When one thinks of the timbre of double reed instruments, we tend to divide them as two groups:

  1. Oboe, English horn, bassoon. (Western instruments.) The sound is very smooth and pure.
  2. Other double-reed instruments around the world, like the ones from Japan, Arab, Turkey, etc. The sound is quite rough, and usually rougher than all instruments in group 1 and single-reed instruments in the same culture.

I am wondering why western double-reed instruments are so smooth. Apparently, people in Europe were able to make improvements on it over time. But how was such improvement made? Is is because the use of new material, or is it because the science of sound is getting better understood?

3 Answers 3


A big part of the difference in sound comes down to the lips. Instruments like the oboe and bassoon are played with the reed between the lips, which act to dampen the higher harmonics that contribute to that "rough" or "wild" sound.

A great comparison is to look at the predecessor of the oboe, the shawm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shawm), which had a wooden mouthpiece called a pirouette that surrounded the reed. The shawm had a much more raucous sound and less dynamic range than the oboe for precisely this reason.

I'm not certain, but I'd be willing to wager a guess than many, if not all, of the non-Western instruments you're referring to similarly isolate the reed from the lips.


I'm gonna take a wild swing at this, with absolutely nothing to back me up but 'intuition'… bear with me.


The West had the Industrial Revolution across the 18th century.
Engineering became king. There was no problem that couldn't be solved by engineering, be it bridges, iron ships, spinning wheels & looms or… musical instruments.

If someone could make a more accurate oboe, they did. Even if a lot of it was still hand-made, prototyping & lathe-work could be improved, so new designs could be tested more quickly.
The idea that an artisan would make an instrument the same way as their father & grandfather had done was pushed aside in the quest for 'improvement'.

By the end of that, everything that could be engineered had been. The race to build a better mouse trap consumed the west for over a century - & never actually stopped, to this day.

"Classical" instruments were swept along in this tide.

In other areas of the world, if an instrument was considered 'ideal & suited to purpose' then it wasn't considered vitally important to 'improve' it just for its own sake.

There's a lot to be said for "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".
I think there were just two different cultural mind-sets behind it. I don't think the actual technology made the difference.


I'm not sure, whether I understand smooth correctly, but would like to add some remarks:

  • In middle age and renaissance the instrumental spectrum was far wider, some of those can be certainly described as "less smooth". I vividly remember hearing a Wikipedia: Rauschpfeife, video at youtube, so I don't think this is mainly a geographic issue.

  • Given that the reeds are practically everywhere made from the the same Arundo donax (until very recently some synthetic materials were starting to become usable), the technical base should be quite similar either.

  • Therefore my favourite explanation, supported by the fact, that all mentioned instruments are played in orchestra - adaptation pressure by orchestras. I once read about the comparison of the more traditional French bassoon versus the German renewed version by Heckel, which introduced a completely different key mechanics. There seems to be quite some agreement, that the French one sounded more idiomatic/colorful, but apparently there are some pitch/loudness combinations, for which - even for expert players - there was always a risk remaining of not sounding properly. Nowadays the German bassoon holds a significant majority all over the world (with some reservations concerning France and apart from authentic period instruments predating both with a much simpler mechanics).

  • I think ‘adaptation pressure by orchestras’ hits the nail of this question on the head. I would speculate that the overtones produced by an oboe / cor anglais / bassoon are far fewer or more consonant than those produced by a rauschpfeife, leading to the oboe blending better with other instruments. (Interest to declare - I play rauschpfeife!) Commented Apr 5, 2020 at 18:44

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