Recorder (musical instrument)

This article is about the recorder as a developed musical instrument. For the recorder as an introduction to learning music, see Recorder (educational uses). For other uses of the word recorder, see Recorder (disambiguation).

Various recorders (second from the bottom disassembled into its three parts)
Woodwind instrument
Other names

German: Blockflöte
Italian: Flauto dolce or Flauto diritto
French: Flûte à bec or Flûte douce
Spanish: Flauta dulce or Flauta de pico
Japanese: リコーダー (rikōda) or 縦笛 (tatebue)
Portuguese Flauta doce Swedish: Blockflöjt
Danish: Blokfløjte

Dutch: Blokfluit

Hornbostel–Sachs classification 421.221.12
(Flute with internal duct and finger holes)
Playing range

Soprano recorder: C5–D7(G7)

Related instruments


Recorder players
Musical instruments
String instruments

The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument in the group known as internal duct flutes—flutes with a whistle mouthpiece. It is distinguished from other duct flutes by having thumb-hole for the upper hand and seven finger-holes: three for the upper hand and four for the lower. It is the most prominent duct flute in the western classical tradition.[1]

Recorders are made in different sizes with compasses corresponding to different vocal ranges. The sizes most commonly in use today are the soprano (lowest note C5), alto (lowest note F4), tenor (lowest note C4) and bass (lowest note F3). Recorders are traditionally constructed from wood and ivory, although the use of plastics is now common. Other characteristics of their construction, such as bore profile and fingering systems, have varied over time and between instruments.

The recorder is first documented in the Middle Ages, and continued to enjoy wide popularity in the renaissance and baroque periods, but was little used in the classical and romantic periods. It was revived in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance movement, and became a popular amateur and educational instrument. Composers who have written for the recorder include Monteverdi, Lully, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, J.S Bach, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Berio, and Arvo Pärt. Today, there are many professional recorder players who demonstrate the instrument's full solo range and a large community of amateurs.[2]

The sound of the recorder is often described as clear and sweet, and has historically been associated with birds and shepherds. It is notable for its quick response and its corresponding ability to produce a wide variety of articulations. This ability, coupled with its open finger holes, allow it to produce a wide variety of tone colors and special effects. Acoustically, its tone is relatively pure and odd harmonics predominate in its sound.[3][4]


The instrument has been known by its modern English name at least since the 14th century. David Lasocki reports the earliest use of "recorder" in the household accounts of the Earl of Derby (later King Henry IV) in 1388, which register i. fistula nomine Recordour (a pipe called 'Recordour').[5]

By the 15th century, the name had appeared in English literature. The earliest references are in John Lydgate's Temple of Glas (c1430): These lytylle herdegromys Floutyn al the longe day..In here smale recorderys, In floutys. (These little shepherds fluting all day long ... on these small recorders, on flutes.)[6] and in Lydgate's Fall of Princes (c 1431–1438): Pan, god off Kynde, with his pipes seuene, / Off recorderis fond first the melodies. (Pan, god of Nature, with his pipes seven, / of recorders found first the melodies.) [7][8]


The instrument name "recorder" derives from the Latin recordārī (to call to mind, remember, recollect), by way of Middle French recorder (a1349; to remember, to learn by heart, repeat, relate, recite, play music)[9][10] and MFr recordeur (c1395; one who retells, a minstrel), itself derived from MFr recorder.[11][12] The association between the various, seemingly disparate, meanings of recorder can be attributed to the role of the medieval jongleur in learning poems by heart and later reciting them, sometimes with musical accompaniment.[10]

The English verb "record" (from MFr recorder, early 13th c.) meant "to learn by heart, to commit to memory, to go over in one's mind, to recite" but it was not used in English to refer to playing music until the 16th century, when it gained the meaning "silently practicing a tune" or "sing or render in song" (both almost exclusively referring to songbirds), long after the recorder had been named.[9] Thus, the recorder cannot have been named after the sound of birds. The name of the instrument is also uniquely English: in Middle French there is no equivalent noun sense of recorder referring to a musical instrument.[13]

Partridge indicates that the use of the instrument by jongleurs led to its association with the verb: recorder the minstrel's action, a "recorder" the minstrel's tool.[5][14] The reason we know this instrument as the recorder and not one of the other instruments played by the jongleurs is uncertain.

"Flute" and "recorder"

The introduction of the Baroque recorder to England by a group of French professionals in 1673 popularized the French name for the instrument, "flute douce," or simply "flute," a name previously reserved for the transverse instrument. Until about 1695, the names "recorder" and "flute" overlapped, but from 1673 to the late 1720s in England, the word "flute" always meant recorder.[5] In the 1720s, as the transverse flute overtook the recorder in popularity, English adopted the convention already present in other European languages of qualifying the word "flute," calling the recorder variously the "common flute," "common English-flute," or simply "English flute" while the transverse instrument was distinguished as the "German flute" or simply "flute."[15] Until at least 1765, some writers still used "flute" to mean recorder.[5]

Other languages

Until the mid 18th century, musical scores written in Italian refer to the instrument as flauto, whereas the transverse instrument was called flauto traverso. This distinction, like the English switch from "recorder" to "flute," has caused confusion among modern editors, writers and performers.

Indeed, in most European languages, the first term for the recorder was the word for flute alone. In the present day, cognates of the word "flute," when used without qualifiers, remain ambiguous may refer to either the recorder, the modern concert flute, or other non-western flutes. Starting the 1530s, these languages began to add qualifiers to specify this particular flute.[5] In the case of the recorder, these describe variously


Ranges of the modern recorder family
In C Range In F Range
garklein in C6 (c''')
or sopranissimo
or piccolo
sopranino in F5 (f'')
soprano in C5 (c'')
or descant
Listen to it
alto in F4 (f')
or treble
tenor in C4 (c') bass in F3 (f)
great bass in C3 (c)
or quart-bass
contrabass in F2 (F)
or great bass
or sub-bass
sub-great bass in C2 (C)
or contra-great bass
or contrabass
sub-contrabass in F1 (FF)
or double contrabass

Since the 15th century, a variety of sizes of recorder have been documented, however a consistent terminology and notation for the different sizes was not formulated until the 20th century.

Modern recorders

Today, recorder sizes are named after the different vocal ranges. This is not, however, a reflection of sounding pitch, and serves primarily to denote the pitch relationships between the different instruments. Groups of recorders played together are referred to as "consorts." Recorders also often referred to by their lowest sounding note: "recorder in F" refers to a recorder with lowest note F, in any octave.

The table to the right shows the standard names of modern recorders in F and C and their respective ranges. Music composed after the modern revival of the recorder most frequently uses soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders, although sopranino and great bass are also fairly common.[16] Consorts of recorders are often referred to using the terminology of organ registers: 8' (8 foot) pitch referring to a consort sounding as written, 4' pitch a consort sounding an octave above written, and 16' a consort sounding an octave below written. The combination of these consorts is also possible.[17]

As a rule of thumb, the tessitura of a baroque recorder lies approximately one octave above the tessitura of the human voice type after which it is named. For example, the tessitura of a soprano voice is roughly C4–C6, while the tessitura of a soprano recorder is C5–C7. The recorder's mellow tone and limited harmonics allows for the seemingly deeper sound.[18]

Modern variations include standard British terminology, due to Arnold Dolmetsch, which refers to the recorder in C5 (soprano) as the descant and the recorder in F4 (alto) as the treble. As conventions and instruments vary, especially for larger and more uncommon instruments, it is often practical to state the recorder's lowest note along with its name in order to avoid confusion.


Modern recorder parts are notated in the key they sound in. Parts for alto, tenor and contrabass recorders are notated at pitch, while parts for sopranino, soprano, bass, and great bass are typically notated an octave below their sounding pitch. As a result, soprano and tenor recorders are notated identically; alto and sopranino are notated identically; and bass and contrabass recorders are notated identically. Octave clefs may be used to indicate the sounding pitch, however usage is inconsistent.

Rare sizes and notations include the garklein, which may be notated two octaves below its sounding pitch, and the sub-contrabass, which may be notated an octave above its sounding pitch.

Like their historical antecedents, modern recorder players frequently also play from parts written for other instruments, reading in a variety of clefs and transpositions, and must make appropriate choices of instrumentation.

