The oboe is a double-reed instrument. Most oboes are made of wood, but modern manufacturing techniques allow oboe makers to produce the instrument in resin or plastic.
Oboes produce sound when air is blown into the reed, causing it to vibrate. The quality of materials used, the experience of the reed maker shape, thickness, length, and hardness of the reed has a profound impact on the sound the instrument makes. It’s for this reason that professional and intermediate-level oboists make their reeds.
Doing so, allows the oboe player to craft reeds to suit their individual needs. The process is time-consuming and can be difficult, so beginning oboe players buy reeds from a music store or private reed craftsman. You can find good reed makers on Etsy.com or Ebay.com.
When making or buying oboe reeds, be sure to know if you need German or French reeds. Even though the French and German oboe reeds use the same materials and crafting process, the reeds differ enough that they produce very different sounds.
The oboe is pitched in the key of C, like a flute. The standard oboe has a range from Bb3 to G6.
Professional orchestras typically tune to the oboe playing a concert A. This is done because tuning an oboe to the rest of the orchestra is tricky, if not impossible, and the pitch of concert A is very stable and penetrating on an oboe.
History of the Oboe
The history of the oboe is a bit scattered. There is solid evidence of double-reed instrument development and changes in a wide variety of cultures all over the world. Then, there’s nothing more until the shawm just before the Middle Ages. Some scholars believe the double reed instruments were lost or replaced with easier-to-carry instruments when people started migrating to Europe.
These scholars say that the ancestors of the oboe were brought back to Europe by the Byzantine Empire, and trade with Asia. However, other scholars, most notably Perry O. Stephens in his 1995 Master’s Thesis entitled A History of The Oboe From Antiquity to 1750, claim to have traced the oboe from its prehistoric roots to the creation of the modern oboe.
From Antiquity to the 1200s
The double reed makes the oboe unique among woodwind instruments. The first documented double reed instrument is depicted in Egyptian art dated to 3000 BC. There have been double reeds found from the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt (roughly 305 to 30 BC).
The Greeks had a double-reed instrument known as the aulos. The aulos is mentioned in the Illiad. In this frequently studied, and well-known epic poem Homer says:
And whensover (Agamemnon) looked toward that Trojan Plain, he marveled at the many fires that blazed in front of the Ilios, and at the sound of the auloi ans syrinz, and the noise of men.”
In Greek mythology, the aulos was associated with Athena
The ancient Romans had the tibia. They were double-reed instruments used to boost the morale of soldiers in battle. The tibia is mentioned in a Roman document that outlined proper relationships between the plebeians and patricians called the Twelve-Table Law of 451 BC.
No one knows for certain where the instrument called the oboe originated, but it’s generally believed it came from a Middle Eastern double-reed instrument called the zurna or zurnah.
The zurna has a conical bore and a flared bell, like today’s oboe. The reed of a zurna has two parts. The double reed and the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is a small metal adapter that allows the reed to fit inside the small bore of the top of the instrument. This is very similar to an oboe reed. The sound a zurna makes is described as nasal, piercing, and loud. You can learn more about the zurna and how it’s played on Duduk.com.
The zurna is still used today in traditional music, weddings, and festivals in many countries.
- Central Asia
- North Macedonia
There is documentation from the early 1200s of an instrument called the calamus. The calamus was used in Europe, and researchers believe the calamus developed into the double reed shawm.
A shawm is a double-reed instrument with a conical bore. They have a flared bell, like a modern clarinet, and oboe. They are usually made from a single piece of wood. The wood is hollowed out, and 7 or 8 tone holes are added.
The shawm was developed some time during the 1200s. These instruments became very popular. By the end of the 1500s, they were used in dances, court music, ceremonies, and ensembles with other instruments like the sackbut and bagpipes.
