The woodwind family of instruments is a group of instruments which are played by blowing into a mouthpiece and casing a reed to vibrate, generating a unique sound. Flutes are also counted in the woodwind family, even though they do not include a reed, because of the way in which they are played. In an orchestra, the “woodwinds” are the section of the orchestra which includes all of these instruments, and the players are frequently seated together. Woodwinds can be very easy or very difficult to play, depending on the instrument, and most musicians start with the recorder, since it is easy to learn on.
Open woodwinds such as the flute are played by placing the mouth at a precise angle with the instrument and blowing to generate sound. Closed flutes have a mouthpiece which directs the air as it is pushed through by the lips of the player. The term “woodwinds” in reference to flutes can be confusing, since most flutes do not include wooden elements. However, in both open and closed woodwinds, the sound is produced by directing air against an edge, as opposed to vibrating the lips against the mouthpiece, as is the case with brass instruments.
Reeded instruments have either one or two reeds. A reed is traditionally made from wood or cane, although modern reeds are made from molded plastic. The reed is mounted into the mouthpiece, and as the player blows, the reed vibrates. The vibration of the reed generates a sound, which can be modulated with keys on the instruments to make different notes and tones.
In a single reed instrument, there is only one reed. Single reed woodwinds include the saxophone and clarinet. Double reed woodwinds have two reeds, and include the oboe, English horn, and bassoon. Some ethnic woodwinds have even more reeds, with up to four. Some of these woodwinds are made from wood, but most of them include metallic elements, or are made entirely from metal.
Although some woodwinds could be confused with brass instruments, since they are made entirely from metal, they have a very different sound. The sound is not directional, and it is much softer and less aggressive. Most orchestras have a combination of woodwinds and brass instruments to achieve a rich blend of sound, combining the more delicate sound of woodwinds with the harsher tones of brass instruments. Many musicians are capable of picking up both woodwinds and brass, since the basic skills needed to play them are very similar.