From Academic Kids

Modern Oboe
Modern Oboe

The Oboe is a musical instrument of the woodwind double reed family. It is a descendant of the shawm. The word "oboe" is derived from the French word hautbois, meaning "high wood". It is so-named because of the instrument's rather high and reedy sound. A musician who plays the oboe is called an oboist. Careful manipulation of embouchure and air-pressure allows the player to express a huge range of emotions and moods.


The instrument

Compared to woodwind instruments such as the flute or clarinet, the oboe is difficult to play and produce a good sound (tone) on. Amateur players often produce a nasal (often out-of-tune) and strident tone that is difficult to blend with other instruments. However, the advanced oboist can produce a rich, warm, and beautiful tone.

The oboe has a very straight sound, a tone which is quite poor in harmonics, therefore it's easy to tune to. Orchestras usually set the pitch (tune) by listening to the oboe playing concert A (earlier 440 Hz everywhere, now only in the United States; in Europe mostly 442 Hz and 443 Hz in Germany). Setting the pitch of the oboe is not achieved by changing the position of the reed in the instrument, but by altering the scrape of the reed itself. Subtle changes in pitch are also possible by adjusting the embouchure.

The oboe first appeared in French courts around 1650. In the 17th century Jean Hotteterre and Michel Danican Philidor modified the shawm, so that the new oboe had a narrower bore and a reed which is held by the player's lips near the end. Henry Purcell was the first composer to specifically score for it and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote extensively for it. It was the main melody instrument in early military bands until ousted by the clarinet.

The oboe is most commonly made from grenadilla (or African blackwood) and some manufacturers also make oboes out of other members of the dalbergia family of wood (rosewood; violetwood), or high-quality plastic resin. The oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore. The oboe does not have a mouthpiece like the clarinet or saxophone, instead it has a double-reed consisting of two thin blades of cane tied together on a small-diameter metal tube (staple). The reed is held on the lips. The commonly accepted range for the oboe extends from B♭3 to A6, nearly three octaves. In the cases of most student instruments, the B♭3 is omitted, with the lowest note being B3. Together with the flute/recorder it is one of the oldest woodwind instruments.

Baroque Oboe, Stanesby Copy
Baroque Oboe, Stanesby Copy

In the Baroque era the oboe had two brass keys, one the C-key and the other the E♭-key. This instrument had no C♯4 nor were there octave-keys. Notes in the successive octaves were reached through overblowing. Notable oboe-makers of that period are the German Denner and the English Stanesby. The range for the Baroque oboe extends from C4 to E♭6.

Missing image
Classical Oboe

Later, in the classical period, the oboe became outfitted with eight keys, among them the so-called G♯-key and the long-awaited octave-key, which allowed the player to play in the higher ranges without overblowing the instrument. The range for the Classical oboe extends from C4 to F6. The modern oboe has more than 20 keys, usually silver-plated (rarely gold-plated). The oboe is fingered similar to the flute and saxophone. The modern Oboe mechanism is mainly of two types: (a) the French conservatoire system and (b) the English thumbplate system. There is also a combination system whereas the French system has a thumbplate added.

The oboe has several siblings. The most widely known today is the cor anglais (English Horn), which evolved from the Baroque oboe da caccia. Both are pitched at a perfect fifth lower than the standard oboe. The oboe d'amore, also popular during the Baroque period, is pitched at a minor third lower than the oboe. J.S. Bach used the oboe d'amore extensively. Even less common is the baritone or bass oboe, which sounds at an octave lower than the regular oboe. Delius and Holst both scored for it, but today it is almost a museum piece. Instead, the more powerful heckelphone is used. The least common of all is the mussette, the sopranino of the family.

Jazz and improvised music

While oboe is rather rare in jazz and free improvisation, there are a few notable players.

Though primarily a tenor saxophone player, Yusef Lateef was among the first and remains, arguably, the preeminent jazz oboist.

Other performers include:

Famous oboists

See this list of oboists.

Fictional oboist


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