Historical recorders

The earliest known document mentioning "a pipe called Recordour" dates from 1388.[19] Historically, recorders were used to play vocal music and parts written for other instruments, or for a general instrument. As a result, it was frequently the performers' responsibility to read parts not specifically intended for the instrument and to choose appropriate instruments. When such consorts consisted only of recorders, the pitch relationships between the parts were typically preserved, however when recorders were combined with other instruments, octave discrepancies were often ignored.[20]

Recorder consorts in the 16th century were tuned in fifths and only occasionally employed tuning by octaves as seen in the modern C, F recorder consort. This means that consorts could be composed of instruments nominally in B♭, F, C, G, D, A and even E, although typically only three or four distinct sizes were used simultaneously. To use modern terminology, these recorders were treated as transposing instruments: consorts would be read identically to a consort made up of F3, C4, and G4 instruments. This is made possible by the fact that adjacent sizes are separated by fifths, with few exceptions. These parts would be written using chiavi naturali, allowing the parts to roughly fit in the range of a single staff, and also in the range of the recorders of the period. (see Renaissance structure)

Transpositions ("registers"), such as C2, G3, D4; G3, D4, A5; or B♭2, F3, C4, all read as F3, C4, G4 instruments, were possible as described by Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum. Three sizes of instruments could be used to play four-part music by doubling the middle size, e.g. F3, C4, C4, G4, or play six-part music by doubling the upper size and tripling the middle size, e.g. F3, C4, C4, C4, G4 G4.[21] Modern nomenclature for such recorders refers to the instruments' relationship to the other members of consort, rather than their absolute pitch, which may vary. The instruments from lowest to highest are called "great bass," "bass," "basset," "tenor," "alto," and "soprano." Potential sizes include: great bass in F2; bass in B♭3 or C3; basset in F3 or G3; tenor in C4 or D4; alto in F4, G4 or A5; and soprano in C5 or D5.[22]

The alto in F4 is the standard recorder of the Baroque, although there is a small repertoire written for other sizes.[23][24] In 17th century England, smaller recorders were named for their relationship to the alto and notated as transposing instruments with respect to it: third flute (A5), fifth flute (soprano; C5), sixth flute (D5), and octave flute (sopranino; F5).[25][26] The term flute du quatre, or fourth flute (B5), was used by Charles Dieupart, although curiously he treated it as a transposing instrument in relation to the soprano rather than the alto. In Germanic countries, the equivalent of the same term, Quartflöte, was applied both to the tenor in C4, the interval being measured down from the alto in F4, and to a recorder in C5 (soprano), the interval of a fourth apparently being measured up from an alto in G4.[5] Recorder parts in the Baroque were typically notated using the treble clef, although they may also be notated in French violin clef (G clef on the bottom line of the staff).

In modern usage, recorders not in C or F are alternatively referred to using the name of the closest instrument in C or F, followed by the lowest note. For example, a recorder with lowest note G4 may be known as a G-alto or alto in G, a recorder with lowest note D5 (also "sixth flute") as a D-soprano or soprano in D, and a recorder in G3 as a G-bass or G-basset. This usage is not totally consistent. Notably, the baroque recorder in D4 is not commonly referred to as a D-tenor nor a D-alto; it is most commonly referred to using the historical name "voice flute."



Recorders have historically been constructed from hardwoods and ivory, sometimes with metal keys. Since the modern revival of the recorder, plastics have been used in the manufacture of recorders, both by mass manufacturers and individual makers.[27]

Today, a wide variety of hardwoods are used to make recorders.[28][29][30][31][32][33] These include the following:

Relatively fewer varieties of wood are used to make recorder blocks, which are typically made of red cedar, chosen because of its rot resistance, ability to absorb water, and low expansion when wet. A recent innovation is the use of synthetic ceramics in the manufacture of recorder blocks.[34]

Larger recorders

Some recorders have tone holes too far apart for a player's hands to reach or too large to cover by the pads of the fingers. In either case, more ergonomically placed keys may be used to cover the tone holes. The use of keys allows for the design of longer instruments with larger tone holes. Keys are most common in recorders larger than the alto. In instruments larger than the tenor, at least one key is necessary to allow the player to cover all eight holes. Keys are sometimes also used on smaller recorders to allow for comfortable hand stretch, and acoustically improved hole placement and size.[35]

When playing a larger recorder, a player may not be able to simultaneously reach the keys or tone holes with the fingers and reach the windway with the mouth. In this case, a bocal may be used to allow the player to blow into the recorder while maintaining a comfortable hand position.[36] Alternatively, some recorders have a bent bore to bring the windway closer to the keys or finger holes, so the player can comfortably reach both. Instruments with a single bend in them are known as "knick" or bent-neck recorders.[37]

Modern developments

Some newer designs of recorder are now being produced. Recorders with a square cross-section may be produced more cheaply and in larger sizes than comparable recorders manufactured by turning.[38][39] Another area is the development of instrument with a greater dynamic range and more powerful bottom notes. These modern designs make it easier to be heard when playing concertos. Finally, recorders with a downward extension of a semitone are becoming available; such instruments can play a full three octaves in tune.[40]

Recorder with German fingering. Note that the 4th finger-hole is larger than the 5th.

German fingering

In the early part of the 20th century, Peter Harlan developed a recorder that allowed for apparently simpler fingering, called German fingering. A recorder designed for German fingering has a hole five that is smaller than hole four—whereas baroque and neo-baroque recorders have a hole four that is smaller than hole five. The immediate difference in fingering is for F and B, which on a neo-baroque instrument must be fingered 0 123 4–67. With German fingering, this becomes a simpler 0 123 4 – – –. Unfortunately, this caused many other chromatic notes to become so out of tune that they were considered unusable.[41] German fingering became popular in Europe, especially Germany, in the 1930s, but rapidly became obsolete in the 1950s as the recorder began to be treated more seriously and the limitations of German fingering became more widely appreciated.[42] Recorders with German fingering are manufactured exclusively for educational purposes.


Modern recorders are most commonly pitched at concert pitch (A=440 Hz), as are pianos and orchestral instruments.

However, among serious amateurs and professionals, two other pitch standards are commonly found. For the performance of baroque music, A=415 Hz is the de facto standard,[43] while pre-Baroque music is often performed at A=440 Hz or A=466 Hz.[44] These pitch standards are intended to reflect the broad variation in pitch standards throughout the history of the recorder. In various regions, contexts, and time periods, pitch standards have varied from A=~392 Hz to A=~520 Hz. The pitches A=415 Hz and A=446 Hz, a semitone lower and a semitone higher than A=440 Hz respectively, were chosen because they may be used with harpsichords or chamber organs that transpose up or down a semitone from A=440.[45] These pitch standards allow recorder players to collaborate with other instrumentalists at a pitch other than A=440 Hz.

Some recorder makers produce instruments at pitches other than the three standard pitches above, and recorders with interchangeable bodies at different pitches.[46][47]

How the instrument is played

Cross-section of the head of a recorder

The recorder is held outwards from the player's lips (rather than to the side, like the "transverse" flute). The player's breath is compressed into a linear airstream by a channel cut into the wooden "block" or fipple (A), in the mouthpiece of the instrument, so as to travel along this channeled duct (B) called the "windway".[48] Exiting from the windway, the breath is directed against a hard edge (C), called the labium or ramp, which causes the column of air within the resonator tube to oscillate with standing waves. Unlike simple whistles where holes are progressively unstopped, the recorder uses half-holing and forking (see below) to modify the position of the nodes.[48]

It is easiest to consider the pressure nodes rather than the displacement nodes. A half hole or a fork fingering does not allow all the pressure to escape, like a leaky valve, and so the pressure under the (half) open hole is higher than expected, leading to the node being displaced down the tube. The analysis of the higher registers produce a series of closely (but not identically) spaced nodes down the tube, which, since they are coupled, modify each other to produce a single pitch.

Basic fingering

Note 1: See the section Types of recorder concerning recorders tuned in C or in F.
Note 2: Individual recorders may need this hole to be closed (●), half closed (◐), or open (○) to play the note in tune.
● means to cover the hole. ○ means to uncover the hole. ◐ means half-cover.

