What is a wind instrument?

Or how to have plenty of puff

The "L'industrie" brass band (first half 20th century)Le Musée des instruments à vent


A wind instrument is an instrument that makes a sound thanks to the vibration of air. The scientific term is aerophone. The vibrating air is used in two ways:

1. The vibrating air is contained within the instrument (flute, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, etc.);

2. The vibrating air is not contained within the instrument itself (accordion, harmonica, harmonium).

Alto sax, "semi-rationnel" model frontLe Musée des instruments à vent


When the orchestra appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was decided that wind instruments would be categorized according to what they were made of: woodwind instruments were made of wood, and brass instruments were made of an alloy containing brass.

From the 19th century, things became more complicated due to technological developments and the invention of new instruments such as the saxophone in 1846. This metal instrument is, nevertheless, woodwind.

The current classification system was put in place in the 20th century, and it's the sound-producing system—how the sound is generated—that decides the family and sub-family of an instrument.

Even is the term isn't scientifically sound, we still use "woodwind" and "brass" to categorize the most common wind instruments.

Oboe frontLe Musée des instruments à vent


Woodwind instruments are those that a player blows into and makes the air vibrate using one of three methods:

1. channel breath with a bevel (recorder, ocarina);

2. direct breath freely (flute, panpipes);

3. use a single (clarinet, saxophone) or double reed (oboe, bassoon, bagpipes).

Detail: double reed of a Cornet oboe

Clarinet in Bb frontLe Musée des instruments à vent

Despite the name, there are several woodwind instruments that are made of metal, such as the saxophone, which is a woodwind instrument. Saxophones have always been made of metal, and even this clarinet is made of nickel silver.

Transverse flute in D frontLe Musée des instruments à vent

And others are still made of ivory, like this flute; plastic (recorder, clarinet); or synthetic and composite materials (clarinet, oboe).

Detail: embouchure hole of a Vincent flute

Cornet left sideLe Musée des instruments à vent


The brasses are wind instruments where the sound is generated by the vibration of a player's lips against a mouthpiece. This technique is unique and characteristic of brass instruments (trumpet, tuba, trombone, horn). If you don't have that, it's not a brass instrument. The sound changes depending on the contraction of the player's lip muscles and the model of the mouthpiece.

There are brass instruments made of ivory (cornett, olifant), plastic (trumpet), and wood (didgeridoo, alphorn).

Detail: mouthpiece of an A. Lecomte cornet

Bass saxhorn backLe Musée des instruments à vent

Detail: mouthpiece of a Jérôme-Thibouville Lamy saxhorn

Reeds (2020)Le Musée des instruments à vent


Existing in two forms—single and double—this accessory is what enables clarinets, saxophones, oboes, English horns, bassoons, baroque musettes, and many other instruments to make sounds, thanks to the way they vibrate.

Reeds (2020)Le Musée des instruments à vent

Reeds are made from Arundo donax, also known as giant cane (among other names), which grows mainly in the south of France.

The canes are cut to length—specific to each instrument—and worked. The rigidity of a reed, known as its hardness, varies depending on the musician's needs and skill: beginners use soft reeds (very thin) while professionals need harder ones (thicker).

Credits: Story

Le Musée des instruments à vent

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