Medieval and Tudor Wind Instruments

Any instrument that produces sound by having air pushed through it (usually by blowing) is a wind instrument. This covers some considerable variety including flute-type instruments, reed-type instruments, brass-type instruments and organs. Each different type of instrument requires different techniques, different lip positions, fingerings, embouchure (lip and mouth position), stamina, breath control and articulation.

Flute-type instruments have the simplest construction and produce the purest and simplest tone. The breath of air must be carefully channelled into the instrument in such a way that it is split against an edge of some kind. Most of the air goes away from the instrument and does not have any further effect on the tone, but the rest of the air sets up a vibration within the pipe. For example, in the case of a recorder you blow into the mouthpiece and some of the air goes out through the hole just below the mouthpiece (the fipple) while the rest of the air goes down into the pipe to make the musical sounds. In a transverse flute, the flautist blows across the mouthhole such that the column of air blown hits the far edge of the mouthhole with the result that some of the air escapes outside while the rest enters the flute and sets up the vibrations within the tube. The pitch of the note caused by the vibrations is determined by the length and bore (shape) of the pipe and also by how many holes are covered.

Reed-type instruments require a single or double reed to be mounted on the instrument through which the breath of air is channelled. The reeds vibrate to allow the air through, and this creates a rich sound. The pitch of the note is determined in a similar way to flute-type instruments, by the length and bore of the pipe and by how many holes are covered. Many reed pipes also have a bell (a flared out part at the end of the pipe) which can affect the tone of the instrument and certainly makes a difference to the volume.

Brass-type instruments are not all actually made of brass, but they all share the same technique. The embouchure for these instruments (the shape you need to make with your lips) requires great dexterity in the lip muscles to create vibrations - a bit like ‘blowing a raspberry’ - and this can be quite tiring.

The organ stands apart from the other wind instruments and is covered in detail below.

Many of the instruments described here have attached sound-files. Click to hear these intruments in action.

Bagpipe

Bagpipe

This is a reed instrument that is known in the folk music of most European countries. These instruments were often intended for outdoor playing and could be very loud; however, some bagpipes have in contrast a very gentle sweet sound. The bagpipe usually features a drone pipe that sounds a continuous tone to accompany the melody played on the chanter (the fingered pipe). If the instrument has more than one drone pipe these can be tuned to sound an octave or a fifth apart. Some bagpipes, have no drone pipes at all. The earliest account of bagpipes can perhaps be seen in surviving Roman written records, giving the instrument at least a 2000 year history!

Crumhorn

 

Crumhorn

These curious instruments first appear in manuscripts and illustrations in the sixteenth century, though they were almost certainly around in the 1400s. Like the bagpipe chanter, they have a double reed which produces a nasal buzzing tone. The reed on the crumhorn is inside a wooden chamber next to the mouthpiece, and this chamber protects the reed from damage. This instrument, along with other similar pipes, is the ancestor of the modern oboe, although with the oboe the reed is held by the lips for more expressive playing. The crumhorn shown here is a reconstruction of a European alto crumhorn in sixteenth-century style.

However, like all European reed pipes, the origins of the crumhorn are eastern. Double reed bladder pipes and shawms were imported into Europe from Africa and the Middle East from the time of the earliest Moorish conquest of Spain in the ninth century AD and through the period of the Crusades.

The curve of the crumhorn has no effect on the tonal qualities of the instrument - that is, how the instrument sounds - it is there just for fancy. By the early sixteenth century, the crumhorn had developed into a full family of instruments ranging from squeaky sopranos down to flatulent basses.

Flute

Flute

These instruments have a very long history, as prehistoric remains of simple flute-type instruments have been found in many countries. The medieval and Tudor flute was not largely different from the flute we know today in its fundamentals - but was generally made in wood, never metal and, like many modern folk flutes and whistles, was six holed and unkeyed. By the time of the Tudors, the instrument came in a variety of sizes, like the crumhorn. Surviving flutes from the sixteenth century show an interesting difference in the breath hole. On a modern flute, the mouthpiece hole is oval, while on the Tudor flute it is round. This calls for some adjustment in embouchure (mouth position) and breath control for modern players who take up the early flute.

