made it acceptable in classical music and innovators such as Coleman Hawkins paved the way for acceptance as a serious instrument in the field of jazz and popular music.

There are many sizes of saxophone but only four are used widely, the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. The saxophone has two registers, the upper register is an octave higher than the lower register and has a slightly less reedy sound. Saxophones have a wide dynamic and extremely wide tonal range and blend well with most other instruments, but can dominate in an orchestral context. Conventionally they are played with vibrato except in unison passages where vibrato (unlike with strings) does not help the tuning.

At the bottom end (Bb – D) the saxophone is not very agile and difficult to play quietly except with the use of subtone, a very warm and breathy effect usually only used on the tenor in a jazz solo context (E.g. Ben Webster). It is hard to make a smooth transition from subtone to full tone and is best avoided unless writing for a specific player. The high notes on tenor and baritone (D – F) are not always a good sound and should be avoided in section writing. Some players can extend the upper range quite considerably through the use of harmonics achieved by unorthodox fingerings and tightened jaws. (e.g. David Sanborn, Michael Brecker). Although this ability is becoming widespread it is still not advisable to write harmonics unless you are familiar with the player and it is especially inadvisable to write them for a section as the tuning can be unpredictable.

The saxophone is a transposing instrument:

Instrument Sounding Written
Soprano Bb C a major 2nd higher
Alto Eb C a major 6th higher
Tenor Bb C a major ninth higher
Baritone Eb C an octave and a 6th higher

The conventional big band line up consists of two altos, two tenors and one baritone. (AATTB)

Many saxophone players double (i.e. they play more than one instrument). It is common to expect at least one or two players in a section to double on soprano saxophone, flute or clarinet. Less common doubles are piccolo, oboe and bassoon.

The soprano can be used as the lead instrument instead of the lead alto either for a change of tone colour or to play higher notes. Clarinet lead is also possible but may sound like Glenn Miller.

One or two saxophones work well with one or two brass instruments to create a classic soul type horn section. Two or three tenors and baritone work well to create a rock & roll section.

During the 60’s (following the arrival of the electric guitar) the saxophone went out of fashion but with the advent of funk style bands in the 70’s (such as Tower Of Power, the Average White Band, etc) and the adoption of rock and pop elements into jazz the saxophone has seen an enormous resurgence of popularity in current commercial music. In general modern commercial saxophone players have a harder and more penetrating sound than earlier players. Initially the saxophone was used in military bands and dance bands to supply a softer contrast to the brass, similar to the role of strings in the symphony orchestra. Some soloists in the 40’s adopted a harder and more cutting sound to be heard above the rest of the band.(E.g. Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins). Modern players are often the only sax player in the band, therefore blending with other saxes is not an issue, but competing in volume and tonally with electric instruments can be.

All trills are possible with the exception of low B-C# and C#-D#, but in general the lowest notes may be clumsy for trilling and are best avoided.

Although very rapid passages can be played, repeated notes (each note has to be started with the tongue) cannot be played as quickly as they can on brass instruments unless double tongued, a technique not widespread among saxophone players.


Woodwinds - fluteThe main flute is the C flute (usually referred to simply as the flute) with a range of three octaves upwards from middle C, (though many professional instruments extend down to B below middle C). The piccolo is an octave higher, sounding an octave higher than written. The alto flute is 4th lower and sounds a 4th lower than written. The bass flute is an octave lower and sounds an octave lower than written.

The sound is generated by blowing air across a hole in the instrument.

The flute and piccolo are quite weak in the lower part of their range, stronger and sweeter in the middle and shrill at the top end where they can be difficult to play pianissimo. The piccolo is normally used for high parts, but its lower register though weak can have a strangely useful silvery quality. The alto and bass are full and sonorous in their low register, but less useful higher up. Low flutes are easily drowned out by other instruments in an acoustic situation but as the sound is lacking in overtones it blends well with other instruments, especially strings or muted brass.

The flute is usually played with a vibrato generated low in the lungs or diaphragm, which causes the sound to pulse in amplitude rather than purely in pitch like other instruments.

Most trills are possible except low B-C, B-C#, C-Db, C-D#, and C#-D#. Trills and fast passages are sometimes difficult in the top 4th (G-C).


The oboe is a double reed instrument and has a nasal quality and a uniquely characterful sound. The low register is very strong and sometimes heavy, the middle range is very sweet and expressive and the high end can be weak. Its penetrating tone does not blend well but its colour when added in unison to other instruments can often add great interest.

The other main instrument in the oboe family is the cor anglais which is pitched a 5th lower and is written a 5th higher than it sounds. The low notes are deep and rich, higher up the sound becomes mellower and finally thin and pinched.

It can sometimes be hard to start a phrase on a low note, or play low notes delicately. Some low trills are difficult depending on the make of instrument. As the oboe and cor anglais have such a characteristic tone, they are best used economically.


There are many shapes and sizes in the clarinet family, the commonest being the Bb clarinet followed by the bass clarinet. The A clarinet is only a semitone different in pitch from the Bb but was originally introduced to cover keys that were difficult for the Bb clarinet, however modern mechanisms make this less of a necessity, and the clarinet is now an extremely agile instrument. Unlike other woodwind instruments the difference between its lower and higher registers is a 12th rather than an octave, causing a problem area known as the break. These are the top two or three notes of the lower register which can sound very weak, although top professional players will generally have no difficulty with these notes. The clarinet has no problems with dynamic versatility apart from the extreme upper end which may be difficult to play pianissimo. The lower register is rich and deep, sometimes with a haunting quality, the upper register is clear, bright and expressive.

The bass clarinet sounds best in its lower register where the sound is very warm and rich, with a possibility of sounding sinister.

This table shows the instruments of the clarinet family and their transpositions:

Instrument Sounding Written
Eb clarinet Eb C a minor 3rd lower
Bb clarinet Bb C a major 2nd higher
A clarinet A C a minor 3rd higher
Basset horn F C a 5th higher
Alto clarinet Eb C a major 6th higher
Bass clarinet Bb C an octave and a tone higher
Contrabass Bb C two octaves and a tone higher


Like the oboe the bassoon has a nasal quality to its sound but less obvious and it blends rather better, especially with low strings and other woodwinds. It is a non transposing instrument written in the bass clef. It is very sonorous low down, its mid range sweet and expressive becoming thin at the top. It has the ability to sound noble and lyrical as well as humourous when used in staccato passages. Large intervals upwards are no problem but some downward leaps can be. Low notes are difficult pianissimo.

The contrabassoon is pitched an octave lower, and sounds an octave lower than written. Its low notes are obviously its forte but sometimes take a little time to speak. They require a considerable amount of breath so you should take this into account when writing for them.

Trills on the bassoon are no problem apart from some at the low end: A#-B, Bb-C, B-C, C#-D, C#-D#, E-F#, G#-A, though some professional instruments may have advanced mechanisms to allow these.


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