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Title: Melange—French Music for Bassoon: Caprice en Forme de Valse, by Paul Bonneau; Christopher Millard, bassoon. Label: Summit. Format: CD. Catalogue#: DCD 128. Track: 13.

Contextual Associations

The bassoon is an end-blown conical-bore double-reed aerophone developed in Europe but that is today found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females. Two modern models of the bassoon exist--the German (see gallery image) and French--differing from one another in terms of hole measurements and keywork. The bassoon is a standard instrument in the symphony orchestra, military/concert/marching bands and wind ensemble, and in chamber music (for example, the woodwind quintet). A solo and concerto repertoire of considerable size, dating back to the Baroque era, has accrued for this instrument over the past three centuries. Not only concertizing professionals draw upon this literature for performance dates with orchestras and for recitals throughout the cosmopolitan world, but amateur players do as well for solo competitions in secondary school music programs. The performance of this solo repertoire is today perhaps most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include on their faculty a professor of bassoon and offer degrees in bassoon performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.


The bassoon is a double-reed instrument with a folded conical bore that doubles back on itself with a tight U-shaped turn. The German model instrument pictured and described here is made from black maple. The body is comprised of four sections: the tenor/wing joint; the double/butt/boot joint; the long/bass joint; and the bell joint. These sections are connected with airtight socket-and-tenon joints. The bottom ends of the wing and long joints are inserted into the top of the double joint; at the base of the double joint is a metal cap in which the U-bend of the bore takes place. The bell joint is inserted on top of the long joint. One end of a detachable, conical metal tube (called a bocal or a crook) that has a hook-shaped bend given to it is wrapped with a thin layer of cork and inserted into a countersunk hole at the top end of the wing joint; this tube serves as an extension of the instrument’s conical bore. Twenty-seven tone, register, vent and trill holes of varying sizes are situated in acoustically ideal locations along the length of the body. All but five of these are operated with padded keys; the remaining five are covered directly with the performer’s fingertips and of these two have open ring-keys. A complex mechanical keywork system involving springs, levers, rod-axels, mounts, and keys made from nickel silver allows the performer to cover and uncover remotely located tone holes that would otherwise be impossible to reach given the gaps between them and the anatomy of the human hand (the detail image shows the bassoon from the player's side, the gallery image from the audience perspective). The instrument's reed is made from a long and narrow strip from the wall of a stalk of cane that is folded at its middle, its two ends are then bound around a mandrel (a special tool to help in the shaping of the base of a reed) with a fine wire and thread. The fold is then trimmed off, leaving an elliptical opening. The blades that articulate this opening are then shaved and shaped until very thin. After removing the mandrel, the base of the reed slips over the end of the bocal.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either standing or seated, holds the instrument obliquely in front of them with the bottom end of the instrument off to the right side and the left hand is uppermost. A neck or seat strap attached to the back of the instrument supports most of the instrument’s weight. All the digits of both hands are used to operate the keywork and cover the open fingerholes. The reed is inserted into the mouth and pressed between the lips using the embouchure muscles. These muscles help shape the elliptical opening at the tip of the reed, and it is the action of the tip in response to the airstream directed against it that generates the sound wave forms in the bore of the instrument. The instrument functions acoustically as an open tube, meaning that it overblows at every harmonic partial overtone (starting at the octave). With all the tone holes covered the lowest sounding pitch is B-flat1; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but E5 would be attainable by professionals. Its compass is therefore about three-and-one-half octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic. The bassoon’s low register is full and rich in overtones, while its upper register can have a plaintive quality.  It is a non-transposing instrument notated at pitch. In the latter part of the twentieth century, composers and performers have experimented with new techniques for the bassoon such as the production of multiphonics, quarter- and micro-tones, and singing and playing simultaneously. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the bassoon.


The bassoon's precursors date back to the Renaissance period and include the dulcian. Our understanding of the origins and early evolution is unclear due in part to inconsistent application in sources of the multiple names for the instrument (dulcian, curtal, Fagott, and bassoon) used at different times and in various regions. It appears that by around the year 1700 that bassoons were being made in France and elsewhere with four joints and three keys. Throughout the 18th and the early-19th centuries makers produced bassoons with an increasing number of keys--the standard instrument by around 1810 would still have had only six keys. Carl Almenräder, a German bassoonist and instrument designer, introduced a number of changes starting in the 1820s that were built upon by others, including his colleague J. A. Heckel and Heckel’s descendants, to produce German model bassoons by the turn of the 20th century that were similar to the one pictured here (the development of the French bassoon followed its own course during much of the 19th century). These changes included a greater number of tone- and vent-holes located in acoustically ideal positions, and a keywork system, incorporating Boehm’s rod-axles and key posts, to reach them.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1962. Woodwind Instruments and their History. New York: W.W. Norton.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

Joppig, Gunther. 1988. The Oboe and the Bassoon. Portland: Amadeus Press.

Langwill, Lyndesay G. 1965. The Bassoon and Contrabassoon. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

Waterhouse, William. 1984. “Bassoon.” NGDMI v.1: 176-191.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.112.2 aerophone--single conical-bore reedpipe with double (or quadruple) reed: the pipe has a reed (usually a flattened stem) of paired lamellae which periodically open and close, controlling the flow of air; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed concussion (multiple) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


53.5 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane
spring - flat and/or needle




Renard 220 Artist

Entry Author

Roger Vetter