How the fingers and holes are numbered
Fingers Holes

The range of a modern recorder is usually taken to be about two octaves except in virtuoso pieces. See the table above for fingerings of notes in the nominal recorder range of 2 octaves and 1 whole tone. Notes above this range are more difficult to play, and the exact fingerings vary from instrument to instrument, so it is impractical to put them into the table here.[49] The numbers at the top correspond to the fingers and the holes on the recorder, according to the pictures.

The note two octaves and one semitone above the lowest note (C for soprano, tenor and great bass instruments; F for sopranino, alto and bass instruments) is difficult to play on most recorders. These notes are best played by covering the end of the instrument (the "bell"); players typically use their upper leg to accomplish this. Some recorder makers added a special bell key for this note – newer recorder designs with longer bores also solve this problem and extend the range even further. The note is only occasionally found in pre-20th-century music, but it has become standard in modern music.[41]

Recorders with Ganassi fingering have, for a tenor C recorder, the bottom hole open for the lower f, no holes covered at all for the d above that f, and shaded fingering for the upper f. The upper a has holes covered below. The upper e flat is fingered like the f above it, with hole 5 covered.[50]

Some fonts show miniature glyphs of complete recorder fingering charts in TrueType format.[51] Because there are no Unicode values for complete recorder fingering charts, these fonts are custom encoded.

Half-holing, forking, and shading

The lowest chromatic scale degrees – a semitone and a minor third above the lowest note – are played by covering only a part of a hole, a technique known as "half-holing." Most modern instruments are constructed with double holes or keys to facilitate the playing of these notes; such double holes are occasionally found on baroque instruments, where even the hole for the third finger of the left hand can be doubled.[52] Other chromatic scale degrees are played by so-called "fork" fingerings, uncovering one hole and covering one or more of the ones below it. Fork fingerings have a different tonal character from the diatonic notes, giving the recorder a somewhat uneven sound. Budget tenor/bass recorders might have a single key for low C/F but not low C/F, making this note virtually impossible to play. Double low keys allowing both C/F and C/F are more or less standard today.[41]

Ganassi's (1535) fingering for the note an octave and fourth above the lowest note shades hole 6.[50] These fingerings are thus both forked and half-holed. They are not chromatic notes as they are B for a bass recorder, F for a tenor recorder, and C for a Renaissance G alto. The note one whole tone below is fingered the same, but with hole 5 covered.

Pinching and rolling

Most of the notes in the second octave and above are produced by partially opening the thumbhole on the back of the recorder, a technique known as "pinching". There are two basic methods for achieving this: a) drawing the thumb away from the hole, and b) bending the thumb.[53] The first method uses only the skin of the thumb to define the opening; it is also known as "rolling" and has been placed on a par with "efficient" pinching of the second method.[54] The second method uses also the nail edge, which enables better feel and thus control of the size of the opening.[53] The placement of the thumb is crucial to the tone, intonation and stability of these notes, and varies as the notes increase in pitch, making the boring of a double hole for the thumb unviable. To play the notes in the second register and above, the player must generally blow more air into the instrument and/or tongue somewhat harder to excite the second or upper harmonics of the instrument.[41] This is, however, not universally true; it is possible for example to slur piano between and in the second and third registers.[55]

Notes in the third octave

A woman and girl playing recorders at Fort Ross State Historic Park in 2015

A skilled player can, with a good recorder, play chromatically over two octaves and a fifth. Use of notes in the 3rd octave is becoming more common in modern compositions; several of these notes require closure of the bell or shading of the window area[56] (i.e. holding the palm of the hand above the window, partially restricting the air emerging from it). In the hands of a competent player, these upper notes are not especially loud or shrill.

The Renaissance recorder had a normal range of one octave and a perfect fifth, though exceptional players could extend the range upward by one or two notes, and Ganassi found fingerings that would work for five further notes—though they varied according to the maker of the instrument.[57] In 1619, Michael Praetorius explained that the larger sizes of recorders are only normally able to manage 13 notes (an octave and a fifth), and the better-made smaller ones can reach one more note. However, especially skilled instrumentalists are able to add four more "falsetto notes", reaching two octaves and a third.[58] Modern reproductions of Renaissance instruments, especially those from the middle of the last century, often have a range as little as one and a half octaves.[59]


Changes in dynamics are not easy to achieve on the recorder if the player is accustomed to other wind instruments. The general belief is that if the player blows harder to play louder, or more softly to play softer, the pitch changes and the note goes out of tune, and unlike the transverse flute, the player cannot change the position of the mouth in relation to the labium in order to compensate, and that therefore the recorder is not capable of dynamic changes. This is misleading. It is true that in the hands of a skilled player changes in dynamics by simply blowing harder or softer are possible provided the instrument is of a high quality and the player knows the instrument well. Subtle changes in wind pressure are possible if the player has a good ear for tuning and knows how hard the instrument can be pushed before pitch changes become noticeable. But this is not the correct approach to recorder dynamics.[41][60] On the recorder it is better to think of the breath controlling pitch, and the fingers controlling dynamics; for example by resting the fingers lightly on the holes breath leaks around them, lifting the pitch; and the resulting instinctive change in breath pressure to bring the pitch back also drops the volume. Advanced players use alternative fingerings to enable changes in dynamics.[61] The recorder is notable for its sensitivity to articulation; in addition to its obvious use for artistic effect skilled players can also use this sensitivity to suggest changes in volume.[60]


Middle Ages

The earliest extant duct flutes date to the neolithic. They are found in almost every musical tradition the world around.[62] Recorders are distinguished from other duct flutes primarily by the thumb hole, which is used as an octaving vent, and the presence of seven finger holes, although classification of early instruments has proved controversial.[63] The performing practice of the recorder in its earliest history is not well documented, owing to the lack of surviving records from the time.


Our present knowledge of the structure of recorders in the Middle Ages is based on a small number instruments preserved and artworks, or iconography, from the period.

Surviving instruments

Surviving instruments from the Middle Ages are heterogeneous.

The first medieval recorder to be discovered was a fruitwood instrument ("Dordrecht recorder") excavated in 1940 from the moat surrounding the castle Huis te Merwede ("House on the Merwede") near the town of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. The castle was only inhabited from 1335 to 1418. As the area was not disturbed until the modern excavation, the recorder has been dated to the period of occupation of the castle. The instrument has a cylindrical bore about 11 mm in diameter and is about 300 mm long with a vibrating air column of about 270 mm. The block has survived, but the labium is damaged, making the instrument unplayable. The instrument has tenons on both ends of the instrument, suggesting the presence of now lost ferrules or turnings. Uncertainty regarding the nature of these fittings has hindered reconstruction of the instrument's original state.

A second, structurally different instrument ("Göttingen recorder") was discovered in 1987 in an archaeological excavation of the latrine of a medieval house in Göttingen, Germany. It has been dated to between 1246 and 1322. It is fruitwood in one piece with turnings, measuring about 256 mm long. It has a cylindrical bore about 13.6 mm at the highest measurable point, narrowing to 13.2 mm between the first and second finger holes, to 12.7 to 12.8 mm between the second and third finger holes, and contracting to 11.5 mm at the seventh hole. The bore expands to 14.5 mm at the bottom of the instrument, which has a bulbous foot. Unusually, the finger holes taper conically outwards, the opposite of the undercutting found in Baroque recorders. The top of the instrument is damaged: only a cut side of the windway survives, and the block has been lost. A reconstruction by Hans Reiners has a strident, penetrating sound rich in overtones and has a range of two octaves. With the thumb hole and the first three finger holes covered, the reconstruction produces a pitch ca. 450 Hz.

In the 21st century, a number of other instruments and fragments dated to the medieval period have come to light. These include a 14th-century fragment of a headjoint excavated in Esslingen, Germany ("Esslingen fragment"); a birch instrument dated to the second half of the 14th century unearthed in Tartu, Estonia ("Tartu recorder"); and a fruitwood instrument dated to the 15th century, found in Elblag, Poland ("Elblag recorder").

Common features of the surviving instruments include: a narrow cylindrical bore (except the Göttingen recorder); a doubled seventh hole for the little finger of the lower hand to allow for right- or left- handed playing (except the Tartu recorder); a seventh hole that produces a semitone instead of a tone; and a flat or truncated head, instead of the narrow beak found on later instruments. Additionally, the Esslingen fragment has turnings similar to the Göttingen recorder. No complete instruments larger than 300 mm have survived, although the Esslingen fragment may represent a larger recorder.[64][65]

The widely spaced doubled seventh hole persisted in later instruments. According to Virdung (1511), the hole that was not use was plugged with wax.[66] It was not until the Baroque period, when instruments with adjustable footjoints were developed, that widely spaced double holes became obsolete.

