What Are the Different Types of Woodwind Music?

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  • Written By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2019
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Woodwind music is broadly separated into two main types: performance music, possibly the most diverse, and etude or instructional music. Players and composers further break woodwind music for performance into groups based on instrumentation. For example, one instrumentation is flute, oboe, clarinet, horn — which technically is in the labrophone or lip vibrated instrument family — and bassoon, the most commonly-used grouping for a woodwind quintet. Woodwind music sometimes groups instruments together in families, such as a work requiring an oboe, English horn and a bassoon. An important note is that woodwind music still is considered woodwind music even if supporting instruments are not woodwinds, with emphasis in classification going to the instrument that is featured. An oboe solo, for example, may be supported by a string quartet.

Music for woodwinds, similar to music for brass, percussion or stringed instruments, can be classed based on the number of players instead of instrumentation. Types of music for woodwinds thus includes solos, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets. Again, it is the primary woodwind players that are used for classification, not the supporting players. For instance, a work for clarinet and orchestra is still a clarinet solo. The concerto grosso, an instrumentation in which an orchestra supports and contrasts with a small group of soloists in concerto form, may feature a woodwind group.


For performances, woodwind music is also is typed based on its intended performance venue, with woodwind music categorized broadly as either secular or religious. Secular woodwind music has a much longer history, with evidence of woodwind music dating back thousands of years. Very simple versions of flutes were played in China, for example, almost a thousand years before the time of Christ, while the Greeks played aulos, extremely early predecessors of instruments such as the oboe featuring two pipes or tubes with a single mouthpiece. Music for woodwinds intended for the church did not begin to take hold seriously until the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as many sects did not believe instruments had a place in worship and that the voice was more appropriate. The line between secular and religious music was not always clearcut, however, with some instrumental music in the church based on common secular or folk themes.

Etude or instructional music for woodwinds is generally not used for performance. It is intended only to improve the player's technique or control. Much of this type of music forces the woodwind player to work through difficult fingering combinations or improve facility, but some woodwind etude music concentrates on items such as particular articulations or tone. Etude music also familiarizes players with fundamentals such as scales and arpeggios. Players often associate this type of music with performance music even though it is distinct because the instructional music improves the abilities needed to play performance music well.


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