Being a staple of modern music education, the recorder is one of the few instruments that nearly everyone has played. But did you know that they were once one of the most popular instruments for professionals and amateurs? In fact, the recorder and its ancestors are among the oldest instruments still in use today.
The recorder is a type of fipple flute, which originated in the neolithic period. Evidence of fipple flutes exist in nearly every culture, owing to their simple construction and relative durability. A fipple is a type of mouthpiece that splits the column of air blown into it, which creates the oscillations necessary for note production. After traveling through over the block (A) and through the duct (B), air strikes the edge (C) and diverges alternately out of and in to the body of the flute. This enables easy note production compared to a single reed instrument like the clarinet, or the especially tricky double reeds as with the oboe.
Now, not all fipple flutes are recorders, which are distinguished by their seven keys on the front, and a single key on the rear which enables players to shift notes up an octave. The earliest instruments that would qualify as a “recorder” date to medieval Europe, though notated music has not been found prior to the 16th century. During the Renaissance, the recorder became quite popular among both professional and amateur musicians. Many compositions were written for solo recorder, mixed ensembles, and recorder-only groups. King Henry VIII of England is known to have been an avid player, and an inventory after his death uncovered 49 recorders in his collection.
The prominence of the recorder waned in the 18th an 19th centuries, due to a lack of professional interest. Musical technology had improved to the point that instruments with greater range, volume, and tone quality had become standard. In the mid-20th century, German composer and educator Carl Orff created his revolutionary method for teaching music, the Orff Schulwerk. If you’ve attended a public school in the United States since the 1950s, you’ve probably played some of Orff’s music. His method emphasizes the use of instruments that are approachable and easy to play, which is a perfect match with the recorder. Additionally, due to the invention of plastics, recorders became more durable and less expensive to produce. Recorders are a great way for students to learn the basics of wind instruments, and provide an opportunity to work with them before enrolling in a school band program.
Beyond education, the recorder has seen a resurgence in popularity due to the growth of historically informed performance, which attempts to recreate music precisely as it would have been heard in the past. They remain accessible for all sorts of players, and can create a broad spectrum of music in the absence of more complex instruments.
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