Shawms were also standard instruments in town bands, also called waits. These small ensembles were hired by the town council to wander around and play music to signal specific times of the day or the beginning of city events. The use of the shawm in these town waits gave the instrument the nickname of wait-pipe. You can hear several examples of the shawm being played alone and with other instruments on the Case Western Reserve University College of Arts and Sciences Early Music Instrument Database shawm page.
Until the 16th-century shawms had a harsh tone that was suitable for outdoor parties, dances, and events. In the early 16th century, the bore of the shawm was narrowed, and the tone holes were made smaller. This had the effect of improving the tone and increasing the range of the instrument to two full octaves. While these changes improved the tone of the instrument, shawms are still more suitable for outdoor purposes.
At the end of the 17th century the shawm came in seven sizes:
- Sopranino had a low tone of F1
- The garklein had a low tone of C2. The word garklein comes from the German language, and means “quite small.” Today we would call the pitch of this instrument sopranissimo or piccolo.
- The soprano was pitched in the key of D. Soprano shawm was often played with the sackbut in courts and by wait bands.
- The alto shawm was called bassett nicolo. It was tuned to the key of F and had a range of 9 notes. Alto shawm was also used in wait bands.
- The tenor shawm was pitched in C and had a range of a perfect twelfth, which is roughly one and one-half octaves. The tenor shawm had one key, while the rest of the tone holes were covered with the fingers directly.
- Great bass was pitched in the key of Bb. It sounded 2 octaves and a major third below the soprano. This shawm was big and difficult to play, so it was uncommon.
The shawm is still used today in traditional folk music throughout Europe, and the United States. The majority of instrument makers produce shawms in soprano and alto, with a few creating treble and alto instruments as well.
Hautbois or Hautboy
The word hautbois comes from the French words haut (high) and bois (wind or woodwind). The exact origin of this instrument is disputed, but the general agreement is the hautbois was adapted from a treble shawm. Most people believe that either the Philidor family of instrument makers or Jean Hotterre created the first hautbois sometime in the 16th century.
The first hautbois had a smaller bore than the shawm. The reed was more narrow, and the pirouette was eliminated. Pirouette is the name of the ledge on shawms where players rest their lips. These two changes allowed for greater dynamics, and better intonation. Unlike the shawm, the hautbois came apart into three pieces. This made the instrument easier to carry, and more importantly allowed the instrument maker to place the tone holes more precisely.
The hautbois had two or three keys. As with other instruments addition of the first keys extended the range of the instrument, and eliminated the need for the musician to overblow notes. German instrument maker, and clarinet inventor, Jacob Denner had a hand in creating the first hautbois keys.
These instruments were typically made from boxwood.
Hautbois became common around the 17th century.
The hautbois became known as an oboe sometime around 1770. The English took the French name for the instrument and converted it into English.
Oboe historians recognize four different periods of oboe development. Each period is marked by distinct changes in the instrument.
The classical oboe period began when several keys were added to the oboe. The keys added during the classical period include:
- Slur Key – The slur key was similar to the register key on the modern oboe but was used in the same way as the modern flick key on a German bassoon.
Later in the Classical period, a French instrument maker adapted the slur key into the modern register key.
The oboe bore was narrowed to modern measurements. The modern oboe has a conical bore. This means the bore of the instrument is very narrow at the reed end. From there, the instrument becomes gradually larger as you move toward the bell. The oboe has a flared bell. These changes gave the oboe its distinctive sound, intonation, and range. After these bore changes were made, the oboist no longer had to overblow to reach higher registers. This corrected previous problems with the upper registers. As a result, composers started including the oboe and its higher registers.
The classical oboe has a range of C4 to F6. Some German and Austrian oboes can reach one-half step below that.
Composers who wrote for classical oboe include:
Wiener Oboe (Viennese oboe)
This oboe has a different bore size than the classical oboe. It was developed by Josef Hajek In the late 19th century and is based on an instrument created by C. T. Golde (1803-1873). The Weiner oboe is still produced by a few instrument manufacturers today. Yamaha, Christian Rauch, Guntram Wolfe, and Karl Rado are among the oboe makers who produce this type of oboe.
