Early Instruments


The recorder (alternatively known as the English Flute) is a non-transposing wind instrument belonging to the family of Fipple Flutes (also known as whistle flutes, duct flutes or block flutes) available in a number of sizes covering a number of registers (listed below, small to large):

  • Garklein (C (C3))
  • Sopraninos (F (F2))
  • Soprano (C (C2))
  • Alto (F (F1))
  • Tenor (C (C1))
  • Bass (F)
  • Great bass (C)

Modern instruments are defined as being tuned to either C or F, the reference being the note produced when all holes are covered.

Sound is produced by blowing through the mouthpiece containing the fipple. The fipple (or plug) is the block in the pipe of the instrument which allows the creation of the mouthpiece. This directs air over a sharp edge, setting up the vibration of air in the bore (the hole or tube running the length if the instrument). This vibration of air produces the fundamental tone which is the resonant frequency of the mass of air available in the bore. Tone holes in the body change the effective length of the bore when stopped or fingered, thus reducing or increasing the mass of air available which, in turn changes the resonant frequency and consequently, the tone produced. This is how the majority of wind instruments produce their tonal variety. Click the image below to visit an excellent page on how recorders work.

A recorder mouthpiece

How the flow of air is split to set up the vibrations in the instrument bore

Recorders are traditionally made of wood (European Boxwood (notably for Renaissance instruments), Maple and Ebony) and occasionally ivory.

We can find references to the recorder as an instrument in its own right (as opposed to it being an extension of basic duct flutes (which can be traced back to the Iron Age)) as far back as the fourteenth century with a composition existing specifically for the recorder by Giovanni Battista Riccio from 1636.

Compositions for the recorder have been written by a number of notable musicians over the last six hundred years including C. P. E. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and John Baston, and the instrument has been played in settings as diverse as primary school classrooms and orchestral recitals by such players as Samuel Pepys, John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Mick Ronson (David Bowie) and King Henry VIII. A record of Henry’s estate after his death tells us that he owned seventy-six recorders of various sizes.

A recorder mouthoiece showing the fipple

A recorder mouthpiece clearly showing the fipple (the darker wood in the centre).

If the recorder has a fault it’s that it has difficulty in fluctuating volume without distorting the required pitch which sealed its fate as a serious instrument for the orchestra in the Classical period as music became more complex and expressive. It was superseded by the transverse (side) flute.

The name “Recorder” seems to owe its derivation to the Latin words “re” as in “again”, “cor” as in “heart” giving us the idea that pieces played on the instrument were largely committed to memory during practice, the recorder being a well-suited learning tool for the student musician.

Click here to hear Handel’s Complete Sonatas for Recorder.


The Lute is a plucked or strummed fretted string instrument descended directly from the Arabic Oud (which itself has a history spanning into the thousands of years) which itself was probably introduced to Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, possibly as a result of the Crusades.

The Renaissance Lute was the product of much revision with regard to its construction. It has undergone several “Golden Eras”, each one typified by the number of pairs of strings (“courses”) used. By the time of the Renaissance, the Lute was typically using six or seven courses (twelve or fourteen strings), often with one or two added single bass strings and, especially in renaissance instruments, added single treble strings.

Sound is produced in exactly the same way as the modern acoustic and classical guitar in that the energy from the vibrating string is transferred through the bridge (see image below) to the large, flat soundboard surface laying directly under the strings. The soundboard vibrates in sympathy with the strings, colouring and amplifying the tone produced, giving us the distinctive sound.

The lute in all its forms is composed of a body section and a neck section. The bowl shaped back section is made of a varying number of ribs, bent to form a tensioned structure which helps to counteract the pressure of the strings at the neck joint. The whole instrument is made of wood with the exception of the nut (on the neck where the strings rest) which is traditionally bone or ivory, the strings themselves which were a combination of metal (as far back as the early sixteenth century) and gut, depending on the location and tradition of the maker and the era in which the instrument was made.

A Renaissance Lute

As mentioned, the lute evolved out of the Arabic Oud and as such it’s quite difficult to pin down a specific date for its arrival or for when music was specifically composed for it but we suspect that it was around the last quarter of the fifteenth century (circa 1475 onwards) that lutenists made the move from plucking or strumming with a quill to playing polyphonic pieces with the fingertips. It’s interesting to note that around this time a specific form of music notation formed around the popularity of the lute, tablature, which enabled songs and ideas to be spread around the growing number of competent lutenists in Europe. Tablature is still in use today, especially among folk and rock guitarists.

