Instrument Profile

The Oboe

By Katie Scheele

The oboe, a double reed instrument in the woodwind family, is one of the most beautiful, important, and unique musical instruments. With a long history dating back as far as ancient Greece, it has developed through the centuries into one of the most challenging and distinct instruments in the modern orchestra.

The History of the Oboe

Although the oboe made its orchestral debut in France in 1657, the instrument had many earlier forms dating back several centuries beforehand. Historians believe that the earliest rudimentary oboe-like instruments were first used around 2800 B.C., performing in royal funerals depicted in ancient drawings, and more sophisticated forms of early oboes can be traced to India during the twelfth to the seventh centuries B.C. There, musicians used a conical instrument called an ottu, with a double reed but without any holes. Many varieties of this instrument were also found in Asia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Although these oboes can be traced back the farthest, the instrument that is believed to be the closest predecessor of the oboe is the medieval shawm. The shawm (developed from the Asian zurna) was made of wood and had a conical shape with a flared bell. It came in several lengths in order to have different pitches and had either a hole to put the double reed in or a bocal (a slightly angled piece of metal covered by cork at the end inserted into the instrument) for the reed to sit on.

As time passed, musicians desired an instrument with a wider range and more control over pitches. During the mid 17th century, the first baroque oboe (called hautbois, meaning high-wood) was created in France, where it was used to entertain the French court. Made of boxwood with several holes but only two or three keys, it gained immediate popularity in many countries. During this time, the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe) was also created. This instrument had a curved body and was used in many of Bach’s cantatas and masses. This instrument was primarily used in the Baroque period, as later instruments would take the place of this unusual instrument, which was difficult to build.

Playing the Oboe

The oboe is typically learned beginning around the age of ten or eleven. One of the most important and challenging aspects of learning to play the oboe are understanding how to form a proper embouchure and relationship with the reed. One must also understand how to use and control their air and breathing to create dynamics, vibrato, and their own unique sound.

Since the oboe is a very challenging instrument, a private teacher is recommended as early as possible. It is imperative that an oboist practice daily, as this helps the player to build up their muscles and endurance. The oboe is one of the most challenging instruments to master, but is often in demand and can offer many opportunities for the player, including playing some of the repertoire’s most beautiful solos.

The Role of the Oboe in Music

The oboe can be found in many types of musical ensembles, including the orchestra, symphonic band, woodwind quintet, and other chamber music combinations. It is often heard in movie and television soundtracks and can even be heard in jazz and popular music. In the orchestra, the oboist plays a very important role. The oboe section sits in the center of the orchestra next to the flute section. It is the job of the principal oboist to tune the orchestra to an A at the beginning of each concert. The other key role of the oboe is that it usually carries the melody with its lyrical and mournful color, often heard as the solo instrument in the most emotional sections of music. Composers like to use the oboe in more exotic passages of music, as the nasal tone of oboe can give it an oriental quality that lends itself nicely to this type of music. Examples of this can be heard in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (Arabian Dance) and Ibert’s Escales.


As music evolved, so did the oboe. The classical period brought on several more changes to the oboe—a narrower body (called the bore) and more keys, giving the instrument a much wider range. From these earlier forms came the modern oboe. This oboe is usually made from grenadilla wood, though some are made of other woods from the rainforest, and student model oboes are usually made of plastic or resin to avoid cracking. The oboe consists of three pieces: the top joint, the lower joint and the bell. It has a very narrow bore (tube) and is played by blowing on a double reed. The modern oboe has a range of more than two and a half octaves, from a low Bb to an A or higher, and uses a key system called full conservatory, which has 45 pieces most commonly made of silver. Some popular oboe makers of today are F. Loree, Laubin, Howarth and Yamaha.


A slightly angled metal tube with a cork base that serves as the mouthpiece of certain woodwind instruments. In the case of many instruments in the oboe family, the reed then rests on the bocal.


The body of a woodwind or brass instrument, through which air travels and vibrates to produce the sound. The shape of the bore has a strong impact on the instrument’s timbre (tone color).