The Winer oboe features a wider bore. It is designed to take shorter and wider reeds, and it uses a different fingering system from other types of oboes. These differences give the Wiener oboe a reedier, stronger sound in the middle registers. Proponents of the Weiner oboe also think the upper register is stronger.
Gunthram Wolf describes the Weiner oboe as the “last representative of the historical oboes.”
This oboe is used primarily by the Wiener Philharmoniker instrumentarium.
Conservatoire (or French) Oboe
The Conservatoire oboe was developed by Charles Triebert (1810-1967) and his instrument-making family in France.
Mr. Triebert adapted the Boehm fingering system for the oboe. This adaptation earned him an award at the 1855 Exposition Universell. This event was an international exhibition in Paris and is sometimes referred to as simply the Paris Exhibition.
The French oboe was changed again by Francois Loree from Paris. Mr. Loree worked for the Triebert family. Frederic Triebert died in 1879, and at that point, the company began to fall apart.
Loree opened his own instrument-making company in 1881 to carry on the Triebert family’s work.
The most universally used oboe today is the 6bis oboe. That oboe was created by Francois Loree’s son, Adolphe Lucien Loree.
Today, Loree oboes still dominate the American market.
A modern oboe is made in one of two systems. The Conservatoire (or Conservatory) system or the British Thumbplate system.
Modern oboes are usually made from grenadilla wood (also called African blackwood). You can also find oboes made from rosewood, cocobolo, kingwood, and ebony. Student oboes are typically made from resin because it is resistant to cracks, and is much less expensive.
Modern professional oboes have a range from Bb3 to G6. Student models typically exclude the Bb key, so their range is from B3 to G6.
Conservatoire System This oboe uses the Gillet key system. It typically has 45 keys. Some models include a third-octave key and an alternate C or F key on the left hand. Some conservatoire systems oboes are open holed like a clarinet, while others use keyplates. Most professional models use a combination of these.
British thumb plate system This fingering system is used in the UK, primarily, but not exclusively by beginning oboe students. This model includes a second left-hand thumb key situated below the register key. When pressed the thumb plate holds down two keys on the front of the oboe. The thumb plate is released for notes like first octave C.
Combined models Professional oboes played in the UK and Iceland typically incorporate both the conservatoire and British models. Using both fingering systems on one oboe gives the professional oboist many alternate fingerings and eliminates the most common fingering difficulties on the instrument.
Like most instruments, to oboe family comes in many sizes to offer a wider range of musical tones.
English Horn (Cor Anglais)
The English horn is called cor Anglais in French. English horn is pitched in the key of F. Its range is from E3 to C6.
The instrument is longer than the soprano oboe and has a distinct pear-shaped bell. The bell shape changes give the English horn a slightly covered or muted tone. Compared to the oboe, the English horn has a darker, mellow tone. This is because of the differences in the reed used in the two instruments. English horn reeds are wider and longer than oboe reeds. English horn reeds fit directly onto the bocal of the instrument. This is different from oboe reeds, which use a cork-covered metal tube, called a staple.
Like the oboe, the English horn has a conical bore.
The English horn was created sometime around the 1720s in an area of Europe called Silesia. This area is now Poland, with some parts in the Czech Republic and Germany. The original name of the horn in Middle High German was engellisches Horn, which translates to the angelic horn. As language developed, engellisches also came to mean English, which is how the instrument came to be known as the English horn.
The first known part written specifically for the English horn was in 1749. An opera written by Niccolo Jommeli called Ezio called for the corno inglese — the Italian name for the English horn.
In the 1750’s composers, Franz Hayden and Christoph Gluck started including English horns in their pieces. The first English horn concertos were written and performed in the 1770s.
English horn uses the same fingerings as the soprano oboe. Most principle oboe players are expected to double on the English horn.