The list of composers is long and everyone major contributor from the Renaissance and Baroque periods have given us work that has stayed in the repertoire. Composers of note are the Englishman John Dowland, J. S. Bach, Francesco Canova da Milano and Handel.

The most popularly famous lute composition by far is Greensleeves. Although we have no definite composer, popular myth is that it’s by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn. Unlikely (as it’s based on a later Italian style) but wonderfully romantic nonetheless.

The Lute and its incredible popularity directly contributed to the next generation of fretted instruments, the guitars, and its influence is still heard in modern music today, most notably in the Metal and folk genres which borrow heavily from Renaissance and Baroque compositional forms which can be heard clearly in the work of Deep Purple (Richie Blackmore), Yngwie Malmsteen, Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull.

Click here for a lovely recital  of John Downland’s “Lachrimae Pavan”

Click here to hear “Bourrée” by Johann Krieger.


The sackbut is the direct ancestor of the modern trombone and works in exactly the same way, indeed, the differences between the modern and ancient instruments are largely those of refinement and convenience.

The two notable differences between the sackbut and the trombone are that the earlier instrument has a distinctly smaller bell size but more importantly, the bore diameter in the main sections is much smaller. The sackbut was (and is) available in four sizes: alto, tenor, bass, and great (double) bass.

Sound is produced by setting up a vibrating mass of air in the tube of the instrument. The musician does this by vibrating her lips inside a mouthpiece which forces the air in the bore of the sackbut to resonate in sympathy. Different notes are produced by the player adjusting the approach to the mouthpiece (the “embouchure”) and by increasing or decreasing the playable length of the tube by sliding the moveable part of the instrument in or out, thus increasing or decreasing the mass of air available which resonates at different frequencies.


The sackbut was a mainstay of Renaissance ensembles but its origins are uncertain. Probably originating in France (given that its original name is generally agreed to come from the old French “saqueboute” meaning “Push-Pull”), and possibly in Burgundy, the instrument had gained wide popularity as far back as the early sixteenth century. It was known as a member of the “High” (French: Haut) instruments (referring to volume as opposed to pitch) and as a consequence was, along with both the shawm (see below) and tabor (drum) regarded as suitable for playing outside where it could easily be heard.

It had been a contributory instrument in a liturgical setting for many years but didn’t come into its own as a virtuoso instrument until the early seventeenth century. Before this time it was largely used as part of an ensemble and held in high regard due to its ability to play with great dynamic range. Matthew Locke, composer to King Charles II, gave us the most enduring piece, “Music for the King’s Sackbutts and Cornets”.

Click here to listen to Locke’s “Music for the King’s Sackbuts and Cornets”

Click here to download the full score for this music.


The shawm is a double reed instrument of the woodwind family and is the direct ancestor of the modern oboe. Like the oboe (and the recorder) the Shawm has a conical bore, wider at one end than the other. In the shawm (and oboe) the bore is narrower at the reed end whereas in the recorder, the bore is wider at the mouthpiece end.

Like the sackbut, the shawm was considered a member of the “high” instruments, suitable for playing outside as well as in, and as there were a number of sizes available it was regularly used as an ensemble instrument.

Energy is transmitted through the instrument in the same way as the recorder with the player blowing at one end to excite a mass of air inside which vibrates in sympathy but unlike the recorder, the initial vibrations are set up by blowing through a double reed which gives the instrument its distinctive sound.

The main structure of the shawm is traditionally turned from one piece of wood with the addition of another piece, the “pirouette” upon which the player presses his lips, protecting the reed. This sacrifices a lot of the dynamic control that modern oboe players have, as modern players’ lips are directly in contact with the reed.

A renaissance shawm being played

Notice how the whole reed is in the mouth of the player rather than just the end being controlled by the lips.

As with so many other instruments, the shawm is suspected to have had its origin in the Middle East and to have been brought to Europe between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Its popularity ensured that it became the most important double reed instrument of the day and is the sound that we all associate with medieval court life.

Click here to hear a wonderful shawm consort.