What is an Oboe?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The oboe is both a family of instruments and a single instrument and member of the double reed group of woodwinds. This group also includes bagpipes, baritone oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon, English horn in F, heckelphone, and oboe d’amore. The double reeds that are members of the family are as follows, arranged from lowest to highest.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

  • The baritone oboe, also called the bass oboe, is an octave lower than the regular oboe. English composer Gustav Holst used it in The Planets, but this version of the instrument is little used recently. Today, the heckelphone, an instrument about 4 feet (1.2 meters) long and also pitched an octave lower, is often substituted. The heckelphone was developed in response to Richard Wagner’s request when he visited the Heckel factory, a German bassoon manufacturer, in the late 19th century.

  • The English horn or cor anglais is a fifth lower than the oboe.

  • The oboe d’amore is a minor third lower.

  • The regular oboe, a non-transposing instrument, played by an oboist.

The oboe was developed from its predecessor, a one-piece instrument called the shawm, by Frenchmen Jean Hotteterre and Michel Philidor in the 17th century. The shawm was a double-reed of the Medieval–Renaissance period. It made up part of the military band of the Saracens during the Crusades, along with trumpet and drums. The shawm came in six sizes, from sopranino to great bass. Larger shawms were known as bombardes. In early days of its use, the English called it an hautbois or hoboy, which suggests how the name developed.

There are three parts to an oboe: the upper joint, the lower joint, and the bell. Tenons are used to connect these parts. There are two main systems of construction: the French conservatoire system, which Frédéric Triébert developed in the late 19th century, and an English system referred to as the thumbplate system. There are also dual system oboes.

Oboes are used in orchestral as well as band ensembles. German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s first two Brandenburg Concertos include this instrument. It is cast as the duck in Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Oboes are also included in jazz repertoire, and Charlie Parker’s Bird with Strings album features it.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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A friend of mine in band switched from clarinet to oboe, and I always wanted to learn the oboe, myself. I played hers a little, and I thought it was easier to get a nice tone from than my clarinet. I didn't have a problem with it being a double reed instrument. In fact, I thought I squeaked much worse on my single reed clarinet.

Double reeds are expensive little devils, though, and it would have been a job for my parents to keep me in reeds. You could get single reeds for a clarinet for 50 cents apiece at the band instrument store and I usually got three at a time. Those would go for about six weeks before I needed another set.

It was always amusing to go into the band room before practice. You could spot the woodwind players immediately -- they always had a reed in their mouths, getting it good and moist before practice started.

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