The English horn isn’t really a beginner instrument. They are played in orchestras and symphonies by oboe players. If you’re looking to invest in an English horn to move your oboe playing to the next level, I suggest buying a used Fox or F. Loree English horn.
Also referred to as the soprano oboe, this is the instrument commonly used in orchestras, concert bands, chamber music, classical music, movie scores, and solo music It’s pitched in the key of C and has a range of Bb3 to G6. The soprano oboe is about 25.5 inches (65 cm) long, with a conical bore and a slightly flared bell.
Professional oboe players always use a wooden oboe. A good professional oboe, like the Royal Oboe by F. Loree, Paris will cost you just under $11,000. The Yamaha YOB 841 is made from granadilla wood and the top piece is lined with ebonite to help reduce cracking and warping. This pro-level oboe runs a little less than the Royal, at about $7500.
Beginning oboe players should start on a good plastic or ebonite model. They are less delicate, and less preventive maintenance. There are a lot of cheap plastic oboes out there. Most of them are not quality instruments. When buying an oboe for beginners, it’s best to stick with well-known brands like Yamaha, Fox, Buffet, or F. Loree.
The Yamaha YOB 241B is made from ABS resin and has a great, responsive feel to it. It boasts a warm tone, much like that of a professional horn.
The Buffet Prodige BC4131 is also a good choice for beginners.
The Heckelphone was invented by Wilhelm Heckel. It was introduced in 1904. The heckelphone is pitched one octave lower and has a heavier tone than the soprano oboe. It has a range from A2 – Gb5. The heckelphone uses a different fingering system from other instruments in the oboe family.
The heckelphone is about 4 feet long and uses a peg to support the weight, similar to the peg on a bass clarinet. Some heckelphones come with an optional muting bell. This bell is designed to mute the heavy, penetrating tone of the instrument so it doesn’t overpower small ensembles.
The heckelphone was first used in the 1905 opera Salome by Richard Stauss. Since then, it’s been used in a wide variety of music for orchestra, opera, and movies.
The bass oboe is pitched one octave lower than the soprano oboe. Because it has the same range as the heckelphone, the two instruments are often interchanged, and confused with each other.
This instrument is rough twice the size of the oboe. It has a deep tone that sounds similar to an English horn. Music for bass oboe is written in treble clef and sounds one octave lower than it’s written. Its range is from B2 to Gb5.
The bass oboe shares a fingering system with the oboe, while the heckelphone has a unique fingering system.
Bass oboes are rare, but F. Loree, Marigaux, Rigoutat, and Fossati typically produce them.
Translated from Italian, Oboe d’amore means oboe of love. This oboe is a little bigger than the soprano oboe and has a calmer, more tranquil sound. The pitch of the oboe d’amore is between the soprano oboe and the English horn. It’s in the key of A and has a range of Ab3-Eb6. The oboe d’amore has a pear-shaped bell and uses a bocal similar to the English horn.
Christoph Graupner was the first composer known to include oboe d’amore in his work. His piece, titled Wie Wunderbar ist Gottes Gut was published in 1717. Johann Back wrote several pieces for oboe d’amore including a movement in Mass in B Minor called Et in Spiritum sanctum.
The instrument’s popularity fell in the 18th century and for about 100 years, it was never used.
Starting in the 1900s composers became reacquainted with this oboe. Famous pieces include:
- Symphonia Domestica, Richard Strauss, 1903
- Gigues, Claude Debussy, 1912
- Vers, I’arc-en-ciel, Palma, Toru Takemitsu, 1984
- Bolero, Maurice Ravel, 1928
- Um Mitternacht, Gustav Mahler, 1901
- Jamestown Concerto for cello and orchestra, William Perry, 2007
- Toujours Provence, William Perry, 2018
The piccolo oboe is also known as the musette. It’s the highest-pitched, and the smallest of instruments in the oboe family. These instruments are pitched in either the key of Eb or F. They are primarily used in early 20th century marching band music, movie scores, contemporary compositions, and chamber music ensembles.
