Woodwind Instruments

Woodwind instruments were another popular musical instrument during the medieval period. Generally, wind had to be blown into them to create sound. There were various kinds of woodwind instruments in the Middle Ages.

Woodwind instruments refer to such medieval musical instruments which required the player to blow wind into them and were typically constructed from wood. Music was produced from the woodwind instruments by manipulating the vibrations of the air being blown into the piped part of the instrument.

To manipulate the airflow, instruments typically came either with different holes for the fingers or with modifications to the body of the instrument. Notable examples of woodwind instruments include flute, shawm, trumpet, cornett, flageolet, crumhorn, bombard, oboe and tuba.

Shawm Instrument

Medieval Musical Instrument Shawm

The Medieval shawm instrument was popular throughout the medieval world. A Medieval shawm instrument was in the woodwind category of medieval instruments and had a similar shape to a trumpet. Read more about the Shawm Instrument >>

List of Medieval Woodwind Instruments:


Bagpipe was a musical instrument which was associated with the Byzantine culture during the early medieval period. It was immensely popular as a musical instrument in all realms under Byzantine rule. Later, the instrument’s popularity reached Western Europe as well. By 13th century, bagpipes were being used in Spain, France and British Isles. The early version in Western Europe was limited to use by poor musicians who would construct a bagpipe using sheep skin and fitting it up with reed pipes. Many art depictions from medieval times depict the use of bagpipes by the musicians.


Trumpet was a wind instrument in medieval times which comprised of a long metallic pipe-like structure into which the player blew. The instrument was typically used on festive occasions or on events which required the attention of those present. It was popularly used as a signal marking the beginning of medieval battles, as well as on royal weddings and other regal occasions. In royal courts, trumpet was also used to signify the beginning of dinner. One of the most popular uses of trumpets was at knightly tournaments and jousting matches.


Shawm was a medieval pipe instrument which was usually made from reed and contained vent holes which offer a variation on the sound of the instrument. The end of the instrument culminated in a bell-like opening which allowed the player to evoke a trumpet-like sound from it. The instrument came into widespread use in medieval Europe in the 12th century and is believed to have arrived in Europe from the Islamic world. The medieval shawm had a rather harsh sound and was often used for street-music. It later evolved into a design which allowed for a more refined sound. By 15th century, many new varieties of shawm had been developed in Europe. Notable among these was a kind of shawm which had a player-end S-shaped opening and a larger design. This allowed the shawm to be used as a bass instrument as well.


Sackbut was a medieval pipe instrument that developed as a modification on the trumpet. The original trumpet had a straight structure but over the centuries, it was modified into an S-like shape. This led to the creation of a trombone and eventually, a double slide was added to the instrument turning it into a basic sackbut. A double slide equips a sackbut with the full range of chromatic scales and allows for the creation of a wide variety of sounds. Sackbut became a popular musical instrument later in the medieval era, its earliest historical mentions emerging as last as the 15th century. It was suitable for playing both indoors and outdoors since it could be used to produce soft and loud sounds.

Portative Organ

Portative organ is a creatively constructed musical instrument which is dated back to the Roman times and originated probably even earlier. It was fairly common in medieval era and was particularly common in Spain. Spanish manuscripts from 13th century depict many portative organs, often with women playing the instrument. The instrument itself, in its medieval design, comprised of a set of flue pipes with a descending length and contains a set of bellows at the bottom of the pipes. The player manipulates the bellow and a set of keys at the bottom of the instrument, playing a large variety of sounds. Portative organ was particularly common in playing secular music during medieval times.


Gemshorn was an extraordinary musical instrument used in medieval Europe, specifically Germany. It essentially comprised of a horn of a European mountain goat with holes drilled in it. The open end of the horn was made hollower to allow for blowing into it. The earliest extant evidence of the use of the gemshorn is dated back to a 1488 German book. It was subsequently included in the lists of musical instruments published in the 16th century.


