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Related subjects: Musical Instruments

Background Information

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  • Woodwind
  • Wind
  • Double reed
Playing range
Oboe range.PNG
Related instruments
  • Piccolo oboe
  • Oboe d'amore
  • Cor anglais (English horn)
  • Oboe da caccia
  • Bass oboe
  • Heckelphone
  • Contrabass oboe

The oboe is a double reed musical instrument of the woodwind family. The English word "oboe" was adopted ca. 1770 from the Italian oboè, as close as possible a representation in that language's orthography of the 17th-century pronunciation of the French word hautbois, a compound word made of haut ("high, loud") and bois ("wood, woodwind"). (In England prior to 1770, the instrument was called "hautbois", "hoboy", or "French hoboy".) A musician who plays the oboe is called an oboist. Careful manipulation of embouchure and air pressure allows the player to express a large timbral and dynamic range.


In comparison to other modern woodwind instruments, the oboe has a clear and penetrating voice. The Sprightly Companion, an instruction book of 1695, describes the voice as "Majestical and Stately, and not much Inferior to the Trumpet." Similarly, the voice is described in the play Angels in America as sounding like that of a duck if the duck were a songbird. The timbre of the oboe is derived from the oboe's conical bore (as opposed to the generally cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets). As a result, oboes are readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.

The oboe is pitched in concert C and has a mezzo-soprano to soprano range. Orchestras will usually tune by listening to the oboe play a concert A (usually A440, but sometimes higher if the orchestra tunes to a higher pitch). The pitch of the oboe may be adjusted by permanently altering the scrape, removing cane from the reed, or changing the position of the reed in the instrument (although the latter method should only be used as a last resort, because adjusting the position of the reed may cause some notes to warble). Subtle changes in pitch are also possible by adjusting the embouchure.



Baroque oboe, Stanesby Copy

The baroque oboe first appeared in the French court in the mid-17th century, where it was called hautbois. The basic form of the instrument was derived from the shawm, an instrument widely used in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Musician and instrument maker Martin Hotteterre was responsible for many of the new instrument's early developments, according to one source, while another credits Jean Hotteterre and Michel Philidor, ca. 1657. The instrument quickly spread throughout Europe (including England, where it was called "hautboy", "hoboy", "hautboit", "howboye", and similar variants of the French name). It was the main melody instrument in early military bands, until it was succeeded by the clarinet.

The baroque oboe was generally made of boxwood and had three keys; a "great", and two side keys. (The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the right or left hand on the bottom holes) In order to produce higher pitches, the player had to "overblow," or increase the air stream to reach the next harmonic. Notable oboe-makers of the period are the German Denner and Eichentopf, and the English Stanesby Sr. and Jr. The range for the baroque oboe comfortably extends from c1 to d3. With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid 20th century, a few makers began producing copies to specifications from surviving historical instruments.

Classical oboe, copy by Sand Dalton of an original by Johann Friedrich Floth, c. 1805


The classical period brought an oboe whose bore was gradually narrowed, and the instrument became outfitted with several keys, among them were those for the notes D♯, F, and G♯. A key similar to the modern octave key was also added called the "slur key," though it was at first used more like the "flick" keys on the modern German bassoon. Only later did French instrument makers redesign the octave key to be used in the manner of the modern key (i.e. held open for the upper register, closed for the lower). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be more easily played, and composers began to more often utilize the oboe's upper register in their works. Because of this, the oboe's tessitura in the Classical era was somewhat broader than that found in baroque works. The range for the Classical oboe extends from c1 to f3, though some German and Austrian oboes were capable of playing one half-step lower. Classical-era composers who wrote concertos for oboe include Mozart (both the solo concerto in C major K. 314/285d and the lost Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major K. 297b), Haydn, (both the Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Hob. I:105 and the spurious concerto in C major Hob. VIIg:C1), Beethoven (the F major concerto, Hess 12, of which only sketches survive, though the second movement was reconstructed in the late twentieth century), and numerous other composers including Johann Christian Bach, Johann Christian Fischer, Jan Antonín Koželuh, and Ludwig August Lebrun. Innumerable solos exist for the oboe in chamber, symphonic, and operatic compositions from the Classical era.

