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10 facts about the bassoon

Rising to popularity in the 16th century, the bassoon is a large woodwind instrument that belongs to the oboe family for its use of a double reed. Historically, the bassoon enabled expansion of the range of woodwind instruments into lower registers. The modern bassoon plays an important role in the orchestra due to its versatility and wide range.

  • The bassoon plays the role of tenor and bass in the orchestral double reed section (the oboe and English horn play soprano and alto, respectively).
  • Bassoons come in two sizes: the bassoon, and the double bassoon or contrabassoon, which sounds an octave lower than the bassoon.
  • Early bassoons were made out of harder woods, but the modern instrument is typically made of maple.
  • One of the precursors to the bassoon, the dulcian, was made out of a single piece of wood.
  • A double reed is used to play the bassoon, which is made out of a cane called an arundo donax. The finishing of a reed varies between French and German bassoons: French reeds are beveled, whereas German reeds have a thicker spine down the center.
  • Bassoons are made up of several parts including tenor or wing joint, the double or butt joint, the long or bass joint, the bell joint, and the crook or bocal.
Image credit: “IMG_1180.jpg” by Tom Page, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
  • The “compact” version of the double bassoon stands at 122cm tall with a bore length of 5.5m.
  • The modern contrabassoon is folded several times to make its great length more manageable. Although the fingering is largely similar to that of the bassoon, the toneholes are covered by keys acting on rod-axle mechanisms, which transmit the player’s finger motions efficiently over long spans.
  • A mute is sometimes used in order to help play the instrument softly. The effect is made either by stuffing a piece of cloth into the bell of the instrument or using a sleeve-like metal cylinder.
  • In the 20th century the use of the German bassoon gradually became more universal. The global standardization of the bassoon types in the 21st century has been brought on by the ever-increasing demands of conductors and recording producers for the power of sound, homogeneity and balance.

Featured image: “Ensemble Deva – Carnival of the Animals (14th Jun 2016)”. Photo by Mark Carline. via Flickr.

Information for this post was sourced from the Bassoon” entry by William Waterhouse and James B. Kopp in The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2nd ed. on Oxford Reference.

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