The first answer that some people might give is that woodwinds are made of wood, the brass instruments from brass. There is some truth in that, of course. But the difference between Brass and Woodwind instruments is not quite as clear-cut as that.
Materials and Technique
What they are made from and how they are played form the basis of the difference. We shall be looking at both differences and seeing how they create what is a woodwind and what is brass.
In the Orchestra
They serve different functions and are therefore seated in certain areas. If you are talking about a live concert with an orchestra, the brass instruments will be located in the center.
They will be behind the Woodwind instruments. The Brass will be fanned out across their area. They are placed behind the Woodwinds purely for acoustic reasons. If placed in front, it is unlikely you would hear the Woodwind instruments.
You may wonder why instruments are placed together. It is simply a case of what is known as “harmonic sounding.” The volume of individual instruments differs. Therefore, positioning is important to try and achieve a balanced sound.
It is also important that, as an example, the Brass section can all hear each other as part of the overall sound. That applies to the woodwinds and the other instruments as well.
Let’s take a closer look at how woodwind and brass instruments are different. And also discover which instrument was designed by a Belgian combining the best of Brass with the best of Woodwind.
Materials used in the build
Some would say this is the biggest difference between woodwinds and brass. Woodwinds are usually made from wood, as the name suggests, but there are some made from metal. Flutes, for example, used to be made from wood until about 1875. Since they have largely been made from nickel with silver-plate or even solid silver.
With the advent of new materials, you will find woodwind instruments made from other materials. These might be Resin, Plastics, or a Hybrid of both. These have become fashionable, especially with beginners, as they are cheaper and don’t suffer some of the problems of wood instruments.
The wood used on instruments needs to be very dense to allow milling and screw threads. They also need to be moisture resistant to avoid warping.
Wood is still the favorite
However, the more expensive instruments are still made from wood for a very good reason. They have a tonal quality that other materials cannot replicate.
The other major difference between brass and woodwind is the playing technique. Most woodwind instruments use a reed to create the sound. Though there are two very notable exceptions, we’ll come back to that.
This is used to create the mouthpiece. It sits at the back of the mouthpiece, and as you blow and pass air through it, the reed vibrates, creating the sound. The reed is usually made from Cane and is quite thin and vulnerable. It needs to be changed quite often. Sometimes due to the collection of moisture.
In some woodwind instruments, you will get a “double-reed.” Whereas a single reed vibrates against the mouthpiece, a double-reed has two reeds that vibrate against each other. This creates a different sound. This is found in the Oboe, Bassoon, and Cor Anglais or English Horn.
Two groups of woodwind instruments don’t use a reed. You may wonder if they should be termed as woodwind, but there are many other similarities. These instruments are the Flute and all its varieties, and the Piccolo.
Sound is created by driving the air across a hole. When the angle and the amount of air pressure are correct, the air vibrates against the hole on the far side of your mouth. This then will resonate through the Flute’s cavity.
Materials used in the build
Originally these instruments were made from wood, tusks, animal horns, and a variety of other materials that were available at any given time. These days Brass is the predominant material, although there are varieties.
There is Yellow Brass which is the most common. This is made from 33% Zinc and 67% Copper. There is Gold Brass which is 15% Zinc and 85% Copper. Finally, Rose Brass is the softest of the Alloys and is 10% Zinc and 90% Copper. Much of the mechanics, valves, etc., are made from nickel silver alloys.
This is one of the major differences, of course. Both sets of instruments use the force of air to create the sound. But the Brass instruments do not use a reed in the mouthpiece.
Brass instruments have no parts that are moving that create the sound. They are what’s known as “Lip-Vibrating” instruments. Pitch is changed by a combination of changes in airflow. That is changing the length of the tubes that the air is flowing through. Pitch adjustments are also made through the lip tension of the player.
Is One Easier than the Other?
There are certain challenges when playing Brass and Woodwind instruments. Especially when starting out. Although, generally speaking, Woodwind and Brass instruments are usually about the same weight.
However, there are anomalies in that depending on what instrument you are using. People usually choose between learning Brass or Woodwind because of the sound they make.
A Couple of Other Differences
Another difference between them is the direction or the volume of the sound produced. Woodwind instruments are what are called “non-directional.” This means you have no control over either the volume or the direction of the sound that it produces.
As an example, when you play the Clarinet, the sound will be heard in the same way wherever you stand. It doesn’t matter if you’re in front or behind them. That makes woodwind instruments quite difficult to record.
On the other hand, Brass instruments are directional. You will hear a significant difference between standing in front of them to standing behind.
How Brass and Woodwind Direct the Airflow
The difference between Brass and Woodwind instruments is also in how the air is directed to create the pitch. With Brass instruments, there are a series of valves. They are the mechanical procedures that help to control the airflow and thus the notes or pitch.
Woodwinds have keys that are located along the side of the body of the instruments. Using these keys will vary the airflow and the pitch.
Something in the Air
The direction of airflow is a difference between them, but there is a certain similarity in that difference. That may sound contradictory. But both types of instruments rely on either the valve or the keys to create sound. And this is where some people will be better suited to a Woodwind rather than a Brass instrument.
Generally speaking, a Brass instrument will require more breath than a woodwind to play. This is partly due to the physical size, but also the techniques employed. It usually takes more air to fill a Brass instrument.
The Best of Brass mixed with the Best of Woodwind
Let’s go back to something I mentioned at the outset. So, who was the Belgian that took the best of Woodwind and the Best of Brass and combined them to form a new instrument? Then created an instrument that looked like it may be Brass but is, in fact, Woodwind complete with a reed?
Who created a woodwind instrument made of Brass, sounds like it should be Brass, but isn’t? Who created an instrument that changed the course of modern music across a variety of genres? And what instrument was it?
We are thankful to Belgium for more than just the best Chocolate in the world…
One Antoine-Joseph Sax, otherwise known as Adolphe Sax. He created the instrument named after him in the 1840s. It looks like it should be a Brass instrument but isn’t. And when it is called to be used in an orchestra, which isn’t often, it will sit with the Woodwinds, not the Brass.
Where would we be without Mr. Sax? The man who took the best of both and created something new. If you are thinking about buying either, then the prices will range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Here are some options for the starter…
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The Difference Between Brass and Woodwind Instruments – Final Thoughts
There are similarities in some respects. Both use the air you generate to make the sound. But the structure, the materials used, the techniques used to play them, and the mechanics are quite different.
However, the big difference is the sound, and that is probably what will decide your choice between them.
Until next time, let your music play.