Also:       chalmeye      shalme      shalmie      shalmuse      

Title: A Dance in the Garden of Mirth: Medieval Instrumental Music--Danse; Dufay Collective. Label: Chandos. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CHAN 9320. Track: 6.

Contextual Associations

The shawm in use in Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods is an end-blown conical-bore double-reed aerophone. The instrument pictured here is a modern replica of shawms used in the 14th century or earlier, as reconstructed from iconographic sources. Its robust sound is best suited to outdoors music performed with other loud instruments, and it appears it was used in ensembles for royal and civic processions and to accompany dancing, most likely by musical professionals rather than amateurs. It was revived in the latter part of the 20th century as part of the early music movement; today it is most likely heard performed by student or professional musicians in early music ensemble concerts or at Renaissance fairs.


The body of this shawm with its flaring bell is constructed from a single piece of hardwood turned on a lathe and given a pronounced conical bore. The top end of the bore terminates in a narrow brass tube called a staple that is countersunk into a larger hole at the top end of the body. A separate piece of turned wood called a pirouette is attached to the top end of the body with a tenon-and-socket joint, covering much of the staple from view and leaving only its tip protruding. Over this tip is slid the base of the double reed made of cane. Seven fingerholes and five vent holes are drilled into the wall of the body. Six of the fingerholes are in a straight line in two groups of three each. The seventh and lowest fingerhole is drilled off center to make it more easily reachable by the player’s right hand baby finger. The five vent holes are all located below the bottom fingerhole and can be used to adjust the acoustical length of the instrument’s bore; upper ones can be stopped with wax to increase the bore’s sounding length.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, whether seated or standing, holds the body of the shawm with both hands so that the reed is almost entirely inserted into his mouth cavity, his lips pinching only the base of the reed while pressed firmly against the top of the pirouette. The first three fingers of the left hand operate top three fingerholes; the four fingers of the other hand are used to cover the bottom four fingerholes. The instrument has no thumbhole, leaving both thumbs to assist in balancing the instrument. With all fingerholes covered, this shawm produces approximately a C4; it has a range of C4 - A5. The shawm is a melodic instrument best suited to play one diatonic scale with minimal chromatic alterations. It requires an extremely strong airstream to make the reed speak, which contributes to the robust sound and high dynamic level of the instrument; it is not really possible to play at a low dynamic level.


The European shawm of Medieval times might well have been modeled on Turko-Arabic double reeds such as the mizmār encountered by Europeans during the crusades. But some scholars point out that the concept of this instrument design might have originated in already extant European bagpipe chanters (see highland bagpipe), which if removed from their bag and given a pirouette would basically be a shawm. By the 14th century there is iconographic evidence that shawms similar in design and length to the one pictured and described here were in use in European court and civic musical life. Shawms continued to be developed throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods until, by the end of the 17th century, they were eclipsed by what is now called the Baroque oboe and the dulcian. Most of what is known about Medieval shawms is garnered from iconographic sources rather than extant instruments. The shawm pictured here was made in the 1980s by the workshop of Gunter Korber, who used primarily iconographic sources and the study of extant Renaissance shawms to design this instrument for sale to musicians active in the early music movement.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Shawm [chalmeye, shalme, shalmie, shalmuse].” NGDMI v.3: 364-371.

Bate, Philip. 1962 (1956). The Oboe: An Outline of its History, Development and Construction. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

________, and Niall O’Loughlin. 1984. “Oboe.” NGDMI v.2: 792-808.

Burgess, Geoffrey, and Bruce Haynes. 2004. The Oboe. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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.

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.

Van Cleve, Libby. 2004. Oboe Unbound: Contemporary Techniques. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.


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 - cylindrical 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


28 in. length (without reed)

Primary Materials

reed - cane


Gunter Korber

Entry Author

Roger Vetter