The Musical Instruments Woodwind Family – What is Their Cultural and Social Importance?

Throughout recorded history, a powerful truth rings loud and clear:  Music, in one shape or another, has been fundamental to every society and its culture around the world.  The musical instruments woodwind family, in particular, has literally left its mark on ancient civilizations in every corner of the globe. Dated at 45,000 years old, a hollow bear-bone flute was unearthed in Slovenia in 1995. And in China, 9,000 year-old flutes made from hollowed bird bones containing five to eight holes have veen discovered.

Wind instruments were not always and necessarily used for personal amusement/pleasure and/or to accompany performance and dance.  Historically, woodwind instruments have also played a critical role in religious ceremonies and been used by military peoples.  For example, woodwinds like the shawm and zūrnā have been used to rally troops and sound military calls in armies. The zūrnā was also played at Arab funerals and has been used to mark the beginnings of pilgrimages and to greet important persons.

It is important to recognize that every time period may have used a wind instrument in a different way, not just culturally but musically as well.  As such, structural modifications to the instrument may have been made over the course of time. In the Middle Ages, for example, the woodwind instrument called the recorder was mostly recognized as a minstrel’s instrument. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was played by all classes and was as recognized by the king’s court as it was by the common people.  In the music of the 17th and18th centuries, the recorder was either used in consorts with other instruments or in contrast to them, or as a solo instrument played by the professional musician or the cultivated amateur.

Meanwhile, during the Renaissance, woodwind instruments, and shawms in particular, were usually associated with nobility and used widely in processions and other ceremonies. Nobility could demonstrate wealth and power by the musical events they sponsored.  Collecting such instruments may have been considered a mark of wealth and prestige.

From the Renaissance period on, the musical instruments woodwind family has greatly influenced the evolution of classical music. Woodwind instruments have also served a vital role in many cultures in the development of folk music and have been paramount in one of the most central sources of American wind music—Jazz.  Formed in New Orleans in the early 1920’s, the first jazz ensembles featured the clarinet.

Functioning as a powerful form of communication, even the shape, decoration and sound of many indigenous woodwind instruments are often rich in symbolism. They have been, and still are today, revered as ritual objects holding great value and meaning. For instance, the free-reed mouth organ and transverse flute are played in Taiwan in celebration of Confucius’s birthday.   In Japan, the mouth organ, oboe and flute are also used in some of the imperial ritual music.

The zūrnā can be heard today as a folk instrument in Islamic areas and other regions, including Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia. Used mainly in festive village music, it is played in small ensembles by members of the lowest social classes.

In short, woodwind instruments clearly have universal significance and enjoy a rich history in many cultures. It’s no wonder, then, that people who choose to play an instrument from the woodwind musical instrument family feel a very special connection to it.

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One Response to “The Musical Instruments Woodwind Family – What is Their Cultural and Social Importance?”

  1. joyfulpamela Says:

    Hi! I enjoyed reading your blog and squidoo page about woodwinds! As a music educator, I love writing about my favorite things, too! Thanks for sharing your info. 🙂

    Pamela @ Joyful Songs Music

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