Piccolo oboes are rare instruments with only a few makers throughout the world.
- F. Loree a French company makes one in the key of F
- Marigaux, also French makes piccolo in the key of Eb
- Fratelli Patricola in Italy calls their instrument an oboe musette. It’s pitched in the key of Eb.
Well-known pieces that use piccolo oboe include:
- Solo for Oboe Instruments, Bruno Maderna, 1971
- Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra no.2, Maderna
- Verifications, Samuel Andreyev
- Ar-Loth, Paolo Renosoto, 1967
Invented in 1983 by Breton Youenn Le Bihan, this is a modern rendition of a classical/baroque oboe. It’s pitched in the key of D and is pitched to the modern 440. The instrument is used primarily in music played in Breton fest noz. These are traditional dance festivals
This instrument is used almost exclusively in traditional music from the northwest Italian Apennines, including the provinces of Alessandria, Pavia, Genoa, and Piacenza. You can also find the piffero used in Southern Italy.
This member of the oboe family has one tone hole on the back for the left-hand thumb, and seven holes on the front which are covered by fingers. Traditionally a rooster feather hangs from the bell of the instrument.
Famous Classical Pieces Written for Oboe
There have been thousands of pieces written for oboe. Some of the pieces I’ve selected are well-known oboe pieces, others have been selected because they are unique among oboe music, and others are included because the composer is well-known.
- Oboe Concerti, Tomaso Albinoni
- The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, George Handel
- Oboe Concertos no. 1, 2, and 3, George Handel
- Brandenburg concertos, Nos 1 and 2, Johann Sabastian Bach
- Oboe Concerto in C major, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Quartet in F major, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Swan Lake, Pytor Tchaikovsky
- Concerto in E flat, Vincenzo Bellini (before 1825)
- Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev, 1936
- Oboe Concerto, Richard Strauss, 1945
- Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, op. 49, Benjamin Britten, 1951
- Sonata for unaccompanied oboe, Heinz Hollinger, 1956-1957
- An interrupted Endless Melody, Harrison Birtwistle, 1991
- First Grace of Light, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 1991
- Hinayana, John Palmer, 1999
- Oboe Concerto, Ellen Taaffie Zwilch
- Fuzzy, Lior Navok, 2018
Oboe in Non-Classical Music
Oboe is considered an instrument for classical music, only, but a few pioneering composers and musicians have used the oboe in rock, jazz, contemporary movie scores, and other non-classical music.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s the jazz bands of popular bandleader Paul Samuel “Pops” Whiteman used oboe to bring color to the music.
Garvin Bushell (also known as Garvin Payne) (1902-1991) started playing oboe in jazz bands in 1924. Mr. Bushel played clarinet, alto clarinet, flute, saxophone, bassoon, contrabassoon, English horn, and oboe. Bushell played and recorded jazz oboe pieces with John Coltrane in 1961.
The album Sketches of Spain was written by Gil Evans in collaboration with Miles Davis. Several tunes on the album include jazz oboe.
In 1961 Yusef Lateef was one of the first modern jazz musicians to use the oboe as a solo instrument.
I.X. Love, Charles Minugs, on his album Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, 1963.
Karl Jenkins played oboe in his performances with the British jazz-fusion group Nucleus, and English rock band Soft Machine.
Paul McCandless, founder of the American band Paul Winter Consort, and jazz group Oregon is well-known for his jazz oboe.
Rock and pop
When you think about Rock and Roll, the oboe is the last instrument that comes to mind. However, it’s been used in quite a few popular tunes.
- In 1965 Sonny & Cher used the oboe in their hit song I’ve Got You, Babe.
- The original version of Penny Lane, Beatles, 1965 used two English horns.
