alto crumhorn

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Contextual Associations

The crumhorn (from the German ‘Krummhorn,’ meaning ‘curved horn’) is a capped double-reed aerophone instrument constructed in a variety of sizes played in homogeneous ensembles, or consorts, in Europe, particularly German-speaking regions, during the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. The crumhorn pictured on this page is in the alto range. Crumhorns were not owned or played by amateur musicians. Rather, they appear to have been played almost exclusively by professional musicians employed by municipalities and courts. Such professional musicians were not crumhorn specialists, but rather extremely versatile musicians who could play a wide variety of wind and string instruments in fulfilling the musical needs of their patrons. These musicians did not own their own instruments, but typically played instruments that were owned by their patrons. The crumhorn, which fell out of use by the middle of the 17th century, has been resurrected in recent decades as part of the early music movement. Modern replicas of historic instruments are being made and are owned by educational institutions and a few amateur and professional performers.


This alto crumhorn has its plastic (historically, cane) reed encased inside a wood cap (it can be referred to as a ‘wind-cap double reed’) at the top end of the instrument; thus, unlike with oboes and bassoons, the player's lips never come in direct contact with the beating reeds.  (See the ‘crumhorn - tenor’ entry for a photograph in which the wind-cap is removed and the reed can be seen.) The reed is mounted on a brass tube (called a staple) that is inserted into a hole drilled through the otherwise solid top end of the instruments body (this section is called its cotton reel). The drilled-out bore of the wooden, J-shaped body of the instrument (this shape is attained by steaming and bending the tube) is mostly cylindrical with a slight flare toward the bell end. One thumbhole, eight fingerholes (the uppermost operated with a brass key), and a vent hole (which is always left open) are drilled into the instrument. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A player places the wind-cap against their lips, the left-hand thumb operating the thumbhole and the four fingers of both hands operating the eight fingerholes; the right thumb helps steady the instrument. The crumhorn is held directly in front of the player at about a 45-degree angle downward from horizontal. The lowest pitch produced with all the thumb- and fingerholes covered is F3. The alto crumhorn pictured here has a range from F3 to G4, just over an octave. The performer blows into a slit at the top of the wind-cap to activate the encased double reed at the head of the air column. The acoustically active length of the air column and the resulting pitch is determined by which fingerholes are covered at any given moment with the fingers and thumbs of the performer. While the double reed responds to the backpressure of the selected tube length to produce the pitch, it is nonetheless necessary for the performer to subtly vary the airstream pressure in order to fine-tune the pitch. It is a melody instrument, designed to play the alto range of polyphonic vocal or instrumental music characteristic of the Renaissance period. It is played at a constant and relatively loud dynamic level.


Earliest written and pictorial sources for the crumhorn are from the 1480s, and there is speculation that it descends from the medieval bladder pipe. Boydell (p. 521) states that it was probably developed in Northern Italy but soon thereafter spread to German-speaking areas where it flourished until the first half of the 17th century. A number of crumhorns from the Renaissance period have survived, and these have served as the models for the building of modern day replica instruments.

Bibliographic Citations

Boydell, Barra R. "Crumhorn." NGDMI v. 1: 519-523.

Kite-Powell, Jeffery. 1994. "Crumhorn," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 63-68.

Meyer, Kenton Terry. 1983. The Crumhorn: Its History, Design, Repertory, and Technique. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.111.2-5 aerophone--single cylindrical-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; with wind-cap

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with open distal end

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

Energy transducer that activates sound: encased 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: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length/shape of standing wave within single cavity with fingerholes


25 in. length with reed cap 12.5 in. length of bore to vent hole

Primary Materials

reed - plastic



Entry Author

Roger Vetter