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Parts of 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.

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



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.

Definition: Bocal

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.



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.

Definition: Bore

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 ottu, an Indian predecessor of the modern oboe


The oboe da caccia or hunting oboe, used in many works by J.S. Bach