Recorder (educational uses)

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Various recorders (second from the bottom disassembled into its three parts)

The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument of the family which includes the tin whistle. The recorder is end-blown and the mouth of the instrument is constricted by a wooden plug, known as a block or fipple.[1] It is distinguished from other members of the family by having holes for seven fingers (the lower one or two often doubled to facilitate the production of semitones) and one for the thumb of the uppermost hand. Recorders can be made out of wood, plastic or ivory.[2]

The recorder was popular in medieval times through the baroque era, but declined in the 18th century in favour of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the flute, oboe, and clarinet.

The recorder was revived in the 20th century, partly in the pursuit of historically informed performance of early music, but also because of its suitability as a simple instrument for teaching music. Today, it is sometimes thought of as a child's instrument, but there are many professional players who demonstrate the instrument's full solo range. See Recorder (musical instrument) for further information on advanced usage.

Name of the instrument[edit]

The instrument has been known by its modern name at least since the 14th century. Grove's Dictionary reports the earliest use of the word recorder was in the household of the Earl of Derby (later to become King Henry IV) in 1388: fistula nomine Recordour.[3] The name comes from "to learn by heart", as birds do; the recorder is thought to emulate bird song.


Internal duct-flutes have a long history: an example of an Iron Age specimen, made from a sheep bone, exists in Leeds City Museum.[4]

Renaissance recorders

The recorder achieved great popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries. This development was linked to the fact that art music (as opposed to folk music) was no longer the exclusive domain of nobility and clergy. The advent of the printing press made it available to the more affluent commoners as well. The popularity of the instrument also reached the courts however. For example, at Henry VIII's death in 1547, an inventory of his possessions included 76 recorders.[5] There are also numerous references to the instrument in contemporary literature (e.g. Shakespeare[6] and Milton[7]).[8]

Several changes in the construction of recorders took place in the 17th century, resulting in the type of instrument generally referred to as Baroque recorders, as opposed to the earlier Renaissance recorders. These innovations allowed baroque recorders to possess a tone which was regarded as "sweeter" than that of the earlier instruments,[9] at the expense of a reduction in volume, particularly in the lowest notes, and a slightly reduced range.

The instrument went into decline after the 18th century, being used for about the last time as an otherworldly sound by Gluck in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice. By the Romantic era, the recorder had been almost entirely superseded by the flute and clarinet. One variant of the recorder survived into the 19th-century concert halls, however: the keyed recorder known as the czakan or Stockflöte.[citation needed]

Modern revival[edit]

The recorder was revived around the turn of the 20th century by early music enthusiasts, but used almost exclusively for this purpose. It was considered a mainly historical instrument. Even in the early 20th century it was uncommon enough that Stravinsky thought it to be a kind of clarinet, as he told one day to Frans Brüggen, when asked to write a new piece for recorder. This reaction is not surprising since the early clarinet was, in a sense, derived from the recorder, at least in its outward appearance.

The eventual success of the recorder in the modern era is often attributed to Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various German scholar/performers. While he was responsible for broadening interest beyond that of the early music specialist in the UK, Dolmetsch was far from being solely responsible for the recorder's revival. On the Continent his efforts were preceded by those of musicians at the Brussels Conservatoire (where Dolmetsch received his training), and by the performances of the Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle (Bogenhausen Artists' Band) based in Germany. Over the period from 1890-1939 the Bogenhausers played music of all ages, including arrangements of classical and romantic music. Also in Germany, the work of Willibald Gurlitt, Werner Danckerts and Gustav Scheck proceeded quite independently of the Dolmetsches.[10] Thus the revival, far from being the work of one man, was the result of several strands coming and working together.

Carl Dolmetsch, the son of Arnold Dolmetsch, became one of the first virtuoso recorder players in the 1920s; but more importantly he began to commission recorder works from leading composers of his day, especially for performance at the Haslemere festival which his father ran. Initially as a result of this, and later as a result of the development of a Dutch school of recorder playing led by Kees Otten, the recorder was introduced to serious musicians as a virtuoso solo instrument both in Britain and in northern Europe, and consequently modern composers of great stature have written for the recorder, including Paul Hindemith, Luciano Berio, Jürg Baur, Josef Tal, John Tavener, Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Jacob, Malcolm Arnold, Steven Stucky and Edmund Rubbra.

The recorder is often used in popular music, including that of groups such as The Beatles;[11] the Rolling Stones (see, for example, "Ruby Tuesday"); Yes, for example, in the song "I've Seen All Good People"; Jefferson Airplane (see Personnel as well as Grace Slick); Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven); Jimi Hendrix;[12] Siouxsie and the Banshees;[13] Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention; Dido;[14] and Mannheim Steamroller.