Viennese oboe

In Vienna, a unique oboe has been preserved with its bore and tonal characteristics remaining relatively unchanged in use to the present day. The Akademiemodel Wiener oboe, developed in the early 20th century by Hermann Zuleger, is now made by several makers, such as André Constantinides, Karl Rado, Guntram Wolf and Yamaha. In their definitive historical work "The Oboe", Geoffrey Burgess and Bruce Haynes write (page 212) "The differences are most clearly marked in the middle register, which is reedier and more pungent, and the upper register, which is richer in harmonics on the Viennese oboe". Apart from its use in the major Viennese orchestras, it is not used elsewhere.


The oboe was developed further in the 19th century by the Triebert family of Paris. Using the Boehm flute as a source of ideas for key work, Guillaume Triebert and his sons, Charles and Frederic, devised a series of increasingly complex yet functional key systems. A variant form using large tone holes; the Boehm system oboe, was never in common use, though it was used in some military bands in Europe into the 20th century. F. Lorée of Paris made further developments to the modern instrument. Minor improvements to the bore and key work have continued through the 20th century, but there has been no fundamental change to the general characteristics of the instrument for several decades.

The modern oboe is most commonly made from grenadilla wood (African blackwood), though some manufacturers also make oboes out of other members of the dalbergia family of woods, which includes cocobolo, rosewood, ebony, and violetwood. Student model oboes are often made from plastic resin, to avoid instrument cracking that wood instruments are prone to, but also to make the instrument more economical. The oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore. The oboe is played with a double reed consisting of two thin blades of cane tied together on a small-diameter metal tube (staple), which is inserted into the reed socket at the top of the instrument. The commonly accepted range for the oboe extends from b♭0 to about g3, over two and a half octaves, though its common tessitura lies from c1 to e♭3. Some student oboes only extend to b0; the key for b♭ is not present, however this variant is becoming less common.

A modern oboe with the "full conservatory" ("conservatoire" outside the USA) or Gillet key system has 45 pieces of keywork, with the possible additions of a third octave key and alternate (left little finger) F- or C-key. The keys are usually made of nickel silver, and are silver or occasionally gold-plated. Besides the full conservatoire system, oboes are also made using the English thumbplate system. Most have "semi-automatic" octave keys, in which the second octave action closes the first, and some have a fully automatic octave key system, as used on saxophones. Some full conservatory oboes have finger holes covered with rings rather than plates ("open-holed"), and most of the professional models have at least the right hand third key open-holed. Professional oboes used in the UK frequently feature conservatoire system combined with a thumb plate. With this type of mechanism the oboist has the best of both worlds as far as the convenience of fingerings is concerned.

Other members of the oboe family

The oboe has several siblings. The most widely known today is the cor anglais, or English horn, the tenor (or alto) member of the family. A transposing instrument; it is pitched in F, a perfect fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d'amore, the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. J.S. Bach made extensive use of both the oboe d'amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, Baroque antecedents of the cor anglais. Even less common is the bass oboe (also called baritone oboe), which sounds one octave lower than the oboe. Delius and Holst both scored for the instrument. Similar to the bass oboe is the more powerful heckelphone, which has a wider bore and larger tone than the bass oboe. Only 165 heckelphones have ever been made, and competent players are hard to find . The least common of all are the musette (also called oboe musette or piccolo oboe), the sopranino member of the family (it is usually pitched in E-flat or F above the oboe), and the contrabass oboe (typically pitched in C, two octaves deeper than the standard oboe).

Keyless folk versions of the oboe (most descended from the shawm) are found throughout Europe. These include the musette (France) and bombarde ( Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (Spain). Many of these are played in tandem with local forms of bagpipe. Similar oboe-like instruments, most believed to derive from Middle Eastern models, are also found throughout Asia as well as in North Africa.