Crumhorn is a woodwind musical instrument which came into popular use in the 15th century. The design of the crumhorn comprised of a double reed together with a curving pipe-like structure. The double reed was positioned right next to a windcap into which the player blew to produce a musical note. A number holes were typically located along the length of the pipe which were manipulated by the player to vary the sounds of the instrument. Various sizes of crumhorns were used in the later part of the medieval era.


Ocarina was a medieval musical instrument with a unique egg-shaped design. The name of the instrument means “little goose” in Italian on account of its specific shape. The egg-shaped instrument had an opening at one end and holes over the oval portion of its body. The instrument had 4 to 12 finger holes which were manipulated by the player as he blew into the opening. Ocarina was constructed from a wide range of materials including wood and different metals. Ocarina stood in contrast to most other medieval musical instruments in that it produced sound through the resonance of its cavity.

Cor Anglais

Cor Anglais, also called the English horn, was a popular medieval musical instrument. It belonged to the woodwind family, constructed in a double-reed design and comprising of a wooden tube with conical bore. The structure of the instrument is bent in the middle and culminates in a large globe-shaped bell at the far end. It is believed that cor anglais originally evolved as a result of different modifications applied to shawm.


Trombone was a brass instrument of the trumpet family. It originally evolved from sackbut and comprised of a long with an adjustable length and a U-shaped design. The basic structure comprised of a pipe running in three alternating lengths, forked with two U-shaped turns and ending in a bell. The length of the vibrating length of the pipe could be modified to produce different tones and sounds. Its unique design allowed a trombone to play various notes perfectly, much like a violin, making it one of the most versatile medieval trumpet-like instrument. The trombone produces a sound ranging from soft to solemn, making it an instrument suited for different occasions, and for both religious and secular music.


Tuba was a woodwind medieval instrument which was an early form of trumpet. The earliest types of tuba are dated back to the Roman times. During medieval times, numerous innovations were made to this actual version of tuba. The medieval tuba typically had a conical bore but lacked the bell which became a part of the later types of trumpet. Extant historical evidence dating back to as early as 13th century in the medieval era record the existence and usage of a tuba.


Bombard was another variant of shawm which was commonly used in the medieval era. It is believed that the later brass oboe developed out of the bombard instrument. The bombard could stretch for a length of up to 9 feet, made it a hard job for the player blowing into it to wield it securely. It typically included five fingerholes and five keys. Bombard was typically suited for use as an outdoor instrument.


Cornett was a woodwind instrument that was commonly used in medieval Europe. Its design comprised of a long tube which was fitted up with a number of finger-holes to be manipulated by the player. The body of the instrument was made from a variety of materials including wood and ivory. Medieval Europe had many different cornett variants. These included the bass cornett, the tenor cornett and another variant called the high cornettino.


Flageolet was a medieval woodwind instrument that was used as a sort of a small fipple flute. The design of the flageolet comprised of six finger holes and an opening at one end. The player would blow into the flute from the open end and then manipulate the finger holes to play different tunes. The flageolet itself was usually constructed from wood, making it a cheap and easily available instrument for the medieval musicians. The sound produced by a flageolet was typically vivid yet soft, and it was used as a standalone musical instrument at many occasions.


Pipe was one of the earliest and most basic medieval woodwind instruments. The basic design of a pipe comprised of a simple tube accompanied by tubes of metal or wood. The body of the instrument typically came with three holes which were manipulated by the player to produce different melodies. It was from this basic instrument that many later medieval woodwind instruments evolved.

Bladder Pipe

A bladder pipe was a medieval modification of the standard bagpipe. Bladder pipe comprised of blow pipe, a bladder bag and a chanter. The player would blow into the blow pipe which was connected to the bladder bag. The bladder bag comprised of the bladder of an animal which was, in turn, connected to the chanter. The earliest examples of a bladder pipe date back to the 13th century. In the latter part of the medieval era, bladder pipe became immensely popular all over Europe. However, towards the end of the medieval era, the use of the bladder pipes declined rapidly and it became associated with beggars. Medieval mentions of bladder pipes exist alongside mentions of bagpipe. This shows that the two types of pipes existed side by side, although bladder pipe itself evolved out of the original design of the bagpipe.