The classification of these instruments is primarily complicated by the fact that the seventh hole produces a semitone instead of a tone. As a result, chromatic fingerings are difficult, and require extensive half-holing. These instrument share similarities with the six holed flageolet, which used three fingers on each hand and had no thumb hole. Anthony Rowland-Jones has suggested that the thumb hole on these early flutes was an improvement upon the flageolet to rovide a stronger fingering for the note an octave above the tonic, while the seventh finger hole was an provided a leading tone to the tonic. As a result, he has suggested that these flutes should be described as improved flageolets, and has proposed the condition that true recorders produce a tone (rather than a semitone) when the seventh finger is lifted.[63]

Controversy aside, there is little question that these instruments are at least precursors to later instruments that are indisputably recorders. Because there is sparse documentary evidence from the earliest history of the instrument, such questions may never be resolved. Indeed, historically there was no need for an all inclusive definition that encompassed every form of the instrument past and present.


Recorders with a cylindrical profile are depicted in many medieval paintings, however their appearance does not easily correspond to the surviving instruments, and may be stylized. The earliest depictions of the recorder are probably in "The Mocking of Christ" from the monastery church of St George in Staro Nagoričano near Kumanovo, Macedonia (the painting of the church began in 1315) in which a man plays a cylindrical recorder; and the center panel of the "Virgin and Child" attributed to Pedro (Pere) Serra (c1390), painted for the church of S. Clara, Tortosa, now in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, in which a group of angels play musical instruments around the Virgin Mary, one of them playing a cylindrical recorder.[4]

Starting in the Middle Ages, angels have frequently been depicted playing one or more recorders, often grouped around the Virgin, and in several notable paintings trios of angels play recorders. This is perhaps a sign of the trinity, although the music must have often been in three parts.[4]


No music marked for the recorder survives from prior to 1500. Groups of recorder players or recorder playing angels, particularly trios, are depicted in paintings from the 15th century, indicating the recorder was used in these configurations, as well as with other instruments. Some of the earliest music must have been vocal repertory,

Modern recorder players have taken up the practice of playing instrumental music from the period, perhaps anachronistically, such as the monophonic estampies from the Chansonnier du Roi (13th), Add MS 29987 (14th or 15th), or the Codex Faenza (15th), and have arranged keyboard music, such as the estampies from the Robertsbridge codex (14th), or the vocal works of 15th century composers like Guillaume de Machaut and Johannes Ciconia for recorder ensembles.


In the 16th century, the structure, repertoire, and performing practice of the recorder is better documented than in prior epochs. The recorder was one of the most important wind instruments of the Renaissance, and many instruments dating to the 16th century survive, including some matched consorts.[21][22] This period also produced the first extant books describing the recorder, including the treatises of Virdung (1511), Agricola (1529), Ganassi (1535), Cardano (c1546), Jambe de Fer (1556), and Praetorius (1619). Nonetheless, understanding of the instrument and its practice in this period is still developing.


In the 16th century, the recorder saw important developments in its structure. As in the recorders of the Middle Ages, the etiology of these changes remains uncertain, development was regional and multiple types of recorder existed simultaneously. Our knowledge is based on documentary sources and surviving instruments.

Surviving instruments

Far more recorders survive from the Renaissance than from the Middle Ages. Most of the surviving instruments from the period have a wide, cylindrical bore from the blockline to the uppermost fingerhole, an inverted conical portion down to around the lowest finger hole (the "choke"), then a slight flare to the bell. Externally, they have a curved shape similar to the bore, with a profile like a stretched hourglass. Their sound is warm, rich in harmonics, and somewhat introverted.[4] Surviving consorts of this type, identified by their makers marks, include those marked "HIER S·" or "HIE·S" found in Vienna, Sibiu and Verona; and those marked with variations on a rabbit's footprint, designated "!!" by Adrian Brown, which are dispersed among various museums. The pitch of these recorders is often generally grouped around A=466, however little pitch standardization existed in the period. This type of recorder is described by Praetorius in De Organographia (1619). A surviving consort by "!!" follows the exact size configuration suggested by Praetorius: stacked fifths up from the basset in F3, and down a fifth then a fourth to bass in Bb3 and great bass in F2. Instruments marked "HIER S·" or "HIE·S" are in stacked fifths from great bass in F2 to soprano in E5.[67] Many of these instruments are pitched around A=440 Hz or A=466 Hz, although pitch varied regionally and between consorts.

The range of this type is normally an octave plus a minor 7th, but as remarked by Praetorius (1619) and demonstrated in the fingering tables of Ganassi's Fontegara (1535),[50] experienced players on particular instruments were capable of playing up to a fourth or even a seventh higher (see Documentary evidence: Treatises). Their range is more suitable for the performance of vocal music, rather than purely instrumental music. This type is the recorder typically referred to as the "normal" Renaissance recorder, however this modern appellation does not fully capture the heterogeneity of instruments of the 16th century.

Another surviving Renaissance type has a narrow cylindrical bore and cylindrical profile like the medieval exemplars but a choke at the last hole. The earliest surviving recorders of this type were made by the Rafi family, instrument makers active in Lyons in Southern France in the early 16th century. Two recorders marked "C.RAFI" were acquired by the Accademia Filarmonica, Bologna in 1546, where they remain today. A consort of recorders or similar make, marked "P.GRE/C/E," was donated to the Accademia in 1675, expanding the pair marked "C.RAFI." Other recorders by the Rafi family survive in Northern Europe, notably a pair in Brussels. It is possible that Grece worked in the Rafi workshop, or was a member of the Rafi family. The pitch of the Rafi/Grece instruments is around A=440. They have a relatively quiet sound with good pitch stability favoring dynamic expression.[68][69][70]

In 1556, French author Philibert Jambe de Fer gave a set of fingerings for hybrid instruments like the Rafi and Grece instruments that give a range of two octaves. Here, the 15th was now produced, as on most later recorders, as a variant of the 14th instead of as the fourth harmonic of the tonic, as in Ganassi's tables (see Documentary evidence: Treatises).

Documentary evidence: Treatises
Depictions of recorders in 16th and early 17th century books
"Musica Getutscht" (1511)
Virdung, "Musica Getutscht" (1511)
Agricola, "Musica instrumentalis Deudsch" (1529)
Praetorius, "Syntagma Musicum" (1629)

The first two treatises of the 16th century show recorders that differ from the surviving instruments dating to the century: these are Sebastian Virdung's (b1465?) Musica Getutscht (1511), and Martin Agricola's (1486–1556) similar Musica instrumentalis Deudsch (1529), published in Basel and Saxony respectively.

Musica Getutscht, the earliest printed treatise on western musical instruments, is an extract of an earlier, now lost, manuscript treatise by Virdung, a chaplain, singer, and itinerant musician. The printed version was written in a vernacular form of Early New High German, and was aimed at wealthy urban amateur musicians: the title translates, briefly, as "Music, translated into German ... Everything there is to know about [music] – made simple." When a topic become too complex for Virdung to discuss briefly, he refers the reader to his lost larger work, an unhelpful practice for modern readers. While the illustrations have been called "maddeningly inaccurate" and his perspectives quirky,[71] Virdung's treatise gives us an important source on the structure and performing practice of the recorder in northern Europe in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The recorders described by Virdung have cylindrical profiles with flat heads, narrow windows and long ramps, ring-like turnings on the feet, and a slight external flare at the bell (above, far left and middle left). Virdung depicts four recorders together: a "baßcontra" or "bassus" (basset) in F3 with an anchor shaped key and a perforated fontanelle, two tenors in C4 and a "discantus" (alto) in G4. According to Virdung, the configurations F, C, C, G or F, C, G, G should be used for four-part music, depending on the range of the bass part. As previously mentioned, the accuracy of these woodcuts cannot be verified as no recorders fitting this description survive. Virdung also provides the first ever fingering chart for a recorder with a range of an octave and a seventh, though he says that the bass had a range of only an octave and sixth. In his fingering chart, he numbers which fingers to lift rather than those to put down and, unlike in later charts, numbers them from bottom (1) to top (8). His only other technical instruction is that the player must blow into the instrument and "learn how to coordinate the articulations ... with the fingers."[72]