The most delicate part of the oboe is the double reed used to produce the sound. The reed serves as the oboe’s mouthpiece, which, unlike flutes or brass instruments, can be different every day. This is because the reed is made of a special kind of bamboo cane (called arundo donax) that is harvested in places like France, Spain, and Asia. The wood is very sensitive and can change considerably during the reed-making process, becoming harder as it dries and sometimes sensitive to weather, climate, and altitude changes. The reed is considered a double reed because it consists of two blades of cane that vibrate against each other when blown. The cane comes in tube form, which is then sliced very thin using a machine called a gouger. Once properly gouged and measured, the cane is folded, shaped, and tied onto a cork covered brass tube called a staple. This staple serves as the base of the reed and is inserted into the cup hole at the top of the oboe. The folded cane is cut open at the tip and carved down using a pattern that varies from player to player, although the American scrape is fairly standard. The cane is shaped with a special tool and carved using special reed knives that must be sharpened often to avoid ripping the delicate cane. When properly made, a reed should be able to sound a C in three octaves when blown, or crowed, as oboists like to call it.

Although all members of the oboe family use double reeds, each instrument’s reeds have different measurements and use different materials. The oboe reed is longer and narrower than an English horn or an oboe d’amore reed, for example, but both use metal staples without a cork covering that sit on the end of the bocal. A similar process and pattern is used, however, to create all of these reeds.

Definition: Double Reed

A type of reed consisting of two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other, used to produce a sound in various woodwind instruments including the oboe, English horn, and bassoon

Definition: Embouchure

The use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument. Derived from the French word for mouth, proper embouchure is necessary to produce a good tone with proper intonation and to utilize the full range of the instrument.

Many people wonder why oboists spend so much time and dedication working towards that perfect reed, wondering why oboists don’t just buy them. By making their own reeds, oboists can have the utmost control over the materials used, quality, sound, pitch, and strength of their reed. Usually students start making oboe reeds a few years into playing when they have a better understanding of what they like and need in a reed. Until then, most young oboists purchase their oboe reeds.

Instruments of the Oboe Family

There are several members of the oboe family. The oboe is the soprano member and is in the key of C. The second most popular member is the cor anglais, also known as the English horn. Ironically, this instrument is neither English nor a horn. It was given its name because it resembled the baroque oboe da caccia, which had a slightly curved shape and a bent-looking bocal and was called cor angle, or bent horn. The word angle is believed at some point to have been mistranslated as anglais, or English, thus giving us the name English horn. It is the alto (sometimes considered tenor) instrument of the family and plays in the key of F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The English horn has a longer, wider bore and a bulb-shaped bell. Instead of having a hole for the reed to be inserted in, the English horn has a bocal that the reed sits on. The reed is also a double reed but is distinct from the oboe reed, and the fingerings are basically the same as the oboe. The English horn has a beautifully rich and somber tone that can be heard is some of music’s most moving solos, including Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

The mezzo-soprano instrument of the oboe family is called the oboe d’amore, which sits in the key of A, a minor third lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore is slightly longer than the oboe and has a bulbous bell similar to the English horn. The fingerings are similar to the oboe, and its own unique reed sits on a bocal that is slightly smaller than that of the English horn. The oboe d’amore can be heard in much of Bach’s music, and sometimes is included in more modern pieces such as Ravel’s Bolero.

The bass oboe is the most obscure member of the oboe family. Like the oboe, it is in the key of C, but sounds one octave lower than written. The instrument looks like a very large English horn, but has a more curved bocal and again a different reed. There are only a few pieces that call for a bass oboe, including Holst’s The Planets.

Finally, the hecklephone and the musette are the least-use members of the oboe family. The hecklephone is similar to a bass oboe, but has a larger bore and a more powerful sound. The musette (also known as piccolo oboe) is the highest member of the family, usually pitched in E-flat or F above the oboe, and is seldom used today.

Around the World

Many oboe-like instruments exist in non-Western musical traditions. Examples of these are the North Indian sahnai, which has a flared brass bell, the Indonesian sarunai, with a palm-leak reed and buffalo horn bell, and the leather-covered algaita of West Africa. The Korean p’iri is pictured left.

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