By Katherine Hodge, Project Archaeology Interim Program Lead
Besides the human voice and percussion, woodwind instruments are among some of the oldest musical instruments humans have created. Though there is a great deal of debate, the oldest woodwind instruments archaeologists
have been able to find are over 30,000 years old. These ancient finds are made of animal bone with holes drilled in so the player could change notes.
Just like brass instruments, woodwinds are part of the aerophone family. This means that they produce sound with air. The difference between the two groups is that brass instruments require the player to buzz their lips. This buzzing creates vibrations in the air that travel through the instrument and produce sound.
Woodwind instruments do not require this buzzing because they have something built in to buzz for them: a reed. Reeds are thin and flat, usually made
from cane in modern instruments. When a woodwind player blows air into the instrument, it causes the reed to vibrate, just like the brass players’ buzzing, and these vibrations create sound.
Woodwind instruments come in three varieties. Some woodwinds do not use reeds, like flutes. These instruments have players blow air across or into an opening, and this creates the sound. The second variety is a single reed woodwind, which has one reed vibrating to produce sound. Some examples of this kind are clarinets and saxophones. The final variety is a double reed woodwind, which has two reeds that vibrate together to create sound. Some examples of these are bassoons, oboes, and the English horn.
Every single human culture has some form of musical expression from complex instruments to singing. Archaeologists study this in a few different ways. Some parts of the world have climates more favorable to long-term preservation, like Egypt. Egypt is dry and hot, and many ancient woodwind instruments, like flutes, have been preserved for thousands of years in these conditions. Other parts of the world that are wetter or have a much bigger temperature range do not preserve instruments as well. In these cases, archaeologists must rely on images painted on walls or pottery. For example, in the American Southwest, archaeologists have found remains of ancient instruments as well as imagery that suggests early flutes from 400-700 CE were special instruments reserved for only important members of societies, like shamans, to play.
These archaeologists have also worked to create replicas of the ancient instruments they discovered out of modern-day things like turkey bone flutes. These replicas allow scientists to better understand the soundscapes of thousands of years ago.
Though the woodwind family has an ancient history, there is constant innovation. For example the saxophone was invented in 1845 in France for military use. Once created, musicians adopted it to be a popular instrument for classical music, and today the saxophone is most commonly associated with genres like jazz or the blues. Interested in learning more about woodwinds? Check out the links below!