Notable classical works featuring the oboe

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Oboe Concerto in C major, Quartet in F major
  • Antonio Vivaldi, at least 15 oboe concertos
  • Antonio Pasculli, oboe concertos for oboe and piano/orchestra
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concertos nos. 1 and 2, Concerto for Violin and oboe, lost oboe concerti, numerous oboe obbligato lines in the sacred and secular cantatas
  • Tomaso Albinoni, Oboe (and two-oboe) Concerti
  • George Frideric Handel, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, Oboe Concerti and Sonatas
  • Georg Philipp Telemann, Oboe Concerti and Sonatas, trio sonatas for oboe, recorder and basso continuo
  • Richard Strauss, Oboe Concerto
  • Joseph Haydn (spurious), Oboe Concerto in C major
  • Vincenzo Bellini, Concerto in E\flatmajor, for oboe and string orchestra (before 1825)
  • Luciano Berio, Sequenza VII (1969), also Chemins IV (on Sequenza VII), for oboe and string orchestra (1975)
  • Domenico Cimarosa, Oboe Concerto in C major (arranged)
  • Francis Poulenc, Oboe Sonata
  • Benjamin Britten, Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Temporal Variations
  • Robert Schumann, Three Romances for oboe or violin and piano
  • Edmund Rubbra, Oboe Sonata
  • Carl Nielsen, Two Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano
  • Alessandro Marcello, Concerto in D/C minor
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams, Concerto for Oboe and Strings, Ten Blake Songs for oboe and tenor
  • Camille Saint-Saëns, Sonata for Oboe and Piano in D Major
  • Bohuslav Martinů, Oboe Concerto
  • Darius Milhaud, Les rêves de Jacob, op. 294, for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and doublebass (1949); Sonatina, op. 337, for oboe and piano (1954)
  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra (1952)
  • Carlos Chávez, Upingos, for unaccompanied oboe
  • John Barnes Chance, Variations on a Korean Folk Song
  • Hans Werner Henze, Doppio concerto, for oboe, harp, and string orchestra (1966)
  • Bruno Maderna, three oboe concertos (1962–63) (1967) (1973); Grande aulodia, for flute, oboe, and orchestra (1970)
  • Witold Lutosławski, Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Chamber Orchestra
  • Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Oboe Concerto
  • Paul Hindemith, Sonata for Oboe and Piano
  • Ennio Morricone, "Gabriel's Oboe" from The Mission. It is usually followed by The Mission's main theme and the choral symphony On Earth as It Is in Heaven.
  • Samuel Barber, Canzonetta, op. 48, for oboe and string orchestra (1977–78, orch. completed by Charles Turner)
  • Igor Stravinsky, Pastorale (transcribed in 1933 for Violin and Wind Quartet)
  • Elliott Carter, Oboe Concerto (1986-87); Trilogy, for oboe and harp (1992); Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello (2001)
  • Heinz Holliger, Sonata, for unaccompanied oboe (1956–57/99); Mobile, for oboe and harp (1962); Trio, for oboe (doubling English horn), viola, and harp (1966); Studie über Mehrklänge, for unaccompanied oboe (1971); Sechs Stücke, for oboe (doubling oboe d’amore) and harp (1998–99)
Oboist Albrecht Mayer preparing reeds for use. Oboists scrape their own reeds to achieve the desired tone and response.

Use outside of classical music

While the oboe is rarely used in musical genres other than Western classical, there have been a few notable exceptions.

Traditional and folk music

Although keyless folk oboes are still used in many European folk music traditions, the modern oboe has been little used in folk music. One exception was Derek Bell, harpist for the Irish group The Chieftains, who used the instrument in some performances and recordings. The U.S. contra dance band Wild Asparagus, based in western Massachusetts, also uses the oboe, played by David Cantieni. The folk musician Paul Sartin plays the oboe in several English folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead. The bagpipe player and bagpipe maker Jonathan Shorland plays the oboe with the bands Primeaval and Juice, and formerly played with Fernhill, which play traditional British Isles music.


