The bassoon: guide to the largest wind instrument in the orchestra


What is a bassoon?

The bassoon is a wind instrument which, like the oboe, has a double reed. This gives it a deep, buzzy quality in the low notes and a smooth, piercing sound higher up.

Although primarily a tenor and bass instrument, the bassoon’s range is wide, spanning from B-flat below the bass clef to high E. Its original name in Italian is queermeaning “bundle of sticks”.

What does the bassoon sound like?

Composed of several articulations, the long conical wooden body of the bassoon can be separated into four main parts: the bell, extending upwards; the bass joint, connecting the bell and the boot; the boot, at the bottom of the instrument and folded in on itself; and the fender seal that extends from the boot. The length of a medium bassoon is around 135cm, but since the tube has a bent shape, it would actually be around 260cm if extended to its full length.

At the end of the instrument is attached a thin metal tube called a jar. The bassoonist blows into a reed attached to the end of the jar. Inside the instrument is a tube that runs the full length of the instrument and steadily widens from the bocal through the U-shape at the bottom and to the bell at the other end.

Reeds vary from player to player and are customized to best suit the respective bassoonist – beginners use pre-made reeds, but many advanced players make their own.

How do you play the bassoon?

The bassoon is usually played seated, using a seat strap, but can be played standing up if the player has a harness to hold the instrument.

Sound is produced by blowing air through the mouth to vibrate the reed. The bassoon is unusual among wind instruments because all ten fingers are used to play its metal keys, including the thumbs. It has a particularly complicated fingering system, and players can produce notes of the same pitch using many different fingering combinations – this allows for different timbres and dynamics.

How is the bassoon different from the oboe?

Like the oboe, the bassoon is played with a double reed, but it is much larger and cannot be easily supported by the player’s hands alone. It is therefore held diagonally in front of the player and secured by a safety strap if he is seated or a harness if he is standing.

The bassoon and oboe both have a tapered bore (body) – however, the bassoon’s long body requires a U-turn in the tube. The bassoon measures 135 cm, while the oboe measures only 66 cm. A bassoon reed is placed on a bocal, while the oboe reed is placed directly into the instrument.

The range of the bassoon is much wider than that of the oboe: the modern oboe extends only two and a half octaves upwards from B-flat below middle C.

What are the different types of bassoon?

There are a number of larger and smaller bassoons, but the most commonly used bassoon variant is the contrabassoon, the grandfather of the orchestral wind section, which sounds an octave lower than the bassoon.

Photo: Bassoonist Robert Thompson


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