The bassoon: a guide to the orchestra's largest wind instrument
Like its cousin the oboe, the bassoon has a double reed which gives it a particularly distinctive sound
What is a bassoon?
The bassoon is a woodwind instrument which, like the oboe, has a double reed. This gives it a deep, buzzing quality in the lower notes and a sweet, piercing sound higher up.
Though primarily a tenor and bass instrument, the bassoon’s range is large, extending from B flat below the bass clef to treble E. It’s original name in Italian is fagotto, meaning ‘bundle of sticks’.
What does the bassoon look like?
Comprising a number of joints, the bassoon’s long, wooden, conical body can be separated into four main parts: the bell, extending upward; the bass joint, connecting the bell and the boot; the boot, at the bottom of the instrument and folding over on itself; and the wing joint which extends from boot. The length of an average bassoon is around 135cm, but as the tube has a folded shape, it would actually measure around 260cm if extended to full length.
At the tip of the instrument a fine metal tube known as the bocal is attached. The bassoonist blows into a reed attached to the very end of the bocal. Inside the instrument is a tube which runs the length of the instrument and which steadily widens from the bocal through the u-shape at the bottom and up to the bell at the other end.
Reeds vary from player to player and are customised to best suit the respective bassoonist – beginners use pre-made reeds, but many advanced players make their own.
How is the bassoon played?
The bassoon is typically played while sitting, using a seat strap, but can be played while standing if the player has a harness to hold the instrument.
Sound is produced by blowing air from the mouth to cause the reed to vibrate. The bassoon is unusual among wind instruments, as all ten fingers are used to play its metal keys, including the thumbs. It has an especially 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 to the oboe?
Like the oboe, the bassoon is played with a double reed, but is far bigger and cannot be easily supported by the player's hands alone. It is therefore held diagonally in front of the player and secured with a seat strap if sitting, or a shoulder harness if standing.
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Both the bassoon and oboe have a conical bore (body) – however the bassoon's long body requires a u-turn in the tubing. The bassoon is 135cm, whereas the oboe is just 66cm. A bassoon reed is placed onto a bocal, whereas the oboe reed is placed directly into the instrument.
The bassoon’s range is much larger than the oboe’s: the modern oboe extends just two and a half octaves upward from the 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 variation of bassoon is the contrabassoon, the grandfather of the orchestral wind section, which sounds an octave lower than the bassoon.
Photo: Bassoonist Robert Thompson