Recorder

 

Recorder

This was also called “the flute of nine holes”, because many early recorders dating from as early as the fourteenth century did indeed have nine holes. Eight of the holes were just as we see on our modern recorders, while the ninth hole was opposite the right-hand little finger hole allowing for the option of left-handed playing. Whichever hole was not required would ordinarily be filled in with beeswax.

A small number of medieval recorders have been found in archaeological digs showing the nine holes and curiously no beak (the pointed end which you put in your lips). This may be simply because the beak was lost or the recorder was not complete - though it is possible to play the recorder without the beak. However, illustrations of 15th-century recorders show beaked instruments and surviving Tudor instruments have beaks.

Three-holed pipe

Three-Holed Pipe

These instruments are sometimes called tabor pipes, referring to the drum that is often played at the same time. The three-holed pipe is a simple flute-type instrument with - as its name suggests - only three holes. This allows for four basic positions of the fingers giving four different basic notes. However, by blowing a little harder higher notes can be produced allowing for ranges of at least one full octave and up to two octaves on larger pipes. These instruments have low status and usually only appear in medieval illustrations showing lowly scenes such as peasant dances, and the tormenting of Christ.

The pipe only requires one hand to produce all the notes, leaving the other free to play something else. So, the tabor drum that often accompanies the pipe is intended to be played at the same time by the same player! A drum was not the only thing that could be played by the other hand; a guitar-like instrument could be strummed, a harp plucked, or a hurdy-gurdy type instrument made to drone. A veritable medieval one-man-band!

Trumpet

Trumpet

Unlike our modern instrument, the medieval trumpet had no valves (keys which you press down to make different notes), as valves weren’t generally used until the nineteenth century. Before this time, the notes available on the trumpet were limited to the harmonic series that the player could produce, and exactly how many would depend upon the quality of the mouthpiece and the skill of the player.

Trumpets were powerful instruments, and could even be heard over the noise of a battle. Moorish armies in Spain employed trumpets and drums almost as weapons of war to terrify their enemies and inspire their own soldiers. The instruments were also quickly established as high status, and would be produced on special occasions such as royal weddings, the arrival of visiting dignitaries and so on. There are interesting records from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century showing which instruments were used for which occasions. From these records, we know that the trumpet was one of the three most important instruments in use (the other two were harp and fiddle). Bands of trumpeters were retained by wealthy masters such as kings or barons as a way of showing how important they were.

Organ

Organ

An organ is basically a series of tuned pipes that produce sound when air is channelled through them. This is normally done with a keyboard, like on organs today (though some earlier medieval organs used rather more awkward systems to open and stop the various pipes). The main difference between the modern organ and organs in medieval and Tudor times is that today we can use electricity to pump the air into the pipes. Early organs needed to have air pumped into them, as we can see in the illustration.

Organs came in many sizes ranging from tiny “portative” organs, that were small enough to be carried around, pumped and played by one musician, to the great organs that would require dozens of players - most of whom would be simply working the bellows that pumped the air. By the late fifteenth century extra rows of pipes were added to allow the player a wide range of sounds. These extra rows were activated by moving sliders or stops in just the same way as a modern organ.

Shawm

These instruments were imported into Europe from Africa and the near East throughout the medieval period. They can have a powerful piercing sound and would be best employed outdoors or on ceremonial occasions. By the fifteenth century, the shawm, like many other instruments, had developed into a family of instruments. City waites (musicians employed by city councils) would play instruments such as shawms, trumpets and sackbuts as part of their duty.

Like the crumhorn, the shawm had a double reed. In the case of the crumhorn, the reeds are protected inside a wooden chamber, but shawm players place the reeds inside their mouth with their lips against the bottom end of the reed, which allows the reed to vibrate freely. Modern oboe players place the reeds on their lips, which is another method again.

Rauschpfeife

Rauschpfeife

These instruments are similar in many ways to the shawm. They may well have been very rare as they are shown in only one illustration from the sixteenth century. However, there are also some surviving original instruments. Rauschpfeifes have a conical bore enabling them to be very loud indeed - in fact, ferociously loud! The name means something like ‘noisy pipe’. They have a windcap (like the crumhorn). This means that you do not put the reed in your mouth.

 

 

Top

The kids really enjoyed themselves and learnt something too.

Teacher's Feedback    

Better than what I expected - you’re the best ever!

Children's Feedback