Choosing an Instrument – A Practical Guide (Woodwind edition)

Perhaps singing isn’t for you? Or you feel your child is too young to start formal singing lessons? Maybe you just want to explore all your musical options? The first and most important reason for learning an instrument should be that you want to learn it, but even then, it’s good to think about practicalities too. Here’s some ups and downs of your woodwind choices to help you out:

Woodwind Instrument PileWoodwind in general:

+ many among the cheaper instruments
+ easy to learn to play
+ smaller to carry around
– lots of spit involved – though not as much as brass
– not many of each one in orchestras (one flute, thirty violins…)


RecorderRecorder – simple wooden or plastic wind instrument with a range of about two octaves. Popular during the Renaissance period, but has since dwindled in popularity as an orchestral instrument. Comes in four sizes, but most start with the descant.

+ cheap to buy – a starter recorder will cost under a tenner (though nice wooden ones cost a lot more)
+ very easy to get sound out of and start playing melodies
+ helps with learning to read notation
– sounds an octave above the notated pitch so can be, uh, piercing
– limited options for progressing past beginner level as not many teachers specialise in recorder


elkhart-100fl-fluteFlute – metal instrument played in the same fashion as a milk bottle (broadly speaking!). Popular orchestral instrument throughout history, and considered a good instrument for young musicians to learn. Has smaller and larger versions for the adventurous.

+ light and easy to carry
+ quick to get playing real melodies
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
o moderately expensive at around £150
– doesn’t teach multiple clefs or harmony
– very popular, but not many needed in orchestras


ClarinetClarinet – originally wooden, but now plastic single reed instrument (reed vibrates against the body of the instrument rather than another reed). Used in orchestras since Mozart.

+ light and easy to carry
+ quick to get playing real melodies
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing, including more styles than the flute
o moderately expensive at around £150
– transposing instrument, so it sounds differently to the notes on the stave – can result in some tricky keys for group playing
– doesn’t teach multiple clefs or harmony
– very popular, but not many needed in orchestras or bands
– noisier than a flute and prone to random squawks


SaxophoneSaxophone – newer metal instrument, appears in the later romantic period, and not used in most orchestral music. Comes in a range of sizes – most start with the alto sax

+ quick to get playing real melodies
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
+ transferable skills to/from the clarinet
o limited styles of music
– quite expensive at £280 upwards
– very popular, but not many needed in orchestras or bands
– on the nosier side


Oboe – the first of the double reed instruments (two reeds vibrating against each other). Popular in orchestras throughout history. Has older siblings in the form of the Cor Anglais and Bassoon.

+ unusual choice, so lots of options for collaborative playing
+ wide range of styles and genres of music
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
– difficult to play as double reeds are hard to get sound from and require strong lungs
– reeds break easily and aren’t terribly cheap
– very expensive at £700+
– very loud as it has no ability to be muted for practice


BassoonBassoon – also a double reed instrument, the bigger brother of the oboe. Popular in orchestras throughout history.

+ very unusual choice, so lots of options for collaborative playing
+ wide range of styles and genres of music
+ teaches notation, including bass clef
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
o young children may need to start on a mini bassoon
– difficult to play as double reeds are hard to get sound from and require strong lungs
– harder to find teachers for
– reeds break easily and aren’t terribly cheap
– very expensive at £1000+
– not a very wide range of solo music
– very loud as it has no ability to be muted for practice


Bagpipes – ancient traditional instrument popular in celtic countries. Not generally used in orchestral music.

+ engages with traditional culture
+ variety of sources of income, such as playing for weddings etc
+ practice chanter means it’s actually pretty neighbour-friendly to practice
o finding a teacher may be difficult depending on location
– expensive with a good set costing around £400 (and the costume to go with can cost much the same if not more!)
– double reed instrument in the UK, so has the associated challenges including the need for strong lungs
– limited range of musical genres (you’re scuppered if you like Mozart…)
not tuned to equal temperament so can sound jarring to modern ears


So there you have it, a quick run down of the main members of the woodwind family. There are, of course, many other options which include many traditional instruments like the ocarina and the tin whistle. However, there aren’t many teachers for the ocarina. Victorian College do offer exams in the subject though!

Still confused? Click some of the links below for more options, or have a look at this handy flowchart from Sinfini Music.

[Strings] ♦ [Brass] ♦ [Other] ♦ [Why take singing lessons?]

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