Martin Agricola's Musica instrumentalis Deudsch ("A German instrumental music, in which is contained how to learn to play ... all kinds of ... instruments"), written in rhyming German verse (ostensibly to improve the understanding and retention of its contents), provides a similar account and copies most of its woodcuts directly from Getutscht. Agricola also calls the tenor "altus," mistakenly depicting it as a little smaller than the tenor in the woodcut (above, middle right). Like Virdung, Agricola takes it for granted that recorders should be played in four-part consorts. Unlike Getutscht, which provides a single condensed fingering chart, Agricola provides separate, slightly differing, fingering charts for each instrument, leading some to suppose that Agricola experimented on three different instruments, rather than copying the fingerings from one size to the other two.[73] Agricola adds that graces (Mordanten), which make the melody subtil, must be learned from a professional (Pfeiffer), and that the manner of ornamentation (Coloratur) of the organist is best of all.[74] A substantial 1545 revision of Musica Instrumentalis approvingly mentions the use of vibrato (zitterndem Wind) for woodwind instruments, and includes an account of articulation, recommending the syllables de for semi-minims and larger, di ri for semi-minims and smaller, and the articulation tell ell ell ell el le, which he calls the "flutter-tongue" (flitter zunge) for the smallest of note values, found in passagi (Colorirn).

The next treatise comes from Venice: Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego's (1492 – mid-1500s) Opera Intitulata Fontegara (1535), which is the first work to focus specifically on the technique of playing the recorder, and perhaps the only historical treatise ever published that approaches a description of a professional or virtuoso playing technique. Ganassi was a musician employed by the Doge and at the Basilica di San Marco at the time of the work's publication, and indication of his high level of accomplishment, and later wrote two works on the playing the viol and the violone, although he does not mention being employed by the Doge after Fontegara.[75]

Fontegara can be broadly divided into two parts: the first concerns the technique of playing the recorder, the second demonstrated divisions (regole, passagi, ornaments), some of great complexity, which the player may use to ornament a melody or, literally, "divide" it into smaller notes. In all aspects, Ganassi emphasizes the importance of imitating the human voice, declaring that "the aim of the recorder player is to imitate as closely as possible all the capabilities of the human voice," maintaining that the recorder is indeed able to do this. For Ganassi, imitation of the voice has three aspects: "a certain artistic proficiency," which seems to be the ability to perceive the nature of the music, prontezza (dexterity or fluency), achieved "by varying the pressure of the breath and shading the tone by means of suitable fingering," and galanteria (elegance or grace), achieved by articulation, and by the use of ornaments, the "simplest ingredient" of them being the trill, which varies according to the expression.

Ganassi gives fingering tables for a range of an octave and a seventh, the standard range also remarked by Praetorius, then tells the reader that he has discovered, through long experimentation, more notes not known to other players due to their lack of perseverance, extending the range to two octaves and a sixth. Ganassi gives fingerings for three recorders with different makers marks, and advises the reader to experiment with different fingerings, as recorders vary in their bore. The makers mark of one of the recorders, in the form of a stylized letter "A," has been associated with the Schnitzer family of instrument makers in Germany, leading Hermann Moeck to suppose that Ganassi's recorder might have been Northern European in origin.[76] (see also Note on "Ganassi" recorders)

Ganassi uses three basic kinds of syllables te che, te re, and le re and also varies the vowel used with the syllable, suggesting the effect of mouth shape on the sound of the recorder. He gives many combinations of these syllables and vowels, and suggests the choice of the syllables according to their smoothness, te che being least smooth and le re being most so. He does not, however, demonstrate how the syllables should be used to music.

Most of the treatise consists of tables of diminutions of intervals, small melodies and cadences, categorized by their meter. These divisions, of which there are several hundred, make use of quintuplets, septuplets, note values from whole notes to 32nd notes in modern notation, and demonstrate immense variety and complexity.

The frontispiece to Fontegara shows three recorder players play together with two singers. Like Agricola and Virdung, Ganassi takes for granted that recorders should be played in groups of four, and come in three sizes: F3, C4 and G4. He makes a distinction between solo playing and ensemble playing, noting that what he has said is for solo players, and that when playing with others, it is most important to match them. Unfortunately, Ganassi gives only a few ornamented examples with little context for their use. Nonetheless, Ganassi offers a tantalizing glimpse at a highly developed professional culture and technique of woodwind playing that modern players can scarcely be said to have improved upon.[77]

Girolamo Cardano's (also Jerome Cardan, 1501–1576) De Musica was written around 1546, but not published until 1663 when it was published along with other works by Cardan, who was an eminent philosopher, mathematician and physician as well as a keen amateur recorder player who learned from a professional teacher, Leo Oglonus, as a child in Milan.

His account corroborates that of Ganassi, using the same three basic syllables and emphasizing the importance of breath control and ornamentation in recorder playing, but also documents several aspects of recorder technique otherwise undocumented until the 20th century. These include multiple techniques using the partial closing of the bell: to produce a tone or semitone below the tonic, and to change semitones into dieses (half semitones), which he says can also be produced by "repercussively bending back the tongue."[78] He also adds that the position of the tongue, either extended or turned up towards the palate, can be used to improve, vary, and color notes. He is the first to differentiate between the amount of the breath (full, shallow, or moderate) and the force (relaxed or slow, intense, and the median between them) as well as the different amount of air required for each instrument, and describes a trill or vibrato called a vox tremula in which "a tremulous quality in the breath" is combined with a trilling of the fingers to vary the interval from anything between a major third and a diesis. He is also the first writer to mention the recorder in D5 ("discantus"), which he leaves unnamed.[78]

Composer and singer Philibert Jambe de Fer (c. 1515 – c. 1566) was the only French author of the 16th century to write about the recorder, in his "Epitome musical." He complains of the French name for the instrument, fleutte à neuf trouz ("flute with nine holes") as, in practice, one of the lowermost holes must be plugged, leaving only eight open holes. He prefers fleute d'Italien or the Italian flauto. His fingering chart is notable for two reasons, first for describing fingerings with the 15th produced as a variant on the 14th, and for using the third finger of the lower hand as a buttress finger, although only for three notes in the lower octave.[78] (see also Renaissance structure)

Aurelio Virgiliano's "Il dolcimelo" (c1600) presents ricercars intended for or playable on the recorder, a description of other musical instruments, and a fingering chart for a recorder in G4 similar to Jambe de Fer's.[79]

The Syntagma musicum (1614–20), of Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) in three volumes (a fourth was intended but never finished) is an encyclopedic survey of music and musical instruments. Volume II, De Organographia (1619) is of particular interest for its description of no fewer than eight sizes of recorder (klein Flötlein or exilent in G5, discant in C5 or D5, alt in G4, tenor in C4, basset in F3, bass in Bb3, and grossbass in F2) as well as the four-holed gar kleine Plockflötlein.

Praetorius was the first author to explain that recorders can confuse the ear into believing that they sound an octave lower than pitch, which phenomenon has more recently been explained in relation to the recorder's lack of high harmonics. He also shows the different "registers" of consort possible, 2′ (discant, alt, and tenor), 4′ (alt, tenor, and basset), and 8′ (tenor, basset, and bass). (see also Nomenclature) Additionally, he proposed cutting the recorder between the beak and the first finger hole to allow for a kind of tuning slide to raise or lower its pitch, similar to the Baroque practice of adjusting a recorder's pitch by "pulling out" the top joint of the recorder.

The recorders described in Praetorius are of the "stretched hourglass" profile (see above, far right). He gives fingerings like those of Ganassi, and remarks that they normally have a range of an octave and a sixth, although exceptional players could extend that range by a fourth.

"Double recorder"

Some paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries depict musicians playing what appear to be two end-blown flutes simultaneously. In some cases, the two flutes are evidently disjoint, separate flutes of similar make, played angled away from each other, one pipe in each hand. In others, flutes of the same length have differing hand positions. In a final case, the pipes are parallel, in contact with each other, and differ in length.[80][81] While the iconographic criteria for a recorder are typically a clearly recognizable labium and a double handed vertical playing technique,[65] such criteria are not prescriptive, and it is uncertain whether any of these depictions should be considered a single instrument, or constitute a kind of recorder. The identification of the instrument depicted is further complicated by the symbolism of the aulos, a double piped instrument associated with the satyr Marsyas of Greek mythology.

