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What is a Recorder?

Handel made use of the recorder in some of his music.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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Recorder or fipple flute is a family of instruments that belong to the woodwind group. The various recorders are non-reed woodwind instruments that are not standard orchestral instruments. However, they are occasionally found in chamber music and even orchestral music. They are often used in classroom music as well.

Recorders are end blown flutes. When people say recorder, they generally mean the soprano or descant, but there are seven standard sizes: the soprano/descant, one recorder that is pitched higher, and five that are pitched lower. Each of the various recorders is pitched in F or C, and they alternate. They all sound either as written or an octave higher. Here are the seven types, arranged highest to lowest:

  • Sopranino, the highest recorder, is in F and is written on the treble clef, but sounds an octave higher than written.

  • Soprano/Descant, the second highest recorder and the one people most often mean when they refer simply to “a recorder,” is in C and is written on the treble clef, but sounds an octave higher than written.

  • Alto/Treble, the next recorder, is in F and is written in the same range as the sopranino, but sounds as written.

  • Tenor, the next recorder, is in C and is written in the same range as the soprano/descant, but sounds as written.

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  • Bass, the next recorder, is in F and is written on the bass clef, but sounds an octave higher.

  • Great Bass, the next recorder, is in C and is written on the bass clef, but sounds an octave higher.

  • Contra Bass, the lowest recorder, is in F and is written on the bass clef in the same range as the bass recorder, but sounds as written.

    Related instruments include other end blown flutes, like the Native American flute, the flageolet, and the tin whistle or pennywhistle. The ocarina is also related; as are the transverse flutes, including the concert flute and the fife — the primary use of which is in combination with drums in marching or military bands; and various pan flutes, usually made of multiple pipes that are used to change pitch, rather than using holes or keys.

    A soprano/descant recorder has three parts: the head joint, which holds the beak or mouthpiece, the body joint or middle section, which is the largest piece, and the foot joint, which is the end of the recorder. Bass recorders may have four pieces and a bocal, a slim metal pipe through which the player blows, or a direct blow mouthpiece cap. Sopraninos may be made in two pieces.

    Famous recorder parts are included in the works of Johan Sebastian Bach, for example, in the Brandenburg Concertos. They also appear in works by Georg Handel, Henry Purcell, Georg Telemann, and Antonio Vivaldi. More recently, recorder is found in the work of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bennstein, and Stephen Sondheim.

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