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What is a Recorder?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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Recorder or fipple flute is a family of instruments that belong to the woodwind group. The various recorders are non-reed woodwind instruments that are not standard orchestral instruments. However, they are occasionally found in chamber music and even orchestral music. They are often used in classroom music as well.

Recorders are end blown flutes. When people say recorder, they generally mean the soprano or descant, but there are seven standard sizes: the soprano/descant, one recorder that is pitched higher, and five that are pitched lower. Each of the various recorders is pitched in F or C, and they alternate. They all sound either as written or an octave higher. Here are the seven types, arranged highest to lowest:

  • Sopranino, the highest recorder, is in F and is written on the treble clef, but sounds an octave higher than written.

  • Soprano/Descant, the second highest recorder and the one people most often mean when they refer simply to “a recorder,” is in C and is written on the treble clef, but sounds an octave higher than written.

  • Alto/Treble, the next recorder, is in F and is written in the same range as the sopranino, but sounds as written.

  • Tenor, the next recorder, is in C and is written in the same range as the soprano/descant, but sounds as written.

  • Bass, the next recorder, is in F and is written on the bass clef, but sounds an octave higher.

  • Great Bass, the next recorder, is in C and is written on the bass clef, but sounds an octave higher.

  • Contra Bass, the lowest recorder, is in F and is written on the bass clef in the same range as the bass recorder, but sounds as written.

Related instruments include other end blown flutes, like the Native American flute, the flageolet, and the tin whistle or pennywhistle. The ocarina is also related; as are the transverse flutes, including the concert flute and the fife — the primary use of which is in combination with drums in marching or military bands; and various pan flutes, usually made of multiple pipes that are used to change pitch, rather than using holes or keys.

A soprano/descant recorder has three parts: the head joint, which holds the beak or mouthpiece, the body joint or middle section, which is the largest piece, and the foot joint, which is the end of the recorder. Bass recorders may have four pieces and a bocal, a slim metal pipe through which the player blows, or a direct blow mouthpiece cap. Sopraninos may be made in two pieces.

Famous recorder parts are included in the works of Johan Sebastian Bach, for example, in the Brandenburg Concertos. They also appear in works by Georg Handel, Henry Purcell, Georg Telemann, and Antonio Vivaldi. More recently, recorder is found in the work of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bennstein, and Stephen Sondheim.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By AnswerMan — On Feb 03, 2015

I make sure all of my first grade students have a plastic recorder for music class. I'd be willing to bet that a lot of people learned basic music skills while playing a similar instrument. It's not easy to be in the same room with 30 children all puffing away on a shrill flute, but that's part of the job. I teach them how to play simple tunes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Three Blind Mice", then they get to put on a mini-concert at the end of the school year.

By Ruggercat68 — On Feb 02, 2015

I was browsing at a friend's antique store and found a box that contained an alto recorder. The graphics on the box suggested WWII vintage, and I saw the words "Made in England" on one side. I asked my friend about the recorder and he said he bought it from a WWII veteran. He sold it to me for about $10. I found an instruction book online and practiced playing that recorder for months. It was made out of a high grade plastic, but not Bakelite as I first suspected.

I found the email address of the company in England that produced the recorder, and I wrote to the customer service manager. He told me that his company was one of the first British companies to start exporting goods after WWII ended. I probably had a recorder that was made specifically for the American market. He said it wasn't particularly valuable, because there were literally millions produced and sold, but it did have some sentimental value for Brits. The country's economy suffered tremendously after the war, and sales of products like the recorder I had helped bring in an influx of badly needed cash.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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