An instrument consisting of two attached, parallel, end-blown flutes of differing length, dating to the 15th or 16th century, was found in poor condition near All Souls College in Oxford. The instrument has four holes finger-holes and a thumb hole for each hand. The pipes have an inverted conical "choke" bore (see Renaissance structure). Bob Marvin has estimated that the pipes played a fifth apart, at approximately C5 and G5.[82] The instrument is sui generis. Although the instrument's pipes have thumb holes, the lack of organological precedent makes classification of the instrument difficult. Marvin has used the terms "double recorder" and the categorization-agnostic flauto doppio (double flute) to describe the Oxford instrument.

Marvin has designed a flauto doppio based on the Oxford instrument, scaled to play at F4 and C5. Italian recorder maker Francesco Livirghi has designed a double recorder or flauto doppio with connected, angled pipes of the same length but played with different hand positions, based on iconographic sources. Its pipes play at F4 and B5.[80] Both instruments use fingerings of the makers' design.

Note on "Ganassi" recorders

In the 1970s, when recorder makers began to make the first models of recorders from the 16th and 17th centuries, such models were not always representative of the playing characteristics of the original instruments. Especially notable is Fred Morgan's much copied "Ganassi" model, based loosely on an instrument in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches museum (inventory number SAM 135), was designed to use the fingerings for the highest notes in Ganassi's tables in Fontegara. As Morgan knew, these notes were not in standard use; indeed Ganassi uses them in only a few of the hundreds of diminutions contained in Fontegara. Historically, such recorders did not exist as a distinct type, and the fingerings given by Ganassi were those of a skilled player particularly familiar with his instruments. When modern music is written for 'Ganassi recorders' it means this type of recorder.[83]


Recorders were probably first used to play vocal music, later adding purely instrumental forms like dance music to their repertoire. Much of the vocal music of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries can be played on recorder consorts, and as illustrated in treatises from Virdung to Praetorius, the choice appropriate instruments and transpositions to play vocal music was common practice in the Renaissance. Additionally, some collections such as those of Pierre Attaingnant and Anthony Holborne, indicate that their instrumental music was suitable for recorder consorts.[84] This section first discusses repertoire marked for the recorder, then briefly, other repertoire played on recorder.

In 1505 Giovanni Alvise, a Venetian wind player, offered Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua a motet to be played on eight recorders, however the work has not survived.

Pierre Attaingnant's (fl. 1528–1549) Vingt & sept chansons musicales a quatre parties a la fleuste dallement…et a la fleuste a neuf trous (1533) collects 28 (not 27, as in the title) four-part instrumental motets, nine of which he says were suitable for performance on flutes (fleustes dallement, "German flutes"), two on recorders (fleuestes a neuf trous, "Nine holed flutes," "recorders"), and twelve suitable for both. Of the twelve marked for both, seven use chiavi naturali, or low-clefs typically used for recorders, while the others use the chiavette clefs used in the motets marked for flutes. Hence, the seven notated in chiavi naturali could be considered more appropriate for recorders. Vingt et sept chansons is the first published music marked for a recorder consort. Earlier is a part for Jacobus Barbireau’s song "Een vrolic wesen," apparently for recorder, accompanying the recorder fingering chart in Livre plaisant et tres utile... (Antwerp, 1529), a partial French translation of Virdung's Musica getutscht.

Jacques Moderne's S’ensuyvent plusieurs basses dances tant communes que incommunes published in the 1530s, depicts a four-part recorder consort like those described in Virdung, Agricola, Ganassi and others, however the dances are not marked for recorders. His Musique de joye (1550) contains ricercares and dances for performance on "espinetes, violons & fleustes."

In 1539–40, Henry VIII of England, also a keen amateur player (see Cultural significance), imported five brothers of the Bassano family from Venice to form a consort, expanded to six members in 1550, forming a group that maintained an exceptional focus on the recorder until at least 1630 when the recorder consort was combined with the other wind groups. Most wind bands consisted of players playing sackbutts, shawms, and other loud instruments doubling on recorder. Some music probably intended for this group survives, including dance music by Augustine and Geronimo Bassano from the third quarter of the 16th century, and the more elaborate fantasias of Jeronimo Bassano (c1580), four in five parts and one in six parts. Additionally, the Fitzwilliam wind manuscript (GB-Cfm 734) contains wordless motets, madrigals and dance pieces, including some by the Bassano family, probably intended for a recorder consort in six parts.[85]

The English members of the Bassano family, having originated in Venice, were also probably familiar with the vocal style, advanced technique, and complex improvised ornamentation described in Ganassi's Fontegara, and they were probably among the recorder players who Ganassi reports having worked and studied with: when they were brought to England, they were regarded as some of the best wind players in Venice. While most of the music attributed to the consort uses only a range of a 13th, it is possible that the Bassano's were familiar with Ganassi's extended range.[86]

Recorders were also played with other instruments, especially in England, where it was called a mixed consort or "broken consort."

Other 16th century composes whose instrumental music can be played well on recorder consorts include

Other notable composers of the Renaissance whose music may be played on the recorder include

Cultural significance

The recorder achieved great popularity in the 16th century, and is one of the most common instruments of the Renaissance. From the 15th century onwards, paintings show upper-class men and women playing recorder, and Virdung's didactic treatise Musica getutscht (1511), the first of its kind, was aimed at the amateur (see also Documentary evidence). Famously, at Henry VIII of England was an avid player of the recorder, and at his death in 1547 an inventory of his possessions included 76 recorders in consorts of various sizes and materials.[87] Some Italian paintings from the 16th-century show aristocracy of both sexes playing the recorder, however many gentlemen found it unbecoming to play because it uses the mouth, preferring the lute and later the viol.[4]

At the turn of the 17th century, playwright William Shakespeare famously referenced the recorder in his most substantial play, "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," creating an extended metaphor between manipulation and playing a musical instrument.[88] Poet John Milton also referenced the recorder in his most famous work, the epic poem Paradise Lost published in 1667, in which the recently fallen angels in Hell "move / in perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood / of flutes and soft recorders," recalling both the affect of the Dorian mode as the mode of calling to action, and the use of flutes by the Spartans of ancient Greece, although the specification of the recorder is anachronistic in this context.[89][90]

Baroque recorders

Alto recorder

Several changes in the construction of recorders took place in the 17th century, resulting in the type of instrument generally referred to as Baroque recorders, as opposed to the earlier Renaissance recorders. These innovations allowed baroque recorders to possess a tone regarded as "sweeter" than that of the earlier instruments,[91] at the expense of a reduction in volume, particularly in the lowest notes.

In the 18th century, rather confusingly, the instrument was normally referred to simply as Flute (Flauto) – the transverse form was separately referred to as Traverso. In the 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major, J.S. Bach calls for two flauti d'echo. The musicologist Thurston Dart mistakenly suggested that it was intended for flageolets at a higher pitch, and in a recording under Neville Marriner using Dart's editions it was played an octave higher than usual on sopranino recorders. An argument can be made that the instruments Bach identified as flauti d'echo were echo flutes, an example of which survives in Leipzig to this day. It consisted of two recorders in f' connected together by leather flanges: one instrument was voiced to play softly, the other loudly. Vivaldi wrote three concertos for the flautino and required the same instrument in his opera orchestra. In modern performance, the flautino was initially thought to be the piccolo. It is now generally accepted, however, that the instrument intended was some variant of the sopranino recorder.[92]

During the baroque period, the recorder was traditionally associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images of recorders can be found in literature and artwork associated with all of these. Purcell, Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi used the recorder to suggest shepherds and imitate birds in their music.[93]

Classical and Romantic

The recorder was little used in art music of the Classical and Romantic periods. Researchers have long debated why this change occurred, and to what extent the recorder continued to be used in the late 18th century, and later the 19th century. A significant question in this debate is that of which, if any, duct flutes of this time period are recorders or successors to recorders.


