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Every wind instrument which require the two hands to press keys (saxophone, clarinet, oboe…) have the left hand of the player being the top one. This consistency makes it easier to switch from one instrument to another but is there a particular reason for that?

One could think that both hands are equally used on these instruments but I remember, as a left-handed person, trying to grab the saxophone the other way around when I started (it did not last long). There are lefties guitar, while, even if both hands do not have the same role, both of them are pretty active. If there is a physiological reason for having the left hand on top, then why don't we have left-handed wind instruments?

  • No significant benefit but significant price difference due to very small number of instruments is sufficient to discard the idea from my point of view. Note, that all fingering tables would also be affected. – guidot Aug 17 at 15:07
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    @phoog - I guess anyone wanting to learn l.h. piano might struggle to find a teacher. A rich guy did in fact have a l.h. grand made for him. But I doubt l.h. 'boards would be a viable option. – Tim Aug 17 at 16:11
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    @phoog - ambidextrous winds go back further than that. Renaissance recorders almost always have duplicated holes (or keys with basses) for the bottom note, the unused hole being plugged with wax. – Scott Wallace Aug 18 at 14:12
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    A factor that I don't see mentioned is that on many instruments, particularly the saxophones, the right hand bears most of the weight. – badjohn Aug 19 at 16:51
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Western woodwind instruments were played with either hand on top up to the eighteenth century when keys started to be added. The first key on the modern flute was the D-sharp/E-flat key which was on an extra joint and could be rotated for either hand. As more keys were added people finally settled on having the left hand on top and all modern western instruments are built this way.
The concept of right- or left-handedness is irrelevant for woodwind instruments because neither hand dominates, although I once saw a "left-handed" keyed Irish flute, and I've heard of "left-handed" recorders.

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  • I believe I've also heard of left-handed recorders. What do you make of the baroque oboe, though? There are two keys, and only one of them is ambidextrous as far as I can see. – phoog Aug 17 at 15:55
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    @phoog With only one key it was easy to play either way. Once they added a second key they had to settle on one system. The first key was probably left ambidextrous for those who didn't want to use the second key. – PiedPiper Aug 17 at 15:58
  • Same with the baroque bassoon. Instruments with only a few keys had a "forked" key on front that allowed you to play either hand on top. When more and more keys where added, somehow the choice was made to have left hand on top. The modern bassoon start at around 22 keys, but may have up to 28 or even a few more. Most busy finger is left thumb where I have 10 keys on my bassoon. – ghellquist Aug 17 at 18:00
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    Thanks for this answer! Interesting to see how it shifted from ambidextrous to a single design. As I remember trying in the beginning in the wrong way, I would say that the current choice is probably the more natural for right-handed people… – Tom Aug 17 at 18:24
  • @Tom_C Consider it from the perspective of closer in and farther out, and it's not surprising that the majority dominant hand is the one doing the reaching. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Aug 18 at 4:27

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