Some modern music calls for the recorder to produce unusual noises, rhythms and effects, by such techniques as flutter-tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics. David Murphy's 2002 composition Bavardage is an example, as is Hans Martin Linde's Music for a Bird.

Among late 20th-century and early 21st-century recorder ensembles, the trio Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, the Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet and Quartet New Generation have programmed remarkable mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire. Piers Adams is a recorder player who has toured and recorded widely, as well as being involved in education.

Types of recorders[edit]

Common members of the recorder family
In C Range In F Range
descant (soprano)
Listen to it
Range SopranoRecorder.png treble (alto) Range AltoRecorder.png
tenor Range TenorRecorder.png bass Range BassRecorder.png
Recorder with German fingering. Note that the 4th finger-hole is larger than the 5th.

Recorders are named according to the size of the instrument. There are two schemes of naming, one linked to the historical use of the instrument, the other to the human voice it most closely resembles.[clarification needed]

Descant or soprano[edit]

‘Descant’ is the usual term in the UK and most of the Commonwealth, while ‘soprano’ is the term used in US English.

This is the most common instrument today and is tuned to C, meaning that the lowest note possible is a C. It can be a little shrill, so in advanced playing is often restricted to a descant or extra line above the main melody. Although actually sounding an octave higher because of the timbre it feels as though it is pitched similarly to a human soprano. The relatively short spacing between holes and the cheapness of the instrument have made it an ideal first instrument in schools.

Treble or alto[edit]

The treble recorder is the main melody instrument in advanced work, just as the trebles are in church choral music. When reading accounts of recorders in the past, this is usually the instrument meant unless otherwise stated. It sounds closest to a human alto voice. The instrument is tuned to F. Many school bands consist of descant/soprano and treble/alto instruments only. The reach on treble recorders is longer than the descant and this, together with the higher price, make it an instrument for those starting to progress.


The tenor recorder is occasionally found in schools. It is twice the size of the descant/soprano and so may be too large for children's fingers to reach. The lowest hole is controlled by one or two keys because of the stretch. It is also tuned to C, but is an octave below the smaller instrument.


The bass is the largest recorder commonly met with. It is an F instrument, about three times the length of the descant/soprano. Like the tenor the lowest hole is controlled by keys.

Other sizes[edit]

Specialist players may also employ smaller instruments: garklein (C) and sopranino (F). There are larger instruments: great bass (C), contrabass (F), subcontrabass (C) and octobass (F). Intermediate instruments in D, B-flat, G and E-flat exist but will not be found in elementary music.

Construction and operation[edit]

Cross-section of the head of a recorder

Today, high-quality recorders are made from a range of hardwoods. Plastic recorders are produced in large quantities. Plastics are cheaper and require less maintenance and quality plastic recorders can be as good as lower-end wooden instruments. Plastic recorders can be sterilised by soaking in a mild disinfectant, which may be desirable if they are shared between classes. Beginners' instruments, the sort usually found in children's ensembles, are plastic and can be purchased quite cheaply.

The recorder is held outwards from the player's lips (rather than to the side, like the "transverse" flute). The player's breath is compressed into a linear airstream by a channel cut into the wooden "block" or fipple (A), in the mouthpiece of the instrument, so as to travel along this channeled duct (B) called the "windway".[15] Exiting from the windway, the breath is directed against a hard edge (C), called the "labium" or "ramp", which causes the column of air within the resonator tube to oscillate with standing waves. Unlike simple whistles where holes are progressively unstopped, the recorder uses half-holing and forking (see below) to modify the position of the nodes.[15]

Notation and pitch[edit]

School recorders are pitched at concert pitch (A=440 Hz).

The recorder family is non-transposing, which means that sheet music for recorder is nearly always written in the key in which it is played. A written C in the score actually sounds as a C. Recorders are referred to as "C-fingered" or "F-fingered", depending on the lowest note. This implies that the player must learn two different sets of similar fingerings, one for the C recorders and another for the F recorders. A player may go from one C-fingered instrument to another easily, and from one F-fingered instrument to another easily, but switching between the two requires knowing both sets of fingerings, or the ability to transpose the music at sight.

Descant/soprano recorders transpose at the octave, as does the bass. In modern scores, octave transpositions may be indicated by adding a small figure "8" above the treble or bass clef on descant/soprano or bass recorder parts, but in the past and still commonly today, the transpositions are not indicated and instead are assumed from context. Bass instruments use the bass clef but may occasionally use the treble clef and transpose down an octave. The other three common instruments all use the treble clef.

To make the transition to playing a treble/alto recorder easier, some educational music is written C-fingered, in which case the instrument transposes up a fourth.

