The Recorder

 “…from Pyping to playing, from play to pleasure, from pleasure to slouth, from slouth to sleepe, from sleepe to sinne, from sinne to death, from death to the deuill.”

“Barocke Blockflöten” (c.1620), in Syntagma musicum, by Michael Praetorius.

Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (1579)

The recorder (also, the blockflöte or flûte à bec) is an instrument which a remnant of another era.  Popular during the medieval and early modern period, the recorder is a woodwind instrument which is part of a sub-group known as the internal duct flute.

The original wooden recorder has seven holes for the fingers. Unlike later woodwind instruments, however, the recorder does not have a plethora of additional keys to help facilitate simplified fingering patterns.  As such, the fingering for sharps and flats becomes quite complicated, as does the fingering for ornamentation, such as trills and mordents.  These instruments are alternately in the keys of C and F; the descant and tenor are in C, while the sopranino, alto, and bass are in F.  Although not pictured here, the highest pitched recorder is the garklein, in C, and the instruments below the bass recorder are: the great bass in C; the contrabass in F; the sub-great bass in C; and the sub-contrabass in F.

Modern sopranino, descant, alto, tenor, and bass recorders.


Much of the earliest recorder music comes from the Italian troubadours and English court music, and so often had no definitive composer.  The Renaissance period saw composers such as William Byrd and Jacob Van Eyck write for the recorder, among other things.  During its Baroque heyday, J.S. Bach, George F. Handel, Henry Purcell, Georg Philip Telemann, and Antonio Vivaldi composed for recorder.  Many such works were written for the alto and descant recorders.  With the development of more complex fingering systems on louder orchestral woodwind instruments during the eighteenth century, however, the popularity and use of the recorder declined.

Ana and her bass recorder.


The modern recorder was revived toward the end of the nineteenth century, partially alongside the revival of historical performance on authentic instruments.  One of the earliest twentieth-century concerts were the Von Trapp Family Singers, of The Sound of Music (1965) fame.  It is an instrument that is taught in primary school across the world.  Wooden recorders are still widely played, but technological developments in the plastic variety mean that an equally clear and diverse tone can be achieved.

The recorder has been used in the popular music of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Dido.  It is featured in the film scores of John Williams, in the soundtracks of Schindler’s List (1993) and the Harry Potter series, as well as Karl Jenkins’ “Adiemus” song series (1995-2013).

For more information, see:
The Recorder Home Page
How Recorders Work
The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, ed. John Mansfield Thomson and Anthony Rowland-Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).