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  • Writer's pictureBret Newton

A Taxonomic Revision of the Woodwind Instruments at a Specific and Subspecific Level

A Taxonomic Revision of the Woodwind Instruments at a Specific and Subspecific Level

Bret Newton

July 2018


With the ever-expanding size of the five main woodwind families continuing to grow, it is essential that a step back must be taken to consciously look at the nomenclature and role of these instruments. This study will not be addressing the names attached to the instrument families themselves (the genus level of instrument taxonomy) but rather looking at the specific and subspecific names attached to these instruments. Unlike biologic taxonomy where the genus name comes first, in musical instrument taxonomy, the genus names comes last.


Subspecies Species Genus

D-flat Piccolo Flute

C Piccolo Flute

In this example, we see two distinct instruments within the flute family, the D-flat and C Piccolo Flute. In common usage, the genus name is usually omitted as this is the only instrument in normal usage within the woodwind family that uses the piccolo species. Two subspecies of the Piccolo Flute are present, the C and D-flat instruments. As both of these instruments serve the same musical role, their separation into full species is generally not warranted. This is usually the case with woodwinds pitched a minor second apart from one another.

Non-Generic Nomenclature

With most instruments, using the genus name is assumed. However, there are a few notable exceptions to this – the English Horn (Cor Anglais) and the Basset Horn. Neither of these instruments falls into the Horn genus but are instead an oboe and a clarinet respectively. Such names always illicit confusion from novices unaware of these instruments. Careful explanation of what these instruments actually are usually follows. This confusion can be easily avoided by a simple revision to include the proper genus name.

Categories of Specific Nomenclature

In general, instrument nomenclature follows the traditional choral voicing of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The following chart shows not only these four voices, but several others useful for woodwinds as many instruments’ range far exceed the human voice.

Piccolo – generally one octave higher than the soprano

Sopranino – pitched between the piccolo and the soprano


Mezzo-Soprano – pitched between the soprano and alto



Baritone – pitched between the tenor and the bass


Great Bass – pitched between the bass and the contrabass

Contrabass – pitched below the bass (generally, but not always an octave lower)

Subcontrabass – below the contrabass

With the exception of a class between the alto and the tenor, there is room between each voice for a separate species. Because of the current naming systems in place for the various families, which involve names that are affixed and unmovable, not all voices will be present for all families. For instance, the Bass Clarinet, though arguably a baritone or even tenor-voiced instrument, has had its name affixed to it for over two hundred years and would greatly upset the existing literature both musical and academic if it were changed.


This term d’Amore (literally meaning “of love”) has been affixed to members of the flute, clarinet, and especially to the oboe genera. However, this term is musically meaningless. It generally refers to an instrument a minor third below the standard soprano instrument. Because of the non-musical nature of the name, it should be dropped for a more descriptive name (in this case, all these instruments fit into the mezzo-soprano category).


Because the family of saxophones sprung fully formed from the head of Adolphe Sax, their model of nomenclature is generally the one that should be followed. What follows is the general outline of the saxophone’s taxonomy

  • Piccolo

  • B-flat Piccolo Saxophone

  • Sopranino

  • E-flat Sopranino Saxophone

  • Soprano

  • C Soprano Saxophone

  • B-flat Soprano Saxophone

  • Mezzo-Soprano

  • G Mezzo-Soprano Saxophone

  • Alto

  • F Alto Saxophone

  • E-flat Alto Saxophone

  • Tenor

  • C Tenor Saxophone

  • B-flat Tenor Saxophone

  • Baritone

  • E-flat Baritone Saxophone

  • Bass

  • B-flat Bass Saxophone

  • Contrabass

  • E-flat Contrabass Saxophone

  • Sub-Contrabass

  • B-flat Subcontrabass

As you can see, nearly all the voice roles have been filled in save for the great bass.


The flute genus is in the direst need of taxonomic revision. This is because of the dramatic expansion of the lowest end of the family in the past 30 years. The flute genus has already undergone one revision in the middle part of the 20th Century when the “Bass” Flute in G was appropriately renamed as an Alto Flute when a larger instrument was built. However, the same cannot be said of the new holder of the term “bass” when no less than four distinct species of flute were invented lower than the bass.

  • Piccolo

  • D-flat Piccolo Flute

  • C Piccolo Flute

  • A-flat Piccolo Flute

  • Sopranino

  • G Sopranino Flute

  • F Sopranino Flute

  • E-flat Sopranino Flute

  • Soprano

  • D-flat Flute

  • C Flute

  • Mezzo-Soprano

  • B-flat Mezzo-Soprano Flute

  • A Mezzo-Soprano Flute

  • Alto

  • G Alto Flute

  • Tenor

  • C Tenor Flute

  • Baritone

  • G Baritone Flute

  • F Baritone Flute

  • Bass

  • C Bass Flute

  • Great Bass

  • G Great Bass Flute

  • F Great Bass Flute

  • Contrabass

  • C Contrabass Flute

As can be clearly seen, the flute genus has a considerable amount of subspecies under most of the defined categories. Many of these are rare or even virtually extinct but remain relics of a large family.


The oboe genus is relatively small compared to most of the other woodwind genera. However, it presents several unusual challenges.

  • Sopranino

  • F Sopranino Oboe

  • E-flat Sopranino Oboe

  • Soprano

  • C Oboe

  • Mezzo-Soprano Oboe

  • A Mezzo-Soprano Oboe

  • Alto

  • F Alto Oboe

  • Tenor

  • C Tenor Oboe

The tenor-voiced instrument should have some special considerations as three distinct instruments occupy that role the Heckelphone, the Lupophone, and the “Bass” Oboe. The “Bass” Oboe is the only instrument built on the standard oboe genus model, while the Heckelphone is a hybrid instrument and can be thought of as even being a separate genus. The Lupophone has an extension down beyond the range of any other oboe and can fill in nicely the role of a baritone voice until such time as a true Baritone Oboe is constructed.


Like the flute genus, the clarinet genus has numerous species and subspecies.

  • Piccolo

  • A-flat Piccolo Clarinet

  • G Piccolo Clarinet

  • Sopranino

  • E-flat Sopranino Clarinet

  • D Sopranino Clarinet

  • Soprano

  • C Clarinet

  • B-flat Clarinet

  • A Clarinet

  • Mezzo-Soprano

  • G Mezzo-Soprano Clarinet

  • Alto

  • F Alto Clarinet

  • Tenor

  • E-flat Tenor Clarinet

  • Bass

  • B-flat Bass Clarinet

  • Great-Bass

  • E-flat Great Bass Clarinet

  • Contrabass

  • B-flat Contrabass Clarinet

Much confusion can be seen over the middle of the clarinet family with the mezzo-soprano, alto, and tenor voices each being a whole step apart from one another. The G Mezzo-Soprano is built on the same basis as the soprano clarinets and can be seen as a lower version of those voices. The F Alto, commonly called a Basset Horn, typically uses a constricted bore size that favors the upper part of the register, while the E-flat Tenor uses a large bore that favors the lower part of the instrument.


The bassoon genus is the smallest of the woodwinds and generally has minimal need for revision

  • Alto

  • C Alto Bassoon

  • Tenor

  • G Tenor Bassoon

  • F Tenor Bassoon

  • Bass/Baritone

  • Bassoon

  • Contrabass

  • Contrabassoon

  • Subcontrabass

  • Subcontrabassoon


As can be seen, by approaching the woodwinds in a logical and systematic way it becomes quite easy to rectify many of the confusing names that makers have come up with over the years. This system not only avoids confusing names, it also helps composers to gain a better understanding of the role each species and subspecies of instrument plays within an ensemble.

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