As a rule of thumb, recorders sound one octave above the human voice after which they are named (soprano recorder is an octave above soprano voice, alto an octave above alto voice, etc.) The recorder's mellow tone and limited harmonics allows for the seemingly deeper sound.[16]


Recorder fingerings (baroque): Lowest note through the nominal range of 2 octaves and a tone
Note First octave   Second octave   Third octave
in F
in C
G D 2

Note 1: See the section Types of recorders concerning recorders tuned in C or in F.
Note 2: Individual recorders may need this hole to be closed (●), half closed (◐), or open (○) to play the note in tune.
● means to cover the hole. ○ means to uncover the hole. ◐ means half-cover.

How the fingers and holes are numbered
Fingers Holes
Numbered finger holes.jpg

The range of a modern recorder is usually taken to be about two octaves except in virtuoso pieces. See the table above for fingerings of notes in the nominal recorder range of 2 octaves and 1 whole tone. Notes above this range are more difficult to play, and the exact fingerings vary from instrument to instrument, so it is impractical to put them into the table here.[17] The numbers at the top correspond to the fingers and the holes on the recorder, according to the pictures.

Half-holing, forking, and shading[edit]

The lowest chromatic scale degrees – a semitone and a minor third above the lowest note – are played by covering only a part of a hole, a technique known as "half-holing." Most modern instruments are constructed with double holes or keys to facilitate the playing of these notes; such double holes are occasionally found on baroque instruments, where even the hole for the third finger of the left hand can be doubled. Other chromatic scale degrees are played by so-called "fork" fingerings, uncovering one hole and covering one or more of the ones below it. Fork fingerings have a different tonal character from the diatonic notes, giving the recorder a somewhat uneven sound. Budget tenor/bass recorders might have a single key for low C/F but not low C/F, making this note virtually impossible to play. Double low keys allowing both C/F and C/F are more or less standard today.[18]


Most of the notes in the second octave and above are produced by partially opening the thumbhole on the back of the recorder, a technique known as "pinching". There are two basic methods for achieving this: a) drawing the thumb away from the hole, and b) bending the thumb.[19] The first method uses only the skin of the thumb to define the opening, while the second method uses also the nail edge. The latter technique enables better feel and thus control of the size of the opening.[19] The placement of the thumb is crucial to the tone, intonation and stability of these notes, and varies as the notes increase in pitch, making the boring of a double hole for the thumb unviable. To play the notes in the second register and above, the player must generally blow more air into the instrument and/or tongue somewhat harder to excite the second or upper harmonics of the instrument.[18] This is, however, not universally true; it is possible for example to slur piano between and in the second and third registers.[20]

German fingering[edit]

In the early part of the 20th century, Peter Harlan developed a recorder that allowed for apparently simpler fingering, called German fingering. A recorder designed for German fingering has a hole five which is smaller than hole four, whereas baroque and neo-baroque recorders have a hole four which is smaller than hole five. The immediate difference in fingering is for F and B which on a neo-baroque instrument must be fingered 0 123 4–67. With German fingering, this becomes a simpler 0 123 4 – – –. Unfortunately, however, this causes many other chromatic notes to be too badly out of tune to be usable.[18] German fingering became popular in Europe, especially Germany, in the 1930s, but rapidly became obsolete in the 1950s as the recorder began to be treated more seriously and the limitations of German fingering became more widely appreciated.[21] Despite this, many recorder makers continue to produce German fingered instruments today, essentially for beginner use only.


Changes in dynamics are not easy to achieve on the recorder if the player is accustomed to other wind instruments. The general belief is that if the player blows harder to play louder, or more softly to play softer, the pitch changes and the note goes out of tune, and unlike the transverse flute, the player cannot change the position of the mouth in relation to the labium in order to compensate, and that therefore the recorder is not capable of dynamic changes. This is misleading. Subtle changes in wind pressure are possible if the player has a good ear for tuning and knows how hard the instrument can be pushed before pitch changes become noticeable. But this is not the correct approach to recorder dynamics.[18][22] On the recorder it is better to think of the breath controlling pitch, and the fingers controlling dynamics; for example by resting the fingers lightly on the holes breath leaks around them, lifting the pitch; and the resulting instinctive change in breath pressure to bring the pitch back also drops the volume. The recorder is notable for its sensitivity to articulation; in addition to its obvious use for artistic effect skilled players can also use this sensitivity to suggest changes in volume.[22]

Use in schools[edit]

Plastic recorder (Yamaha)

In the mid-20th century, German composer and music educator Carl Orff popularized the recorder for use in schools as part of Orff-Schulwerk programs in German schools. Orff's five-volume opus of educational music Music for Children contains many pieces for recorders, usually scored for other instruments as well.[23]

Manufacturers have made recorders out of bakelite and other more modern plastics; they are thus easy to produce, hence inexpensive. Because of this, recorders are popular in schools, as they are one of the cheapest instruments to buy in bulk.[24] They are also relatively easy to play at a basic level because sound production needs only breath, and pitch is basically determined by fingering. It is, however, incorrect to assume that mastery is similarly easy—like any other instrument, the recorder requires study to play well and in tune, and significant study to play at an advanced or professional level.

