The Science of Woodwinds


As part of our STEAM on the Spot series, we will be hosting a woodwind quintet and narration of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The performance will take place on Tuesday, July 22nd from 11 AM to 12 PM, thanks to the Austin Chamber Music Center. Ora Shay will perform the narration. Peter and the Wolf tells the story of a young boy who runs into a very intimidating creature. Peter must get help from the other animals in the forest to stay safe from the big, bad wolf. Traditionally, the piece is performed by a full orchestra, with varying musical instruments representing different parts of the story.

Not all wind instruments are woodwinds. The difference between woodwind instruments and brass instruments (the other type of wind instrument) is actually pretty simple. Woodwind instruments create variations in sound due to the instrument itself. Brass instruments change sound because of the vibrations of the musician’s lips.

The most basic woodwind instruments include reed instruments, such as the oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and contrabassoon. There are a few non-reed instruments, too, including the flute, piccolo, and recorder. Lots of these instruments have multiple forms (such as soprano instead of alto), so there are a surprising amount of options for woodwind instruments. Bagpipes count, too, although you won’t often see those in a traditional orchestra setting. During the quintet performance, see if you can spot which five instruments are being used!

woodwind instruments

(Photo source)

The changes in sound and tone are due to the length of the instrument. The air travels through the column of the instrument. A high frequency has a high pitch and a short column for the air, whereas the larger instruments with more column space create a lower frequency with a low pitch. Humans hear high frequencies with more sensitivity, which is why it’s easier to notice the high-pitched trill of the piccolo over the low thrum of the bassoon.  (Thanks to the folks at the University of New South Wales for explaining these concepts in a clear manner. For more details, check out their post related to the workings of woodwinds here.)

Here’s another fun piece of trivia about Peter and the Wolf—it was commissioned specifically to teach children about music. Sergei Prokofiev’s composition debuted in 1936 and its impact can be seen through its popularity and longetivity. Make sure to stop by our Story Nook on Tuesday to hear the story of Peter and the Wolf for yourself! Tickets are not required, although space may be limited.

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