- Dandelion by The Rolling Stones, 1967
- The Moody Blues featured oboe in three pieces: In Search of the Lost Chord, On the Threshold of a Dream, and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. (1968-1971)
- Last Dance, Donna Summer, 1978.
- The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known), Juice Newton, 1982
- Crazy For You, Madonna, 1995
- American rock band, R.E.M used oboe in two pieces. Out Of Time and Automatic for the People. 1991, 1992.
- In 2008, Swedish pop group, ABBA released Mamma Mia, which featured an oboe.
Oboes are widely used in orchestras that record movie scores and soundtracks. Here are a couple of well-known films that include oboe in their music.
In Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, composer John Williams used oboe for the “Across the Stars” theme.
In the movie, The Godfather oboe is the featured instrument in the “Love Theme.” The score for this movie was written by Nino Rota.
Born on the Fourth of July uses oboe as background music for at least one scene.
For the movie, The Mission composer Ennio Morricone used oboe to create the theme “Gabriel’s Oboe.”
Famous Oboe Players
Dr. Camwell is originally from Alberta, Canada. She is the Assistant Oboe Professor at Troy University, in Troy Alabama.
Dr. Camwell plays oboe and English horn. In addition to her position with Troy University, she plays 3rd oboe and English horn with Orchestra Iowa.
Dr. Camwell has produced several recordings including Timescape and Sonorsoo with her husband, saxophonist Dave Camwell.
Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)
Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chatanooga Tennesee. He changed his name to Yosef Lateef when he converted to Islam.
Lateef played tenor sax, flute, oboe, bassoon, shanai, shofar, bamboo flute, and others. He is known for bringing oboe and bassoon into the jazz scene.
In 1987 his album entitled Little Symphony won a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.
In 1992 he founded YAL Records. The National Endowments for the Arts awarded Lateef the Jazz Master Fellowship Award in 2001.
You can listen to his music, and purchase albums on his website.
John Mack ( 1927-2006)
John Mack was born in Somerville, NJ. He attended the Julliard School of Music and Curtis Institute of Music.
He was the principal oboist for the New Orleans Symphony. From 1963 until 1965 Mack played with the National Symphony Orchestra. He also served as the principal oboist for the Casals Festivals in France.
In 1965 John Mack became principal oboe for the Cleveland Orchestra. He stayed in that position until his retirement in 2001.
Mr. Mack founded the John Mack Oboe Camp (JMOC) in 1976. The music camp is open to college-age oboe players, professional oboists, oboe teachers, and a select number of high school oboists. The camp provides an intense masterclass experience.
Pauline Oostenrijk (1967)
Ms. Oostenrijk was the first oboe player to win the Netherlands Music Prize.
She has performed throughout the world and debuted in Carnegie Hall in 1992
Pauline Oosternrijk has recorded over fifteen CDs. You’ll find her music on her website.
John De Lancie, Sr (1921-2002)
John De Lancie became principal oboist for the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1940. However, in 1942 left that position to join the U.S Army. He served in the Army Band during World War II.
While in the U.S Army De Lancie met German composer Richard Strauss. They had a conversation where De Lancie asked Strauss if he had thought about writing an oboe concerto. Strauss said he had not. Six months later, Strauss published his Oboe Concerto and gave the U.S. premiere rights to De Lancie. De Lancie was unable to premier the piece and gave his rights to Mitch Miller with the CBS Symphony in New York.
Mr. De Lancie was the principal oboist for the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1954 until 1977. From 1977 until 1985 he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
His son, John De Lancie, Jr (1948) is an American actor.
Answer: The oboe that is used in modern orchestras was invented in the 17th century by Jacques Hotteterre and Michel Philidor.
Answer: The first oboe was made in France during the 17th century. It was called the baroque oboe and was used to entertain French royalty.
Answer: The first oboe was called a hautbois.
Many people consider the oboe a unique and unfamiliar instrument. However, the oboe and its predecessors can be traced back to antiquity. This double reed instrument has a unique sound that is suitable for a wide variety of music.
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