Unconventional uses[edit]

Playing on a Soprano recorder head joint
An elementary recorder class striking the bell of the recorder during a concert.

The head of recorders is sometimes used as a noise, rhythm and effect instrument, and as a toy musical instrument with children (e. g. in a rhythm band), since the recorder head works like a whistle. With a bit of practice, it is easy to play all kind of rhythms. Effects are made by opening and covering the lower end of the head joint with the hand while blowing. Agnes Dorwarth of the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg argues this is an attractive way to get children to play with part of the instrument, which can make playing the entire instrument more inviting.[25] Many players blow harder than "normal" recorder playing (like with a pea whistle) to achieve a very loud, shrill and penetrating sound.

The recorder can also give an effect by striking the bell with the palm of the hand. The note varies according to the type of instrument. Although unfingered the note will be a soft version of the lowest note of the recorder.[citation needed]

Additional effects can be obtained by blowing across the window, somewhat after the manner of a flute. Fingering can be used; the effect is like a soft, breathy, baroque flute.[citation needed]

Recorder ensembles[edit]

The recorder is a very social instrument. Many recorder players participate in large groups or in one-to-a-part chamber groups, and there is a wide variety of music for such groupings including many modern works. Groups of different sized instruments help to compensate for the limited note range of the individual instruments. Four part arrangements with a soprano, alto, tenor and bass part played on the corresponding recorders are common, although more complex arrangements with multiple parts for each instrument and parts for lower and higher instruments may also be regularly encountered.[26]


  1. ^ Grove Music Online recommends that use of the word fipple should be abandoned because its meaning is confused, however, other sources (e.g. the Oxford Dictionary of Music) continue to use it.
  2. ^ "Profile of the recorder". Music Education. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
  3. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music(online Edition): "Recorder" article, part 1: Nomenclature
  4. ^ Oxford Companion to Music. See section 1 of "Recorder Family" article
  5. ^ Oxford Companion to Music. see section 2 of the article on "Recorder Family"
  6. ^ Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2, Hamlet: "Ah, ha! Come, some music! Come, the recorders!"
  7. ^ Paradise Lost, Book I: "Anon they move/ in perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood/ flutes and soft recorders"
  8. ^ For an extensive database of literary references to the recorder see here [1]
  9. ^ Jonathan Wainwright and Peter Holman, From Renaissance To Baroque: Change in Instruments and Instrumental Music in the Seventeenth Century, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2005. ISBN 0-7546-0403-9
  10. ^ Eve E. O'Kelly, The Recorder Today, Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-36681-X. Chapter 1: The Revival
  11. ^ For example, in Fool on the Hill, according to The Recorder Home Page maintained by Nicholas S. Lander Archived 2007-08-18 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ For example, in the song If 6 Was 9, according to The Recorder Home Page maintained by Nicholas S. Lander Archived 2007-08-18 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ For example in the song Green Fingers, according to's page on the album A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
  14. ^ E.g. Grafton Street
  15. ^ a b Bolton, Philippe. "How Recorders Work". Retrieved 2009-05-30.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Kenneth Wollitz, The Recorder Book, Knopf, 1984. ISBN 0-394-47973-4. See Chapter 1, "Technique"
  18. ^ a b c d A Rowland-Jones, Recorder Technique ISBN 0-907908-75-6
  19. ^ a b Walter van Hauwe, The Modern Recorder Player, Volume I, Schott, 1984. ISMN 979-0-2201-1382-6. See Part II, Chapter 5, "The Left Thumb"
  20. ^ Gudrun Heyens, Advanced Recorder Technique, Volume I, Schott, 2005. ISBN 3-7957-0516-9. See Chapter 3, "Scales/Arpeggios/Chromatic Scales", p. 8
  21. ^ Edgar Hunt, The Recorder And Its Music
  22. ^ a b A Rowland-Jones, Playing Recorder Sonatas Clarendon Press ISBN 0-19-879001-5
  23. ^ Regner, Hermann. Orff-Schulwerk Floetenbuch, Preface. Translated by I.M. Rushworth.
  24. ^ Margo Hall, Teaching Kids Recorder, iUniverse, 2005. ISBN 0-595-36743-7
  25. ^ Dorwarth, Agnes. "AG 7 - Musikschulkongress '13". Verband deutscher Musikschulen. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  26. ^ "Recorder flute definition of Recorder flute in the Free Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-08-21.