Two instruments in the woodwind family are the oboe and bassoon. The woodwind family gets their name, because they used to all be made out of wood. Now they are made out of metal, plastic, wood, or some combination of the materials.
Both the oboe and bassoon fit into this category, and share many other similarities as well as differences.
You may be looking at this article because you or your student is trying to decide between the oboe and bassoon, or because you just simply want to know more about them.
This article aims to make you more familiar with the similarities and differences between the oboe and bassoon.
History of Instruments
The bassoon originates from a 16th century instrument that is known by various names, most notable the fagot. It was originally a double reed fastened to a single piece of wood.
In the 17th century, the one-piece instrument was changed into a four-piece instrument to manage the length of the massive amounts of tubing. The bassoon also saw many refinements throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The oboe originates from the antiquity era, known as the zurna with the shawm also existing in overlapping time periods. The actual oboe, known as hautbois in French, was most likely developed in the court of Louis XIV in 1657.
Most of the transformation of the oboe happened in the 1800s, but the final form that is used today, the Conservatory model, was created in 1906 by François Lorée and George Gillet. By this point, the use of finger plates instead of open rings was employed.
Some quick facts on the makeup of the two instruments:
The bassoon and oboe both have a conical bore, however the bassoon's long body requires a U-turn in the tubing.
The bassoon is nearly four and a half feet long, whereas the oboe is a small 26 inches in comparison.
A bassoon reed is placed onto a bocal, whereas the oboe reed gets placed directly into the instrument.
Sound and Range
The bassoon, a bass clef instrument (sometimes tenor clef as well), is found in the key of C. The bassoon has a large range, spanning over three octaves.
The bassoon has a rather mellow tone. In the lowest octave, the tone is full. The middle octave is mellow and light. The upper ocatve is a bit more tense and closed off.
Here is what a bassoon sounds like:
The oboe, another treble clef instrument, is always found in the key of C. The range of an oboe spans almost three whole octaves.
The oboe’s timbre can be described as colorful, nasally, and singing. It is known for its ability to pierce through the sound of an entire ensemble. It is an expressive instrument, with a dark lower octave, and piercing upper octave.
Here is an example of what an oboe sounds like:
An oboe and bassoon both use a double reed that consists of two pieces of cane that vibrate against one another.
However, the bassoon's reed gets placed on a bocal, which is a fine metal tube that is placed in the instrument.
Both oboe and bassoon reeds are sold individually. There are many different types of reeds, check out my article about oboe reeds to read more about those specifically.
For both instruments, store-bought/machine-made reeds are marketed as medium-soft, medium, or medium-hard. These ratings are merely used to help individual players choose the right reed for them.
Both oboe and bassoon reeds are also often hand-made, and as individual players progress that is something that many players choose to learn how to do.
Ease of Learning
The oboe and bassoon are both one of the hardest instruments to learn. They takes a lot of diligent practice and resilience.
For both of the, it is also highly recommended that you find a private instructor. An expert on the instrument will be able to guide beginners through the challenges that come with playing a double reed instrument.
Both of the instruments share the challenge of embouchure and tuning. The embouchure is not a natural thing to make or strengthen, and it takes time to solidify.
The tuning is extremely hard, because you can’t just pull out or push anything in. The reeds are meant to be placed all of the way in the instrument or on the bocal. All of the tuning on double reed instruments is done by loosening or tightening the embouchure and adjusting airflow. The student must have a good ear, because they will be constantly tuning.
It is much easier to make a sound out of the bassoon, because the reed is so much larger. However, students of small stature might have a hard time with hand position. Fingerings on the bassoon also bring some challenges.
Availability of Experts
Experts of instruments are important for the developing player. These experts are the people who teach lessons and share their knowledge with those who don’t have the same amount of experience on the instrument.
Experts on both oboe and bassoon are much harder to find than other instruments like the clarinet. In order to take lessons on the oboe or bassoon, you might need to drive a longer distance to work with an expert.
There are less oboe and bassoonists required in ensembles, and they are notoriously hard to play. This results in there being less experts available to teach.
Along the same vein, maintenance for the oboe and bassoon can get a little bit more complicated. The instruments are so delicate and precise that it takes someone who knows a lot about the instrument to adjust it correctly.
Similar to experts that are available to teach the instruments, experts available to maintain them are limited. I would recommend taking your oboe and bassoons into a specialist, because they will know exactly what to do with the instrument.
Both oboes and bassoons are a relatively expensive instrument, so I wouldn’t want to send it to someone that doesn’t know what they are doing. If the instrument isn’t taken care of properly, some pretty expensive bills can result.
I have had some bad experiences with local music shops adjusting my oboe, but I would definitely trust them with just about any other instrument!
Role in Ensemble
The bassoon's mellow tone quality makes it a great candidate to blend with many sections. It is versatile in it's ability to match euphoniums and trombones and still pull out some challenging technical sections with the upper woodwinds.
Bassoons take many of the wonderful qualities of the oboe like the plaintive, melodic tone quality. However, it is much more mellow, which can make it quite eerie and foreboding.
The oboe’s colorful, expressive tone makes it a very popular choice for soloistic sections. It is extremely distinct in its tone, and can be heard easily. The oboe is known for its use in many
lyrical sections of literature.
The oboe is used in the challenging upper woodwind lines, but its range and dynamic offerings can limit its use.
Now that you know a little bit more about the similarities and differences between the oboe and bassoon, you’ll be able to distinguish between the two at the next band or orchestra concert!