Although the oboe has never been featured prominently in jazz music, some early bands, most notably that of Paul Whiteman, included it for coloristic purposes. The multi-instrumentalist Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924 and used the instrument throughout his career, eventually recording with John Coltrane in 1961. Gil Evans scored for the instrument in his famous Miles Davis collaboration Sketches of Spain. Though primarily a tenor saxophone and flute player, Yusef Lateef was among the first (in 1963) to use the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances and recordings. Composer and double bassist Charles Mingus gave the oboe a brief but prominent role (played by Dick Hafer) in his composition "I.X. Love" on the 1963 album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. The oboe was used more extensively in the 1970s by the English multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins in his work with Soft Machine and by Paul McCandless, when he played with Paul Winter Consort and Oregon. Romeo Penque played oboe on Roland Kirk's 1975 album Return of the 5000 Lb. Man, in the song "Theme for the Eulipions."

The 1980s saw an increasing number of oboists try their hand at non-classical work, and many players of note have recorded and performed alternative music on oboe. Some present-day jazz groups influenced by classical music, such as the Maria Schneider Orchestra, feature the oboe.

Rock (and Pop)

The oboe has been used sporadically in rock recordings, generally by studio musicians on recordings of specific songs.

In the 1970's, several bands emerged that featured oboists as members, including Henry Cow ( Lindsay Cooper), Japan:band ( Mick Karn), New York Rock & Roll Ensemble ( Martin Fulterman and Michael Kamen), and Roxy Music ( Andy Mackay). The oboists in these bands generally used the oboe as a secondary instrument, not playing it on every song. Japan and Roxy Music however, did use the oboe quite frequently.

A historical sampling of uses of oboe in rock:

1964- Peter and Gordon's " I don't want to see you again" has an oboe solo.

1965-Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" features oboe hook (ob. Harold Battiste).

1969 Ray Thomas of The Moody Blues on the album On a Threshold of a Dream (album).

1970, 1971 The Move's album's "Looking On" and "Message from the Country" (e.g. "It Wasn't My Idea to Dance") -- (ob. Roy Wood)

1970-1972 Electric Light Orchestra (ob. Roy Wood)

1972-1975 Wizzard (ob. Roy Wood)

1974 " Hergest Ridge" by Mike Oldfield (ob. Lindsay Cooper)

1983 China Crisis album Working with fire and steel, Possible pop songs volume two (guest artist, ob. Steve Levy)

1985 Madonna's "Crazy for You" (ob. George Marge)

1988 Twist in My Sobriety by Tanita Tikaram (ob. Malcolm Messiter)

1991 REM's "Endgame" from Out of Time,

1992 REM Automatic for the People (ob. Deborah Workman).

1992-1994 Portastatic's recordings feature oboe.

1994-present Sigur Rós (ob. Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson)

1995 Queen's song " It's A Beautiful Day," from the album Made in Heaven, contains an oboe part conceived by bassist John Deacon.

1996-2003 French gothic metal band Penumbra, (ob. Jarlaath, also the vocalist).

2001 Stereophonics' cover of "Handbags and Gladrags" by Rod Stewart features oboe.

2000-2006 Indie rock musician Sufjan Stevens plays the oboe and cor anglais, and often overdubs both instruments on his albums.

2003-present Dutch melodic doom/ death metal band Another Messiah (ob. Robbie J. de Klerk, also the vocalist).

Film music

The oboe is frequently featured in film music, often to underscore a particularly poignant or sad scene. One of the most prominent uses of the oboe in a film score is Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" theme from The Mission.

It is also featured as a solo instrument in the theme "Across the Stars" from the John Williams score to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Famous oboists

See this list of oboists.

Oboe manufacturers

  • Buffet
  • Dupin
  • Bulgheroni
  • Cabart ( A Division of F. Lorée )
  • Covey
  • Fossati
  • Fox
  • Frank
  • Howarth
  • A. Laubin
  • Linton
  • F. Lorée
  • Marigaux
  • Miraphone
  • Musik Josef
  • Mönnig
  • Patricola
  • Püchner
  • Rigoutat
  • Selmer
  • Tom Sparkes
  • Yamaha
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