The recorder work of the latter half of the 18th century most known today is probably a trio sonata by C.P.E Bach, Wq.163, composed in 1755—an arrangement of a trio sonata for two violins and continuo, scored for the unusual ensemble of viola, bass recorder and continuo.[94] This work is also notable for being perhaps the only significant surviving historical solo work for bass recorder. Also of note are the works of Johann Christoph Schultze (c. 1733–1813), who wrote two concertos for the instrument, one in G-major and another in Bb-major, written around 1740.[95] The last occurrences of the recorder in art music appear to be two uses by Carl Maria von Weber in Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (1801) and Kleiner Tusch (1806). Hector Berlioz may have intended "La fuite en Egypte" from L’enfance du Christ (1853) for the instrument.[4] Donizetti owned three recorders.[78]

The decline

Many reasons supporting the conventional view that the recorder declined have been proposed. The first significant explanation for the recorder's decline was proposed by Waitzman (1967),[96] who proposed six reasons:

  1. The recorder lacked a significant class of professional players
  2. The recorder's true nature was not appreciated
  3. The high tessitura of the instrument discouraged composers from writing idiomatically for the instrument
  4. The exploitation of the highest registers posed special problems for makers and players
  5. Interest in clarino (4' pitch) instruments was waning
  6. As a result of the first five factors, the recorder had a bad reputation, which discouraged students from studying the instrument

In the Baroque, the majority of professional recorder players were primarily oboists or string players. For this reason, the number of professional exponents of the recorder was smaller than that of other woodwinds.

Regarding tessitura, the range in which the baroque recorder produces a most brilliant and projecting sound is in the second octave. As seen in the concertos of Telemann and Vivaldi, which exploit the highest range of the instrument, the volume difference between the registers of the recorder must be exploited with care.

Measured from its lowest to its highest playable note, the baroque recorder has a range of two octaves and a fifth, however most instruments from the period cannot produce the augmented tonic, the third and the fourth in the third octave. Notably, Telemann's concerto TWV 51:F1 makes exceptional use of other notes in the third octave, however not all recorders of the time were capable of playing these, and players faced the technical challenge of producing these notes through covering the bell, or other means.

Others attribute the decline of the recorder in part to the flute innovators of the time, such as Grenser, and Tromlitz, who extended the transverse flute's range and evened out its tonal consistency through the addition of keys, or to the supposedly greater dynamic range and volume of the flute.[97] Similar developments occurring in many other orchestral instruments to make them louder, increase their range, and increase their tonal consistency did not simultaneously occur in the case of the recorder.

Another group of explanations is related to changes in musical culture. The growing size of the orchestra may have made it difficult for the recorder to be heard in a concert setting, and the decrease in amateur music played in the house may have decreased the demand for recorders and recorder music.

Another opposing view, which has recently been advanced by Nikolaj Tarasov, is that the recorder, rather than declining, evolved in similar ways to other wind instruments through the addition of keys and other devices, and continued to be used throughout the 19th century, with its popularity in other forms overlapping with the late 19th and early 20th century recorder "revival."[98] This viewpoint has only recently been introduced and is not widely held, however research into its premises, notably the tracing of the development of duct flutes in the 19th century and research into their repertoire, is ongoing.

Other duct flutes

Duct flutes continued to be popular even as the recorder waned in the 18th century. As in the instrument's earliest history, questions of the instrument's quiddity are at the forefront of modern debate. The modification and renaming of recorders in the 18th century in order to prolong their use and the uncertainty of the extent of the recorder's use the late 18th and early 19th centuries have fueled these debates. Recently, some researchers have contended that some 19th century duct flutes are indeed recorders. This article briefly discusses the duct flutes presented as successors to the recorder: the English flageolet and the csakan, which were popular among amateurs in the second half of the 18th century, and the whole of the 19th.

French flageolet, left; English flageolet, right. Mid 19th c. Note the seven finger holes and single thumb hole of the English flageolet

The word "flageolet" has been used since the 16th century to refer to small duct flutes, and the instrument is sometimes designated using general terms such as flautino and flauto piccolo, complicating identification of its earliest form. It was first described by Mersenne in Harmonie universelle (1636) as having four fingers on the front, and two thumb holes on the back, with lowest note C6 and a compass of two octaves. Like the recorder, the upper thumb hole is used as an octaving vent. Flageolets were generally small flutes, however their lowest note varies.[99] They were initially popular in France, and it is from there that the flageolet first arrived in England in the seventeenth century, becoming a popular amateur instrument, as the recorder later did. Indeed, when the recorder was introduced to England it was presented as an easy instrument for those who already played the flageolet, and the earliest English recorder tutors are notated in the flageolet tablature of the time, called "dot-way."[78] Notably, the diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) and his wife were both amateur players of the flageolet, and Pepys was later an amateur recorder player.

Starting in the early 1800s, a number of innovations to the flageolet were introduced, including the addition of keys to extend its range and allow it to more easily play accidentals. They also included novel solutions to the problem of condensation: most commonly, a sea sponge was placed inside the wind chamber (the conical chamber above the windway) to soak up moisture, while novel solutions like the insertion of a thin wooden wedge into the windway, the drilling of little holes in the side of the block to drain condensation and a complex system for draining condensation through a hollowed out block developed, were also developed.[100] Around 1800 in England, the recorder ("English flute," see Name) came to be called an "English flageolet," appropriating the name of the more fashionable instrument. From at least this time to the present, the flageolet in its first form has been called the French flageolet to differentiate it from the so-called English flageolet.[101]

From around 1803, when the London instrument maker William Bainbridge obtained number of patents for improvements to the English flageolet, instruments were often referred as "improved" or "patent" flageolets with little reference to how they actually differed from their predecessors. In this period, the instrument had six finger holes and single thumb hole, and had as many as six keys. Tarasov reports that the English flageolets of the late 18th century had six finger holes and no thumb hole, and later regained the thumb hole seventh finger hole (see above, right).[98] The English flageolet never reached the level of popularity that the "French" flageolet enjoyed in the 19th century, possibly because the latter instrument was louder. Both remained popular until the beginning of the 20th century.

A significant amount of music was written for the flageolet in the 19th century, like the etudes of Narcisse Bousquet although much of it was directed at amateurs.

English flageolets that may qualify as recorders are of two types: those early instruments, called "English flageolets," which were actually recorders, and 19th century instruments with seven finger holes and a thumb hole. These instruments are not typically regarded as recorders, however Tarasov has argued for their inclusion in the family.


The csakan (from Hung. csákány "pickaxe"), also known by the recorder's old french name flute douce, was a duct flute in the shape of a walking stick or oboe popular in Vienna from about 1800 to the 1840s. The csakan was played using the fingerings of a recorder in C, and was typically pitched in A-flat or G and played as a transposing instrument. The first documented appearance of the csakan was at a concert in Budapest on February 18, 1807 in a performance by its billed inventor, Anton Heberle (fl. 1806–16). Tarasov has contested Heberle's status as the inventor of the instrument, and has argued that the csakan grew out of a Hungarian war hammer of the same name, which was converted into a recorder, perhaps for playing military music. Around 1800, it was highly fashionable for walking sticks to be combined with other functions (e.g. umbrellas, swords, flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns) although the csakan was the most popular of these, and the only one that became a musical instrument in its own right.[102]

The earliest instruments were shaped like a walking stick with a mouthpiece in the handle and had no keys, although they could eventually have up to thirteen keys, along with a tuning slide and a device for narrowing the thumb hole. In the 1820s a csakan "in the pleasing shape of an oboe" was introduced in a "simple" form with a single key and a "complex" form with up to twelve keys like those found on contemporaneous flutes. Well known makers of the csakan included Johann Ziegler and Stephan Koch in Vienna, and Franz Schöllnast in Pressburg. According to accounts left by Schöllnast, the csakan was primarily an amateur instrument, purchased by those who wanted something simple and inexpensive, however there were also accomplished professionals, such as Viennese court oboist Ernst Krähmer (1795–1837) who toured as far afield as Russia, playing the csakan with acclaimed virtuosity.[103]

Around 400 works for the csakan were published in the first half of the 19th century, mainly for csakan solo, csakan duet or csakan with guitar or piano. The csakan's repertoire has not yet been fully explored. Notable composers for the instrument include Heberle and Krähmer, and Tarasov notes that piano works by Beethoven were arranged for csakan and guitar (Beethoven is reported to have owned a walking-stick csakan). Modern recorder makers such as Bernhard Mollenhauer and Martin Wenner have made csakan copies.[104][105]

Similarities in fingering and design make the csakan at least a close relative of the recorder. Accounts of Krähmer's playing, which report his "diminishing and swelling the notes, up to an almost unbelievable loudness" imply a developed technique using shading and alternate fingerings, far beyond a purely amateur culture of house music. Additionally, Tarasov reports that some recorders by Baroque makers were modified, around 1800, through the addition of keys, including a J.C. Denner (1655–1707) basset recorder in Budapest and an alto by Nikolaus Staub (1664–1734) with added G keys, like the D key on a baroque two-key flute. Another modification is the narrowing of the thumb hole, by way of an ivory plug on the J.C. Denner basset and an alto by Benedikt Gahn (1674–1711), to allow it to serve purely as an octaving vent, as found on many flageolets and csakans. These changes may be archetypal to those found on csakans and flageolets, and constitute an inchoate justification for the continuous development of the Baroque recorder into its 19th-century relatives.[106]

Modern revival

The recorder was revived around the turn of the 20th century by early music enthusiasts, but used almost exclusively for this purpose. It was considered a mainly historical instrument.

