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10 facts about the recorder

You might associate the recorder with memories of a second grade classroom and sounds vaguely resembling the tune of “Three Blind Mice” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” While the recorder has become a popular instrument in music education, it also has an extensive and interesting history. As our thoughts once again return to the school year, let us learn more about the structure and performance capabilities of the recorder with our ten facts:

  1. Recorders come in a number of sizes. The four most commonly played today – descant, treble, tenor, and bass – roughly correspond to the four principal voice parts – soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
  2. The term ‘recorder’ was first used in reference to a musical instrument in the year 1388, when it was listed as a part of the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV).
  3. In many European languages, the word for recorder was the same as the word for flute.
  4. The details of the construction of a recorder have changed drastically throughout history. However, the basic structure of the principle characteristics –whistle mouthpiece, seven finger-holes, thumb hole – have always remained the same.
  5. The earliest known version of a recorder is a 14th century instrument found in Göttingen, Germany. It is 256 mm in length, and made from a single piece of plumwood. The design is conducive to players who are left- or right-handed due to the presence of widely-spaced double holes for the bottom finger.
  6. During the 16th century, recorders became a staple instrument of professional wind players and were possessions of many upper class households and palaces in Europe. Some members of the upper class even tried their own hand at the recorder. It then became a popular amateur instrument among the middle class as well.
  7. During the 17th century, or early Baroque period, recorders were constructed in three parts, called joints: the head, middle, and foot. The middle section had 7 finger-holes while the foot had only one.
  8. After 1750, the popularity of the recorder declined and it was not often found in musical repertoire. However, the turn of the 20th century brought a revival of the instrument in a variety of different musical styles ranging from avant-garde and theatrical to minimalist and microtonal.
  9. Several attempts have been made to modernize the structure of the recorder. The ‘midfield blockflute,’ created by Michael Barker is one which seeks to combine the traditional recorder with synthesized sounds.
  10. Recorders have been a valuable asset to music education since the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Headline Image Credit: Recorder by Shunichi Kouroki (CC by 2.0) via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Andreas Weise

    I have a “fun fact” for the recorder:

    The head of recorders can be used as a noise, rhythm and effect instrument, since the recorder head works like a whistle. With a bit of practice, it is easy to play all kind of rhythms. Effects are made by opening and covering the lower end of the head joint with the hand while blowing. You can blow harder than “normal” recorder playing (like with a pea whistle) to achieve a very loud, shrill and penetrating sound.

    This can make very much fun, especially with children. However, the noise level can be extremely loud, so earplugs are recommended when you play longer.

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