Also:       Dulzian      Fagott      curtal      fagotto      basson      

Contextual Associations

The dulcian is an end-blown conical-bore double-reed aerophone developed and used throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Like many other types of aerophones and chordophones of that time, the dulcian was manufactured in several sizes/ranges and for playing in homogeneous groups or consorts. The dulcian pictured here, which is a replica instrument made in the late 20th century, is a bass (also called Choristfagott and Doppel Corthol) and is believed to have been the most common and widely used member of the consort. Like many aerophones of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras, the dulcian, and especially a set of dulcians, was an expensive item more likely to be owned by royalty and aristocrats for performance by court musicians than by amateurs. It is known to have been played in shawm ensembles of the era, which likewise consisted of court musicians most of whom doubled on a number of instruments, and to have been used to support the bass line in polyphonic choral singing. In the 1630s a solo literature for this instrument began to accrue, and throughout much of the 17th century it was used as a bass line instrument in chamber music (see Baroque Trio Sonata for examples of this practice). In the 20th century there was an early music revival during which replicas of Baroque period instruments, and eventually Renaissance ones as well, were once again in demand. Dulcians are played today by amateur enthusiasts, college students in early music ensembles, and a small number of professional concert and recording artists.


The dulcian is a double-reed instrument with a folded conical bore that doubles back on itself by way of a tight U-shaped turn at its bottom end. It is constructed from a single shaft (with an oval cross-section) of wood (often maple) with two parallel bores drilled side-by-side from top to bottom. A brass-covered cap at the bottom of the shaft provides the curved connection between the two bore openings, resulting in a single continuous conical bore that is twice the length of the instrument itself. One end of a detachable, conical brass 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 of the narrower bore hole; this tube serves as the top end of the instrument’s conical bore. The wider terminus of the instrument’s bore is topped off with one of two short bells that are connected to the body with a socket-and-tenon joint. The one attached to the instrument in the photo is open at the top, while the second one (seen at the bottom right) has a perforated cap that slightly mutes the sound of the instrument. The instrument has seven fingerholes (six is more common), two thumbholes (located on the reverse side), and two further tone holes covered with padded brass keys (both enclosed with perforated brass boxes, one on the front side, the other on the backside). Most of the fingerholes are drilled at acute angles so that they intersect with the bore at the appropriate acoustical point while keeping the gaps between their surface openings reachable by the player’s fingers. The instrument's double reed made of cane is slid over the end of the bocal.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, usually 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. All the digits of both hands are used to operate the instrument. 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 C2; its highest pitch is G4, giving the dulcian a compass of about two-and-one-half octaves. Except for C-sharp2, the instrument is chromatic across its range.


Though its origins are obscure, references to the dulcian begin to appear in the 1540s; the earliest surviving examples of this instrument date from the latter half of the 16th century. It continued to be in use in the 17th century and even came to be composed for as a virtuosic solo instrument from the 1630s on. By the end of the 17th century early bassoons made in multiple joints had eclipsed the dulcian, which wasn’t to make a return to musical life again until the early music movement in the 20th century.

Bibliographic Citations

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

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

Duffin, Ross W. 1994. "Shawm and Curtal," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 69-75.

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

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


39.8 in. length

Primary Materials

reed - cane


Antique Sound Workshop, Brookline MA

Entry Author

Roger Vetter