The eventual success of the recorder in the modern era is often attributed to Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various German scholar/performers. While he was responsible for broadening interest beyond that of the early music specialist in the UK, Dolmetsch was far from being solely responsible for the recorder's revival. On the Continent his efforts were preceded by those of musicians at the Brussels Conservatoire (where Dolmetsch received his training), and by the performances of the Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle (Bogenhausen Artists' Band) based in Germany. Over the period from 1890–1939 the Bogenhausers played music of all ages, including arrangements of classical and romantic music. Also in Germany, the work of Willibald Gurlitt, Werner Danckerts and Gustav Scheck proceeded quite independently of the Dolmetsches.[107] Thus the revival, far from being the work of one man, was the result of several strands coming and working together.

Among the influential virtuosos who figure in the revival of the recorder as a serious concert instrument in the latter part of the 20th century are Ferdinand Conrad, Kees Otten, Frans Brüggen, Roger Cotte, Hans-Martin Linde, Bernard Krainis, and David Munrow. Brüggen recorded most of the landmarks of the historical repertoire and commissioned a substantial number of new works for the recorder. Munrow's 1975 double album The Art of the Recorder remains as an important anthology of recorder music through the ages.

Another notable performer is Michala Petri, who has toured, recorded discs of old and new pieces, and had several works written for her, including concertos by Malcolm Arnold and Richard Harvey.

Carl Dolmetsch, the son of Arnold Dolmetsch, became one of the first virtuoso recorder players in the 1920s; but more importantly he began to commission recorder works from leading composers of his day, especially for performance at the Haslemere festival, which his father ran. Initially as a result of this, and later as a result of the development of a Dutch school of recorder playing led by Kees Otten, the recorder was introduced to serious musicians as a virtuoso solo instrument both in Britain and in northern Europe, and consequently modern composers of great stature have written for the recorder, including Paul Hindemith, Luciano Berio, Jürg Baur, Josef Tal, John Tavener, Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Jacob, Malcolm Arnold, Steven Stucky and Edmund Rubbra.

The recorder is often used in popular music, including that of groups such as The Beatles;[108] the Rolling Stones (see, for example, "Ruby Tuesday"); Yes, for example, in the song "I've Seen All Good People"; Jefferson Airplane (see Personnel as well as Grace Slick); Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven); Jimi Hendrix;[109] Siouxsie and the Banshees;[110] Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention; Dido (e.g. "Grafton Street"); and Mannheim Steamroller.

Etherea (Colin Ross, 1995)
New-age music performed on the recorder. 03:08 minutes

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Some modern music calls for the recorder to produce unusual noises, rhythms and effects, by such techniques as flutter-tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics. David Murphy's 2002 composition Bavardage is an example, as is Hans-Martin Linde's Music for a Bird.

Among late 20th-century and early 21st-century recorder ensembles, the trio Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, the Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet and Quartet New Generation have programmed remarkable mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire. Soloists such as Piers Adams, Maurice Steger, and Dorothee Oberlinger have toured and recorded widely.

In the 2012 Charlotte Barbour-Condini became the first recorder player to reach the final of the biennial BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.[111] Recorder player Sophie Westbrooke was a finalist in the 2014 competition.[112]


The evolution of the Renaissance recorder into the Baroque instrument is generally attributed to the Hotteterre family, in France. They developed the ideas of a more tapered bore, bringing the finger-holes of the lowermost hand closer together, allowing greater range, and enabling the construction of instruments in several jointed sections. The last innovation allowed more accurate shaping of each section and also offered the player minor tuning adjustments, by slightly pulling out one of the sections to lengthen the instrument.

The French innovations were taken to London by Pierre Bressan, a set of whose instruments survive in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, as do other examples in various American, European and Japanese museums and private collections. Bressan's contemporary, Thomas Stanesby, was born in Derbyshire but became an instrument maker in London. He and his son (Thomas Stanesby junior) were the other important British-based recorder-makers of the early 18th century.

In continental Europe, the Denner family of Nuremberg were the most celebrated makers of this period.

From top to bottom: bass, tenor, alto/treble, soprano/descant and sopranino recorders

Many modern recorders are based on the dimensions and construction of surviving instruments produced by Bressan, the Stanesbys or the Denner family.[113] Well-known larger contemporary makers of recorders include Angel (South Korea), Aulos (Japan),[114] Dolmetsch (England), Fehr, Huber, Kunath, Küng (Switzerland), Moeck (Germany), Mollenhauer (Germany), and Yamaha (Japan). Smaller workshops include names such as Ammann, Blezinger, Boudreau, Adrian Brown, Coomber, Cranmore, Ehlert, Grinter, Marvin, Meyer, Morgan, Netsch, Prescott, Rohmer, Stanesby, Takeyama, and von Huene.[115] French maker Philippe Bolton created an electroacoustic recorder[116] and is among the last to offer mounted bell-keys and double bell-keys for both tenor and alto recorders. Those bell-keys extend easily the range of the instrument to more than three octaves.[117] Invented by Carl Dolmetsch in 1957, he first used the bell-key system publicly in 1958.[118]

Recorder ensembles

The recorder is a very social instrument. Many recorder players participate in large groups or in one-to-a-part chamber groups, and there is a wide variety of music for such groupings including many modern works. Groups of different sized instruments help to compensate for the limited note range of the individual instruments. Four part arrangements with a soprano, alto, tenor and bass part played on the corresponding recorders are common, although more complex arrangements with multiple parts for each instrument and parts for lower and higher instruments may also be regularly encountered.[119]

See also


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  2. For example, Eve O'Kelly describes how Frans Brüggen "achieved worldwide recognition as a recorder virtuoso" in her book The Recorder Today, Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-36681-X. p.62
  3. Bonard, Jean-Marc (January 2001), "The Physicist's Guide to the Orchestra", European Journal of Physics, 22 (1): 89–101, arXiv:physics/0008053Freely accessible, doi:10.1088/0143-0807/22/1/309
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  8. Lydgate, John. Bergen, Henry, ed. Lydgate's Fall of Princes. Oxford University Press. p. 270.
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  11. recorder, n.2. Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). 2005.
  12. "recordeur". Dictionnaire du Moyen Français. Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales. Retrieved 2016-02-05.
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  107. Eve E. O'Kelly, The Recorder Today, Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-36681-X. Chapter 1: The Revival
  108. For example, in Fool on the Hill, according to The Recorder Home Page maintained by Nicholas S. Lander
  109. For example, in the song If 6 Was 9, according to The Recorder Home Page maintained by Nicholas S. Lander
  110. For example in the song Green Fingers, according to's page on the album A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
  111. Charlotte Barbour-Condini, BBC Four
  112. BBC (2014), BBC Young Musician, retrieved 25 November 2014
  113. Information about makers is summarised from sleeve notes of David Munrow's The art of the Recorder, 1975, written by Edgar Hunt, then Head of Renaissance and Baroque music at Trinity College of Music, London
  114. "AULOS Brand". Toyama Musical Instrument Co. Ltd. Retrieved 13 October 2016. The trade mark “AULOS” is taken from Greek mythology...wind instrument with double reed. When our plastic recorders - the first - were launched into the market in 1955, the name AULOS was chosen by Mr. Masaru Hanamura from the Japanese Ministry of Education.
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