INstruments that you blow

Making a sound by blowing into a narrow tube is probably one of the oldest forms of music-making. Over the centuries, people around the world have developed a large number of ways of making sounds by blowing: through a metal mouthpiece, into metal tubing (brass instruments); or through a reed or hole (‘woodwind’ instruments). Modern saxophones and flutes are now made of metal, but actually belong to the woodwind family.

Jess Gillam

Jess Gillam


Not many instruments are named after the person who invented them, but the saxophone is one of them! Adolphe Sax was a Belgian instrument maker, and he created the family of ‘saxophone’ instruments in 1846. Using a single reed mouthpiece similar to a clarinet’s, but made out of brass, the saxophone is really a hybrid woodwind/brass instrument.

Although some classical composers, such as Ravel, Shostakovich and Britten, have written for them orchestrally, the saxophone has never become a fixed member of the symphony orchestra line-up. And while quite a few late 20th and 21st century composers write for the saxophone in orchestras and for soloists, it is in the world of jazz that this instrument is really king!

Jess Gillam is a brilliant young British saxophonist, who is equally interested in playing her instrument in jazz and classical styles. She started up her own concert series in her home town when she was just a teenager, and she was a finalist in the BBC Young Musician 2016. The lively improvisation she plays here demonstrates the alto saxophone, perhaps the most commonly played instrument in the saxophone family.



The duduk is a very special instrument from the relatively small country of Armenia, situated between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, east of Turkey. It is a ‘double reed’ instrument like the oboe or bassoon, but the size of this reed mouthpiece is much larger compared to the size of the wooden tube being blown into. The wood used for a duduk comes from an apricot tree.

The duduk is probably the saddest sounding instrument at The School of Music. Its heartbreakingly beautiful sound is commonly used for film and TV soundtracks, usually when the setting is somewhere exotic or ancient. The film Gladiator is perhaps the most famous use of the duduk in a film soundtrack, but Peter Gabriel used it extensively in his music for The Last Temptation of Christ.

Tigran Aleksanyan is a master of the duduk. He comes from the Ararat mountains in Armenia, but now lives in London. Hear his haunting, soulful improvisation here.

Eddie Parker © Steve Green

Eddie Parker © Steve Green


The flute is one of the oldest musical instruments. Blowing down a pipe or tube is something that can be traced back to ancient civilizations in Greece, India and China. The modern western flute is made from various metals – and is sometimes covered in gold and silver – but composers like Bach and Mozart would have known flutes made out of wood. The piccolo flute plays an octave higher than a regular flute, and there are also alto and bass flutes, whose sound is darker and more mysterious.

The flute has not become a regular jazz instrument, but whenever Eddie Parker plays his flute, he makes it sound pretty jazzy. This is his own arrangement of the English folk tune ‘Are you going to Scarborough Fair’, featuring a number of flute lines all recorded separately by him and then joined together.

Eddie Parker is a very talented flautist, keyboardist and composer. He was co-founder of the brilliant jazz big band Loose Tubes in the 1980s, and he also plays with the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble.




Trombonists need very long arms! This is because they slide the brass tubing up and down to change the pitch – and it can be quite a stretch. Trombones were widely used in the Renaissance period (about 1400-1650), and were often known by their English name, sackbuts. Only in the early 19th century did they become a regular part of an orchestra’s brass section. Beethoven used trombones for the first time in his 5th symphony.

Christian Lindberg, who comes from Sweden, is the world’s greatest living trombonist. Many composers have written pieces for him, and he has totally changed the way people view the trombone as a solo instrument. He also tours the world now as a busy conductor and composer. Christian is one of the most lively, energetic people you could ever meet, and this improvisation shows off the humour of his personality – listen out for when he makes his instrument sound like a motorbike accelerating through the gears.



The Tibetan long horn, or dungchen, is certainly the longest – and loudest – instrument at The School of Music! It is the main instrument of Tibetan culture, and is used a lot in ceremonial Buddhist worship. 

Tibet is a country high up in the Himalayan mountains near China and Nepal. Imagine a pair of these extraordinary instruments being played on a hillside, their deep booming sound bouncing back and forth across the valley.

This recording was made in a school corridor in Cheltenham, England! The Tibetan Monks of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery were on tour, giving performances of music and dance, and raising awareness of their remarkable culture.