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Title: Kalevi Aho Concertos for Tuba and Contrabassoon--Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra, 1st Mvt., Mesto, by Kalevi Aho; Lewis Lipnick, contrabassoon, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton, conductor. Label: BIS. Format: CD. Catalogue#: BIS-CD-1574. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The contrabassoon is an end-blown conical-bore double-reed aerophone developed in Europe, particularly in Germany and France, but that is today found wherever the Western symphony orchestra and the performer training institutions (conservatories and schools of music) associated with that genre have taken root. It is played primarily by professional bassoon players and occasionally by amateurs, both males and females. The contrabassoon (often referred to simply as ‘contra’) is primarily heard in the symphony orchestra, though it is called for in only a relatively small number of works dating mostly from the 19th century onward. Historically it was at times (such as the second quarter of the 19th century) and in certain countries used in military bands, but its size and weight has in general rendered it impractical as a marching band instrument. The number of contrabassoon players found in any urban cultural center today (or in the past) will be few and more likely than not they are primarily orchestral bassoon players or music school faculty who choose to double on the contra. But, globally, there are a few professional contrabassoon specialists who present recitals on the instrument and who are featured concerto soloists with orchestras. There exists a small repertoire of a few dozen solo/concerto works written in the 20th and 21st centuries for the contrabassoon (an excerpt of one such concerto can be heard on the audio clip), and professionals and students also adapt solo works for bassoon and other bass-register instruments for the contra. One also might hear the contra in chamber music settings, often in bassoon ensembles.


The contrabassoon is a double-reed instrument with a folded conical bore approximately 18 feet in length that doubles back on itself four times with tight U-shaped turns (gallery #1 shows the instrument from the viewpoint of the audience, detail #1 from the player side). At the blowing end of the instrument’s tubing is a removable hook-shaped length of conical tubing called a bocal (detail #2, also called a crook) the broader end of which is wrapped in cork and slips into the body proper of the contra and its narrower end has slipped over it the rounded-end of the reed (detail #3), which is a good deal larger than the reed for the bassoon (detail #4, contra reed on left, bassoon reed on right). The body proper of the instrument begins with an approximately three-foot length of nearly cylindrical metal tubing that about a half-a-foot from its end makes a tight U-turn before entering a wooden joint. This turn is constructed as a tuning slide (detail #5). The first wood (maple) joint continues in an upward direction for a few feet before it turns back sharply on itself with the aid of a metal U-turn. The next nearly four-foot length of wood tubing is directed downward until it terminates with yet another metal U-turn. A third straight length of upward directed wood tubing then follows, identical in length to the second segment. One final U-turn, located at the top end of the instrument, has a broader arch to it and is made of wood with metal ends. A final wood segment is directed downward and terminates with a metal bell that is slightly outward facing. From the beginning of the wood segments the diameter of the instrument’s bore is gradually increasing, even when there is little or no increase in a joint’s exterior profile. Except for the bocal, the instrument’s segments are fastened together; the instrument is not disassembled when stored. Twenty-one tone, register, vent and trill holes of varying sizes are situated in acoustically ideal locations along the length of the instrument. All of these are operated with padded keys. A complex mechanical keywork system involving springs, levers, rod-axels, mounts, fingerplates, and key covers made from nickel silver allows the performer to cover and uncover tone holes that would otherwise be impossible to reach with human hands given the gaps between the holes. Each finger operates multiple keys; detail #6 shows the seven fingerplates operated by the left hand thumb that, when depressed, close the key covers over widely dispersed tone holes. 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

A seated player holds the instrument in front of themself mostly vertically (but often tilted slightly forward and/or obliquely from the player’s right to left) between their legs, assisted by a metal-rod floor-post that supports the weight of the instrument. A metal stand, as seen in the gallery image, can also be used in which case the instrument is positioned to the right of the player and held at a more pronounced tilt. The bell of the instrument faces somewhat forward but basically downward. The player steadies the instrument with both hands, the left hand being uppermost. All the digits of both hands are used to operate the instrument’s extensive keywork, which is used to cover the 21 tone holes of varying diameters drilled into the wall of the instrument along its approximately 18-foot length; the player’s fingers do not directly cover any of the tone holes. The double 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 overtone (starting at the octave). With all the tone holes covered the lowest sounding pitch on the pictured instrument is B-flat0; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but C4 would be attainable by professionals. Its compass is therefore about three octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic. The contrabassoon’s low register is full and rich in overtones, while its upper register can have a less quality. It is a transposing instrument sounding an octave below the notated pitch; parts are written in the bass clef. In the latter part of the twentieth century, composers and performers have experimented with new techniques for the contrabassoon 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 contrabassoon.


The modern contrabassoon as pictured here coalesced between 1879 and 1900 in the workshop of the Heckel family in Biebrich, Germany. However, low-register dulcians and bassoons have a history dating back to the late 16th century. Almost all the contras from the earlier centuries where higher pitched, often with F1 or G1 fundamentals, than the modern instrument in A0 or B-flat0. This was so in part because of human physiology--the long tubes (14-15 feet in length) with a single U-bend (like the bassoons of their day) had tone hole placements that were so widely gapped that most human hands could not cover them even with the aid of several keypads. As more extensive keywork, further U-bends, and new bell configurations were added to subsequent designs, this physiological constraint was removed and the lowest note of instruments gradually dropped to C1, B-flat0, and eventually A0. Innovations to the design of contras were most intense in 19th century France and Germany, culminating in the Heckel instrument of the final decades of that century the design features of which have been retained with only small improvements for over a century now. 

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:

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


51.5 in. height (without stand)

Primary Materials

reed - cane
spring - flat and/or needle





Entry Author

Roger Vetter