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A First Look at the Oboe

By Maryn Leister

If you are just learning about the oboe, you are about to learn that there is a lot to learn!

While this article is by no means an exhaustive look at the oboe, we.ll try to cover the basic stuff to give you a better idea of this beautiful instrument.

The oboe is a double reed (which means that two pieces of wood vibrate together to make the sound) instrument that is directly descended from the 16th century shawm. While the shawm might be considered the great grandfather of the oboe, its sound (which was LOUD and annoying) changed quite a bit before it became the modern day oboe.

Oboes are usually made of grenadilla wood, but sometimes, in an effort to produce slightly different tone colors, other woods are used. The oboe has sterling silver keys and is made up of three .joints:.

  • * a lower joint
  • * an upper joint
  • * and a slightly flared bell

    The sound is produced by using a reed made of two blades of cane which vibrate together.

    Pitched in .C,. the oboe.s pitch range starts at the Bb below middle C on the piano and ends roughly 2 ½ octaves above that, around a G. For the adventurer, higher notes are possible though less comfortable and less frequently called for in music written for the oboe.

    The oboe has a narrow conical bore, making its timbre focused and penetrating. The French word for oboe, .hautbois.. Hautbois literally translates to .high-,. .strong-,. .loud-,. or .principal-wood,. depending on its various spellings. Some people say that the oboe sounds a bit like a duck. Track down a recording of Prokofiev.s Peter and the Wolf for a great example of this.

    The oboe is often played in groups of two or three in orchestras and bands, and is used in many combinations for chamber music. It is primarily a melody instrument and, because of its lyrical and mournful timbre, is often used for very emotional sections of music.

    Good examples include:

  • * Stravinsky . Symphony in C
  • * Barber . Summer Music
  • * Gabriel.s Oboe

    One of the oboe.s most important jobs is that of .tuner. in an orchestra. Listen carefully to the beginning of any orchestra concert with oboes in it and you will hear the oboe player play a tuning .A. from which the entire orchestra takes their pitch.

    There are actually 4 different instruments within the oboe family, which cover the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass ranges. The oboe itself is the most soprano of its direct family. The second most common instrument in the oboe family is its tenor version, the English horn.

    The English horn, or .Cor Anglais,. is pitched a 5th below the oboe, in .F,. and is fingered almost exactly like its smaller sibling. The range of the English horn begins at a written B below middle C and goes up to about concert .C.. Like the oboe, it consists of an upper and lower joint, but it has a bulbous bell at the lower end which makes it look quite different. English horn players also use a bocal, onto which the reed is attached.

    The sound of the English horn is similar in quality to the oboe, but because it is larger and lower, its timbre is a bit more mysterious and sorrowful. The English horn is often used in the band and orchestra, though less often in chamber music. It is quite common for the 2nd oboist of an ensemble to have to .double. on English horn, having to switch back and forth from the oboe as his/her part dictates.

    Famous English horn solos include:

  • * Rossini . William Tell Overture
  • * Dvorak . New World Symphony The oboe.s alto family member is the oboe d.amore, which means .oboe of love.. This instrument looks like a small version of the English horn, with the same bulbous shaped bell and curved bocal. It sounds a minor 3rd lower than the oboe, is pitched in concert .A,. and again fingered almost exactly like the oboe.

    The oboe d.amore.s sound is truly distinctive, being reminiscent of its soprano and tenor relatives, but more muted and sweet. It is often used in pairs and most frequently in Baroque music, especially that of J.S. Bach. Check out the beautiful solos and duets for oboes d.amore in the following Bach pieces:

  • * B Minor Mass
  • * Christmas Cantatas
  • * Concerto for Oboe D.amore

    The oboe d.amore does not often appear in ensemble pieces after the Baroque era, though one of its most famous orchestra solos was written by Ravel, in Bolero.

    The oboe.s bass family member is the Bass oboe, which is the most obscure of the oboe family members. The bass oboe is pitched in .C,. like the oboe, but sounds an octave lower than its written pitches. It looks like a very large English horn, and is played with the same fingerings, but its bocal is more drastically curved.

    The popularity of the bass oboe was brief and is rarely used today. One of the few orchestral pieces which employs the bass oboe is Holst.s The Planets. Its murky and atmospheric timbre is well suited to a piece about outer space.

    The oboe and its relatives all use a double reed, but the reed is different for each instrument. Basically, the bigger and lower the instrument, the bigger the reed is. The oboe.s reed is the only reed with an attached cork, the others being on metal tubes which slip directly onto a bocal. From its soprano to bass ranges, the oboe family covers a wide spectrum of tones colors, though remains lyrical and poignant in all its versions.

    The oboe is a beautiful instrument to play although it can take quite some time to master. Even producing a sound can be quite a challenge for a beginner.


    Oboist and entrepreneur Maryn Leister helps beginner, intermediate and professional oboists become happier oboe players.

    She is owner of the oboe learning company MKL Reeds and publisher of the Reed Report and Oboe Success Tips Newsletters. Each newsletter is full of straightforward tips on becoming a better oboe player and on taking control of your oboe reeds.

    Get your free subscription to the Reed Report newsletter and start your own journey towards a more rewarding oboe future right away. Sign-Up now and get your FREE Oboe Reed Tips!