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What Are Double Reed Instruments?

Most people know that the majority of woodwind instruments like the clarinet, flute, and saxophone use a reed which generates the sound. If you have been looking around to buy a woodwind instrument, you may have come across another option – The Double Reed Instrument.

But, what are Double Reed Instruments?

You may not be familiar with them. They are part of the woodwind family, but instead of using a single piece of cane for the reed, they use two pieces.

These vibrate against each other to create the sound. The term “double-reed” is used to describe a certain group of the woodwind family of instruments that use them.

There are actually quite a few. Most you will probably never have heard of and probably never will. But there are three you will need to know about, plus one that will be a surprise. I will get to that one later.

Three Well-known Double Reed Instruments

The main double reed orchestral instruments are the Oboe, the Bassoon, and the English Horn. You will note that these instruments have a very distinct sound and flair to their tones.

Oboe and English Horn

The Oboe and the English horn are not that dissimilar. The oboe has quite a high pitch and is easily heard in the orchestral environment. Just out of interest, the Oboe occupies a unique role in the orchestra. I will also come back to that.

The English Horn, as mentioned, is similar. The Horn, though, produces a slightly less sharp and more rounded, almost dreamy tone.

The Bassoon

The last of three is the Bassoon. The Bassoon is different and offers its own unique sound. It is warm and slightly dark, and almost ethereal.

In the 17th century and later, the Bassoon was used to add depth to the bass parts. Its music is usually written in the Bass and Tenor Clefs. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, parts were written for it that brought it more to the front as an occasional solo instrument.

What is the other Double Reed Instrument?

Believe it or not, bagpipes are a double-reed instrument. Not often heard in an orchestral environment, of course, but that is what they are. The Chanter, where the melody is played, features a vibrating double reed. And each of the drone pipes also includes a double reed.

Unique Role of the Oboe in the Orchestra

Oboe in the Orchestra

We cannot answer the question, “What are double reed instruments?” without discussing the most unique feature of the oboe. If you have ever been to an orchestral concert, you will know.

The orchestra takes its seats, and you hear a single note being played. That is the Oboe playing an ‘A.’ Gradually, all the other instruments join in and tune to it. So why do all the instruments tune to the Oboe?

The Tuning

Virtually every instrument has some form of mechanism that allows it to adjust its tuning. All instruments are what you might call unstable. They can lose their tune depending on the environment they are in. But because of this tuning mechanism, they can be adjusted easily and quickly.

The Oboe is an exception. The only way to adjust the tuning is to remove the reeds. That is clearly not an option just before a performance. The answer is to set the Oboe beforehand, and then everyone tunes up to it. That is what you can hear instead of a lot of instruments all just playing the same note.

Are Double Reeds Easy to Replace?

There are a few variations in the design and the way they are built, but they all follow the same basic pattern. Most people prefer to buy Double Reeds ready-made and ready to put straight in the instrument.

Some prefer to buy them at different stages of their construction. You can buy part-scraped reeds and other options. Some even prefer to buy the cane and do it themselves. The cane is available in various designs and formats. This is for players who know what they are doing. By altering the way, it’s made and the shape of the reeds, you can vary the tone slightly.

Cane from the south of France is the preferred choice of many. Reeds and double reeds are easily available in any shop selling orchestral instrument equipment. You will find a range of manufacturer options and won’t have trouble buying them. In my opinion, it is better to buy them ready-made.

Instrument Materials

Instrument Materials

In today’s instrument world, there are options regarding the materials used in manufacturing. Double Reed instruments will bring an alternative sound to the orchestra or ensemble. But each instrument will have its tone affected by the material it is made of.


Many instruments are made from plastic. Plastics these days have come a long way, and they do offer a cheaper alternative. They are durable and especially good for young players and beginners.

Also, for those people that at times can be a little bit clumsy. They take less maintenance and care. The downside is that they don’t sound quite as good as their wooden counterparts.


Wooden instruments will always be slightly vulnerable, and they need to be taken care of. Generally, they look great and sound excellent. They produce a sound that you expect from whichever of the instruments you are playing.

The downsides are that they are likely to be more expensive. And they are going to take a lot of care and maintenance to keep them in the best condition.

General Maintenance

For both plastic and wooden instruments, there are some basic maintenance requirements.

  • Ideally, a professional service every year or at the most two years.
  • Wipe the keys with a proper cleaning cloth every day and after every use.
  • Make sure there are no buildups of dust anywhere in the mechanisms.
  • Every two or three months, apply some oil lightly to all the moving parts. Make sure you do not get any oil on the pads.
  • Disassemble the instrument every year, clean it, and put it back together again. You may need some help the first one or two times. But this is a good way to understand and get an appreciation of how the instrument works.

It’s an Investment

an Investment

When you start to look for your instrument, you are going to see quite a difference in the price range. There will be some that look like they are very cheap, cost-effective instruments. But be careful, in my opinion, you will probably need to pay a premium price to get a quality instrument.

Made in China, the Rochix Oboe Beginner Student Level SF15 Composite Wood Body has a reasonable quality and is suitable as an introduction to the instrument. It comes as part of a package. At the other end of the quality and price range for a starter is the Yamaha YOB-241 Series Student Oboe.

For the Bassoon, the situation is the same. The Yinfente Maple Wood Bassoon with Case and Accessories is very much a cost-effective starter instrument. A quality Yamaha or Buffet Crampon will cost you at least $3500.

What Are Double Reed Instruments – Final Thoughts

Because they are not produced in the sort of numbers that some instruments are, they cost more. The materials used are not cheap, or shouldn’t be, and there is plenty of metal hardware. There is also a certain amount of hand-made quality about them.

If you choose your quality Double Reed instrument wisely, it is going to be an investment. A quality instrument that is maintained properly is going to last a lifetime.

Until next time, let the music play.

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